What comes after a pandemic?
Learning how to let go of “going back to normal” and face the future
by Lily Nussbaum, MHC-LP
In September of 2020, a patient told me about a dream. In it, he sat alone on the floor of an empty room and felt the urge to blow his nose. When he did, matchsticks came out. Hundreds of them. It didn’t hurt, he assured me, and it wasn’t gross. He was just… sneezing matchsticks. He couldn’t stop for what felt like minutes, until the ground was absolutely littered with matchsticks, a mess apparently of his own making but not at all within his control. Stuck in this unaccountable woodpile, he felt confounded. What now? he wondered. He sat and thought for a while. And then something remarkable happened: he shrugged in a “well, here goes nothing” way and began to build with them. He stacked the matchsticks carefully on top of each other, working methodically until he’d created a tower. He woke up feeling calm and rested.
What We Do To Survive
In Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl writes, “An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.”1 He suggests that we do what we can (emotionally, physically, intellectually) to survive the circumstances we’re given. With that in mind, how do we emerge from something like a pandemic? The conversation often veers towards “going back to normal.” As we are living through events so far outside our typical realm of “normal” it makes sense that we’d want to return to something familiar, but I wonder if perhaps we do ourselves a disservice by using that language. I don’t believe we ever go “back” to normal, not really. “Normal” isn’t brick-and-mortar, it’s a shapeshifter. Time hurtles forward, and we move with it, gathering information about ourselves and the world around us as we go. Along the way we shed countless old Normals – our prior ways of thinking, feeling and being in the world, which may have worked for us at certain junctures but might not serve us presently. How could we ever truly embody an old way of being when we have accrued so much new knowledge since? Today you are different from the You of a year ago. You’ve been sad, angry, hopeful, bored. Maybe you were sick. Maybe you lost a job, a home, a relationship, a loved one. Maybe you taught yourself to play chess or bake bread. Maybe you are an essential worker experiencing a level of fear and exhaustion you never knew was possible before. How could an old Normal be expected to fit all of that? We are survivors of something our year-ago selves could never have begun to imagine. Our task now is to be patient as we begin the hard work of processing the trauma we’ve incurred. And it is a trauma for us all, individually and globally. An “abnormal situation” indeed.
Chaos and Order
Anxiety occurs when we fear what is outside of our control. We often rush to predict every possible outcome to prepare for (and protect ourselves from) pain, shame, or disappointment. My patient, struggling with anxiety, was challenged by unimaginable chaos in his dream – his own body betraying him, behaving incomprehensibly – and instead of letting his fear consume him, he gave himself a moment to think and then set about the work of creating order. How do we similarly begin to create order as we emerge from the pandemic? Mindfulness, the ability to stay aware and grounded in the present, will be key to our navigation. The challenge is to be honest about what we feel in a given moment, not rushing into activities in order to mimic an old way of being just because it feels like we should, because we used to. One day you might feel energized, social, focused; the next might find you exhausted, in need of solitude. To listen to these needs is to accept that your priorities may have shifted, which is perfectly reasonable, since our surroundings have shifted, too. As the philosopher Tom Whyman wrote recently in The New York Times, “human beings exist transformatively in relation to their world.”2 We adapt when we need to and move forward. We’re doing it right now. Our Normals have always been new.
1. Frankl, V. E. (1985). Man’s Search for Meaning. Simon and Schuster.
2. Whyman, T. (April 13, 2021). Why, Despite Everything, You Should Have Kids (if You Want Them). The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/13/opinion/baby-bust-covid-philosophy-natalism.html