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COVID Has Made Me Question My Competence

Our health and happiness weren’t enough. Now, things no longer seem simple or obvious.

By Jill Smolowe

Recently, I did something I haven't done in more than two years: I booked an airline flight. Diligently, I studied my options. Checked and rechecked that there would be enough time to make the (unavoidable) connecting flight. Made sure I had the right dates. When the screen booted up seating options, I quickly checked a window seat, thinking, Oh good, I can look out at the sky.

An older woman waiting at a bus stop during the COVID-19 pandemic. Next Avenue, covid impacts, competence, confidence
Credit: Photo by Ricardo Arce

After I hit the button confirming my ticket purchase, it suddenly came back to me: I don't do window seats. I do aisle seats. Not because I don't love looking at the sky but because I don't like having to crawl over other passengers each time I have to get up and hike down the aisle to the bathroom. Given that this is a transcontinental flight, my aging bladder is certain to be unkind.

With a groan, I stared at the screen, soaking in self-recrimination. How could I have been so stupid? I've flown zillions of times. I know perfectly well that I need an aisle seat to ensure that I don't drive my row-mates crazy.

That's when it hit me: I don't feel like I know anything perfectly well anymore. I doubt I'm alone in this. While COVID-19 was noisily messing with our health and happiness, it was also stealthily mucking with our sense of competence, scrambling the inner certainty that we count on to get things done.

The Impact on My Confidence

For me, the biggest whack has been to my confidence that I can venture away from home and, my directional challenges be damned, navigate just fine. Nothing seems easy or obvious anymore. Not booking a flight. Not selecting a seat. Not stepping off at the other end in Oregon with a feeling of certainty that I have everything I need to get me through the next four days.

Given the time it took me to pack my overnight bag, you would have thought I was preparing for a months-long world tour.

A few months ago, I attended a family wedding in Boston, a two-day event that required me to sleep in an unfamiliar bed for the first time since the onset of COVID-19. Given the time it took me to pack my overnight bag, you would have thought I was preparing for a months-long world tour.

After two years of having the material contents of my life within reach, each day, every day, I couldn't remember what I'd once considered essential for a quick trip. Which shoes did I need? How many pairs of underwear? What about chargers? Cords? Wait, my e-cig apparatus! (I see you rolling your eyes, but hey, I'm eight years and counting without a real cigarette, so cut me some slack.)

The need to assemble a toilet kit particularly messed with my mind. First, I had to sort through and throw out two years' worth of dusty mini-sized options before I could throw together an assortment for the weekend. My brain felt like it would burst with exertion as I tried to remember what I had to bring versus what the hotel would provide. (Shower cap? Shampoo? Toothpaste?)

Facing a 'Shredded Sense of Competence'

By the time I remembered that this was a wedding, which is to say a modest amount of make-up was in order (make-up that I haven't touched even once since the first days of lockdown), I was ready to plead COVID-19 symptoms and stay home.

I don't think this sense of being overly challenged by underly challenging tasks is a byproduct of aging, truly I don't. I think, rather, that a shredded sense of competence is just one more inconvenience many of us have come to shoulder during this Age of Confinement. Mask. Check. Vaccine card. Check. Incompetence. Check.

As our worlds have shrunk, the pool of basic information that we once counted on to navigate our lives has dried up from disuse. Why remember which subway stop lets you off near your favorite city bookstore if you're not going to leave the suburbs any time soon? Why remember how to purchase a movie ticket in a theater lobby machine if you know you're just going to wait for the film to stream on TV? Why remember which wine makes the perfect guest gift if you're not going to have dinner at a friend's home anytime soon?


All of this makes me feel mucked with. Out of sorts. Agitated. Worst of all, it makes me feel like I can't count on myself to navigate the world — and I'm not just talking distant points.

Learning to Navigate the World Again

For years, I commuted into Manhattan by bus. I knew the lines, knew the schedules. Never gave commuting a thought. Since the dawn of COVID-19, I haven't been into the city even once. Now, I'm facing a lunch date that not only requires that I get myself to the city, but because I moved from one New Jersey suburb to another during lockdown, demands that I use an unfamiliar bus line.

The only way I'm going to regain my sense of competence and ease in the world is to push myself to exercise the many muscles that have atrophied these last two years.

This small task of getting onto a bus that will transport me into the city has morphed in my mind into a challenge of Herculean proportions. Twice, I've walked to the bus stop and chatted up commuters to make sure I'll be in the right place for the pick-up. Multiple times I've checked and rechecked schedules to make sure the bus times I have are accurate. (The schedules in the metro area have changed so often during the pandemic that it's hard to know what's right.)

I have, in other words, become a decades-long commuter who no longer trusts my commuting skills.

At 66, this frustrates me enormously. It leaves me fearing that I'll fear to venture out even after the unpredictable contingencies of the coronavirus have lifted. It leaves me skeptical that I still have the basic know-how that has always helped me get from one place to the next. It leaves me feeling, in short, like a much older person, only one who is not nearly so adventurous and competent as my father was right up to his death just shy of 88.

My dad used to say, "Life is a day in the classroom." To be sure, the lessons of this pandemic keep coming, but with a confounding hitch: they keep wreaking havoc with the lessons I thought I'd already mastered.

Truly, I don't know anything perfectly well anymore. But I'm pretty sure I do know this much: the only way I'm going to regain my sense of competence and ease in the world is to push myself to start exercising the many muscles that have atrophied these last two years.

So, unless some new variant upends my plans, I will be on that plane to Oregon. I will be on that bus to Manhattan. And I will prevail — even if I have to fight a feeling of ineptitude every step of the way. 

Photograph of Jill Smolowe
Jill Smolowe is the author of "Four Funerals and a Wedding: Resilience in a Time of Grief." To learn more about her book and her grief and divorce coaching, visit Read More
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