A popular (and relatable) meme circulating on the internet describes military life as having a plan, then a new plan, then another plan – then the first plan once again, which will no doubt be replaced by a brand new plan, only to go back to the second plan.
It’s true. And it’s exhausting.
If there’s one thing military families share, it’s the uncomfortable experience of living through a period of limbo in which plans are scrapped nearly as quickly as they’re formulated. Even if the way forward is clear by some fortunate stroke of luck, it still comes with a healthy dose of gray area.
This space between now and not yet makes for some anxious days. A thousand decisions to be made, a thousand actions to be taken – but with the knowledge that committing to any one of them might be sheer folly. Military families are planners out of necessity, but the cruel irony of living in limbo is that now is always now, and not yet remains just beyond reach.
New assignments or deployments will upend everything, and life goes on around you, no matter what. Waiting for things to “get back to normal” is taxing; sometimes it never actually happens anyway.
So, why aren’t military families the world over buried in blankets with their heads underneath their pillows? Actually, sometimes this is exactly how military families cope (figuratively, and on the worst days, literally). It is impossible to face every day in a state of limbo with a smile. And that’s OK. Necessary, even. Experience teaches that sometimes it’s best to leave space for a little extra grace.
2020 has served up an enormous heap of limbo to everyone, everywhere. All the comfort of thinking we know what life has in store has been laid bare in the most unceremonious of ways. It’s an uneasy feeling to realize that life can turn on a dime, and that you don’t always know what two weeks from now holds (let alone six months from now).
This 2020 version of limbo feels utterly overwhelming, even to people used to passing through it from time to time. I’ve been thinking about how the lessons of military life might apply to our current state of pandemic-induced limbo. Here are a few things that have always seen us through:
Make a list. In our family, the minute orders come is the minute The List goes up on the fridge. A tangible reminder of what must be completed helps take the edge off the feeling of overwhelm. It’s basic time management 101, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. It’s hard to focus in a temporary state of limbo. One that suddenly feels permanent makes a good, old-fashioned list all the more effective.
Instead of items like “figure out how to dispose of nearly empty paint cans,” a pandemic limbo list might include small projects that need finishing or every single unanswered question about school reopening plans that needs an answer. It’s a small pleasure to act on list items. It provides some much-needed momentum to figure out the next thing, too.
Vent, then let it go. It’s unhealthy to forge ahead in times of great stress without a release valve. Limbo is not the time to put on a brave face and withdraw from friends and family. I once stood near tears in the cereal aisle of a new-to-me military commissary in Alabama and texted my best friend in frustration about not being able to find anything (and the fear that I would never find anything again).
There’s a catch, though: you can’t keep reliving the frustration forever. 2020 has taught us that the well of frustration is far deeper than expected; it’s still best to set some boundaries about how long you’re willing to let it get you down. Rage, vent and cry if you must – then set it down. The poorly designed aisles never did change in that commissary. After my outburst, I learned to navigate them.
Acknowledge that the unexpected will happen. Sometimes the only thing to be done in the face of limbo is to laugh. Because, quite frankly, if you don’t laugh, you will cry. There’s actually a pretty good chance you’ll do both, so the sooner you accept that life throws nasty curveballs, the better. It allows for a more flexible perspective, and flexibility always beats inflexibility in the face of uncertainty. It allows us to reach further to support loved ones, to stretch for solutions and to bend instead of break.
Limbo is temporary, even if it doesn’t feel like it – at the other end, something entirely new is waiting. And that isn’t always a bad thing.
Elizabeth Dillow is a designer, photographer and writer in Cheyenne. She fully acknowledges she is difficult to live with during phases of limbo. She can be reached at email@example.com.