The baby, the bathwater, and the new normal
I thought I’d share with you some reflections that have arisen for me over the last few weeks, based on conversations with clients and fellow practitioners. It strikes me that, as we attempt to make sense of the unprecedented upheaval that Covid-19 has brought with it, we are each doing so with no roadmap and, often, alone. And, for sure, we are all adjusting differently, using the best strategies we know. However, I have had a growing sense of a kind of common pattern forming in the singular stories I am hearing, and it´s this that I want to reflect on with you here. Bear with me, this is a little longer than usual!
One aspect of this pattern I am sensing is the need and the desire to “get back to normal”. For many, it seems the strongest impulse of all is to forget about the awful year that has passed and resume where they left off. To return to seeing and hugging our friends and family, going out for a meal, going out, and the spontaneity we used to enjoy “before all of this”.
A very different aspect of this pattern is that, as restrictions start to be lifted, some find the prospect anxiety-provoking. When we can meet up with people in the flesh again, hugging, touching, sharing space: how will we relate to each other and still feel safe? Now that everything looks and feels so different, leaving their four walls is proving very daunting for some, even traumatic.
But I have a niggling feeling that, for all that these two responses to the emerging reality are polar opposites, they have one thing in common: they are both reactions to external change that has descended upon us. And I can´t help wondering if, in this “reacting” state, we might be at risk of missing a golden opportunity to take stock, to look around at our personal landscapes and figure out—actively choose—what gets to stay and what needs to go. I guess I´m talking about contemplation that involves neither simply picking up where we left off nor dreading a return to human interaction.
I’ll try to explain what I mean (bear with me, I´m still thinking out loud here!) …
On the one hand, among the stories people have shared with me are many examples of unexpectedly finding themselves with time on their hands, with no commuting, perhaps being furloughed, not spending time “out and about”, and so on. And they have discovered a whole new world of self-care that previously was inaccessible (or invisible) to them … exercising from home, taking afternoon naps, going for regular walks, reading books for the first time in years, catching up with long-lost friends online, trying out new recipes or learning to make bread, finally getting round to sorting the garden … Suddenly, there was time to repair, to think, to organize, to rest, to learn, to “tend to” things that never quite made it to the top of the list. But, now that lockdown is nearing its end, what I´m picking up is a sense that these unhurried and sometimes “unproductive” activities are swiftly being relegated in the rush to return to normality. And if that is the case, it troubles me. Because I’ve come to believe that there are some blessings to be found—in terms of our health and wellbeing—in the enforced down-time.
It has not only led some folks to eat healthier, give up smoking, exercise gently every day, and so on, but it has also given people a chance (maybe for the first time in their adult lives) to stop and breathe a little, to sleep more and do less, to appreciate their loved ones a little more, to walk in nature. To me, these are all healing activities that are always available to us but less demanding of our attention than overwhelm, over-work, and even the quest for “success”. I believe that contemplating on these mundane blessings and choosing to make a place for them as we return to socializing, shopping, and travelling would truly be an act of self-care.
On the other hand, there are those who have told me that lockdown actually brought a kind of relief, on some level, because it offered respite from the overwhelm of social relationships, interaction with others, maybe dealing with stressful family or work situations. As that “normality” returns, they feel apprehension at the thought of having to face it all over again. Again, my concern here is that people in this situation would feel pressured to give up the joys of this quietude and “return to the fray”. Here again, I feel there is an opportunity to contemplate on what, exactly, has been comforting about the enforced isolation, and to seek permission from ourselves to perhaps not go back into the fray. We may have no choice about going back to work, but in our free time, must we oblige ourselves to spend time with people who drain us of our precious energy? Do we really need to accept an invitation to socialize when we know that what we need in a given moment is to cuddle up with our dog and a cosy blanket?
I think what I am saying is that, whether we like it or not, we have all learned something about ourselves in this crisis—perhaps an inkling, at least, about what we really need, what matters to us, what works well, what doesn´t, or even what triggers us—and that insight is precious. If self-care has taken a more prominent place during this past year, why make this temporary or conditional on circumstances, especially if we are in a position/at an age/in a place where the style of self-care we are enjoying has seen us through? If alone-time has been welcome, how can we re-enter a faster-paced and busier environment without losing the calm that we now know we thrive on? If we have missed others or lost loved-ones, how can we find peace and healing? And I do not forget those for whom this has been the most frantic of times in a creaky system, where free time and quiet contemplation were not (and are not) even on the radar.
I wish I had a magic formula; I don´t have the answer. Tentatively, I can offer only this: if we now rush to pick up where we left off, like none of this ever happened, we will be throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
We are all looking forward to “dusting ourselves down” as we look around and see what the landscape looks like as we emerge. But things were far from perfect “before”. Achieving a healthy relationship with ourselves and the planet, loving ourselves, actively caring for ourselves while staying attuned to those around us … these were always a work-in-progress in a relentlessly busy, impersonal, stress-inducing world.
It seems we are at a crucial tipping point where we can actively decide to take some things with us into the new normal, and leave some things behind. But, to make those kinds of choices, we need to be searching inward rather than reacting outward.
In sharing these reflections, I’d love to hear from you. Do you have a different take on the patterns I’m noticing?
Knowing what you know now, what do you want to hold onto from your experience of lockdown? And what do you want to change?
What can you change?
What do we need to accept?
If we cannot change everything, where do we want to have an impact?
Of course, I have dreams and want to see the world become a better place, for me, for you, for the generations to come. But, starting from where I am right now, what might a first step be? Just one step. Giving something up (it is still Lent after all!), taking something on, or inviting something in.
Just for today, what might be good for our own health and our recovery and also good for the planet?
Let’s inspire each other….