The sun is setting and the air is cooling fast. Another day of #StayHome is ending. For my family, today marks one month. One month of this bizarre new normal, as if the word normal even applies. One month of Not Knowing What’s Next. One month of wondering. One month of watching the kids to see if they’re OK or too anxious. One month of keeping my own reactions to myself so I don’t cause that anxiety. It’s been one month (plus) of being bombarded with news and information and press conferences and having fewer answers than we did before. And one month of thinking “When will it end?” and “MAKE IT STOP.”
Only recently have I begun to think “What lights our way through this dark tunnel?” and “How do we do this together?”
How do we wave to each other in the dark so we know we’re not alone? How do we sit and wait when we don’t have a timeline? And how do we emerge as stronger, more compassionate individuals who look out for one another?
I don’t have many answers yet. But I do have 5 small ideas. Things we must do to light our path forward.
5 Things We Must Do to Light Our Path Forward
1. WE MUST CHANGE OUR MINDSET FROM “WHEN WILL THIS END?” TO “HOW DO WE MOVE THROUGH THIS?”
Right now, our questions are a) “When will this end?” and b) “When will things get back to normal?” Unfortunately, both questions reveal our denial of the current situation, and the answers are a) no one knows, and b) probably never.
I don’t say that to be discouraging or pessimistic. I say it based on science, history, and our best economic projections. I say it to be encouraging and realistic. I say it because the world’s leading experts in epidemiology say it. I say it because all the global events — WWI and WWII and Vietnam and 9/11 changed us. I say it because the Great Depression and Great Recession changed us. I say it because I hope COVID-19 changes us; how sad would it be if, after all the devastation and heartache we have endured and is still to come, we fail to learn the lessons of this time?
When will this end? Not in the near future. Even if states relaxed their stay-at-home orders today — something not even within the realm of possibility — there are months, possibly years, until we have a vaccine. Until that happens, we will have to learn to settle into a period of time that includes the relaxation of stay-at-home orders and the renewal of them.
So if we know we’re in an indefinite waiting period — something I, like most Americans, personally detest — and, even after that wait is over, life won’t look quite the same again, what do we do?
We change our mindset.
We understand change is inevitable. It’s always inevitable, and that’s especially true now.
We ask different questions like “How do we move through this?” and “What do I have control over that allows me to impact how my new normal emerges?” Because the only way out of this is through it, and if that’s our path we can choose to be proactive wherever possible.
2. WE MUST CHOOSE TO BE FLEXIBLE INSTEAD OF REQUIRING ANSWERS NO ONE HAS.
I hate Not Knowing. I hate Waiting. I hate that I was provided with neither a manual titled How to Live Through This Pandemic nor a Crystal Ball so I can navigate it more precisely. I hate that our leaders with intellectual integrity aren’t giving us an end date or deadline or a red circle on the calendar to target. I hate that the most accurate information right now — the most actionable — is Do Not Worry About Tomorrow for Today Has Enough Worries of Its Own.
I’d rather have a plan that lets me see further into the future than Right Now because Right Now I feel uncomfortable and off kilter. I don’t know whether my daughter’s wedding will happen at the end of June. I don’t know when my kids will be able to have friends over. I don’t when we’ll be able to open our shuttered small business. Next month? Next year? It’s all a mystery.
But if we can’t have a plan, what do we have?
‘We’ve never faced a pandemic like this before in modern times, so we’re going to have to be flexible,’ said Caitlin Rivers of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
As much as I want a plan, I also want people in power to tell us the truth. I want to operate based on factual information from the best minds the world has to offer. And they’re going to need time to figure this out. Which is going to require us to be flexible. It’s a challenge but we can do hard things.
3. WE MUST ENGAGE OUR INTELLECTUAL CURIOSITY AND CRITICAL THINKING.
Listen closely, and I’ll tell you a secret. The world presents us with a constant stream of false binaries. Loads and loads of Either/Or thinking. Forcing us to assume we must choose between one thing or the other as they’re presented to us. But it is not very hard to shift to Both/And thinking, instead. Even toddlers can do it. There comes an inevitable day when our little ones realize that the correct answer to “Do you want a cookie or a scoop of ice cream?” is “I want both.” Yes, of course you want both. WHO DOESN’T? And compromises may be required, but both is definitely an option. Half a cookie and half a scoop of ice cream? A cookie tonight and ice cream tomorrow? Both now? So many choices other than Either/Or!
We forget as grown-ups, but we can reject false binaries, too. We do not have to either prioritize people’s health or prioritize the economy. We can hold both as non-negotiable priorities while at the same time recognizing we’re going to have to get used to a pendulum rhythm. Right now, the swing is toward staying home and saving lives. Slowly — more slowly than we’d like (BUT I WANT THE ICE CREAM NOW) — we’ll begin to reopen a few things. Then a few more. Then a few more. Taking care to watch the pendulum and pull the arc back when we need to recalibrate the rhythm.
That’s the new normal. The Both/And and moving with the rhythm. It’s a change. A BIG one. And also, we can do hard things.
I sympathize with the myriad people who ask, “Why can’t we understand that the economic devastation is potentially worse than the number of lives lost?” I get why you’re asking. I do. You’re not without compassion for the sick or the dying — you’re trying to do the calculation of which way the least number of lives will be lost and ruined.
But the truth is this: we save the economy by saving the lives.
“On one side, countries can go the mitigation route: create a massive epidemic, overwhelm the healthcare system, drive the death of millions of people, and release new mutations of this virus in the wild.” <— Which will all negatively affect the economy! “On the other, countries can fight. They can lock down for a few weeks to buy us time, create an educated action plan, and control this virus until we have a vaccine,” writes Tomas Pueyo.
4. WE MUST UNDERSTAND WE’RE COLLECTIVELY GRIEVING AND THAT EVERYONE RESPONDS DIFFERENTLY TO LOSS.
We are in a time period of collective loss and collective grief — folks are losing loved ones, financial stability, future opportunities, and the very structures we understood as foundations of the rhythm of our lives — schools, jobs, exercise facilities, entertainment options, community, and more.
IT IS NORMAL TO WONDER when it will end and when we get to revert to what’s usual and comfortable.
IT IS NORMAL TO RESIST and even DENY CHANGE.
IT IS NORMAL to grieve our losses.
We are all, collectively, sad and confused and upended, and WE WANT ANSWERS and A PLAN and CLEAR LEADERSHIP, and IT IS NORMAL TO BE ANGRY that we’re not consistently receiving any of that. As Americans, we are not used to uncertainty. We will do nearly anything to avoid it. And yet, here we are, confronted with it and powerless to either avoid it or change it.
We are swept up in the tide, and we’re swimming as hard as we can for shore, but we don’t know when or whether we’ll reach it, and we’re afraid of what awaits us in the vast unknown of the sea. Of course we’re frightened. We wouldn’t be human if we weren’t. We’re smart enough to understand there’s danger out there in the unknown. A thousand ways to flail and fail and take water into our lungs and drown. We’re all waving our arms in a bid for help, hoping the life guards or Coast Guard or a passing ship or fishing vessel or even a goddamn buoy will come to our aid. And, because we’re adorable, bless our hearts, we’re arguing over which way to swim and in what direction lies safety and who we need to abandon to save the rest.
We’re hearing the full gamut of how people respond in crisis, except we’re all in crisis at once, so the volume is deafening — a veritable cacophony of distress.
Which is why…
5. WE MUST BE GENTLE WITH OURSELVES AND EXTEND GRACE TO OTHERS.
OH, BELIEVE ME, I’m as annoyed by all the simplistic memes and efforts to double down on our previous biases as everyone else. My most oft-uttered phrase while perusing articles and my Facebook feed has shifted in recent weeks from the mildly annoyed oh, brother to the always classy and outright irritated for fuck’s sake.
But it’s been helpful for me to remember that everyone’s battening down the hatches right now. They’re reverting HARD CORE to the people and perspectives and institutions that have fed them and brought them comfort in the past. We are currently seeing everyone in their underpants which isn’t necessarily our best look. No one is operating as their best self. Anxiety is high. Confirmation bias memes are reassuring; they make us think our world hasn’t shifted as much as we fear. And people do and say weird shit when they’re freaked out. This article from the CDC on the Psychology of a Crisis explains in detail; give it a read if you want to understand your brain and others’ right now.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t call folks out on their weird shit. Call them out if their messages are harmful, and especially if they’re harmful to marginalized or vulnerable people. I’m just saying we can all take an extra big kindness pill and handle one another with grace.
And be gentle with yourself, too. Go easy on yourself when you don’t initially respond the way you wish you would have. Be kind when your productivity doesn’t look like you think it should. Say you’re sorry and own it when you’ve caused harm. And then forgive yourself and move forward. We’re all one-step-at-a-timing it right now. The next step. And then the next one. And then backtracking to course-correct as needed. No one is walking in a straight line right now. Be gentle with your crooked path.