As the saying goes, change is inevitable except from a vending machine. Our lives today are not the same as they were yesterday and will be different again tomorrow. Even in small and almost barely perceptible ways our lives are always in a state of constant change and evolution. And then sometimes the changes are so sudden, massive, and sweeping the image of ‘before’ can wind up seeming a lifetime or more away.
When struck with such jarring and dramatic change we essentially have two main choices. Either try and swim our way back to familiar shores or ride with it and prepare to explore new horizons. Both approaches have their pros and cons and both can be taken to perspective blinding extremes.
We can try to hide from the inherent fears change evokes by burying our heads in the sand and wrapping ourselves in the reassurances of ‘this is how we have always done it’. Or we can try to hide from the fear by doubling down on the addictive rush of novelty under the justifying credo ‘new is always better’. One approach denies change through stubborn refusal the other tries to outrun it by constantly chasing ‘next’, and at their core both are attempts to avoid the potential fears and pains involved in embracing genuine change.
Staying within, or returning to, our comfort zones has long been railed against by the central messages of the self-improvement mentality but it is important to note we all need some level of stability and familiarity to function in our daily lives. Exploring the unknown can sound bold and adventurous but the honest reality is it can also be incredibly stressful. As the oft cited 2016 study out of UCL points out uncertainty is actually more harmful on our physical and emotional health than the certainty something bad is guaranteed to happen.
One good thing about extreme circumstances is that they deny us the well-worn comfort food of complacency. When significant change is obvious and undeniable we have no choice but to take action in response to it. We do have choice as to what sort of action we take but our fears can all too easily lead us to the extremes. We have already seen this early on in the steadfast denials of the crisis as being a hoax, as well as ongoing attempts to reduce it to a conspiracy, and at the other end in the almost zealous embracing of the potential chance to rewrite everything about everything.
The inescapable truth is that our current situation is going to result in significant change.
Another important truth is that while our current circumstances are profoundly changed, those changes are not THEE changes.
Changes are undeniably coming but we will not be able to make any accurate predictions or take any definitive actions until we reach the elusive and currently indeterminate ‘after’ of this crisis. It is in our cultural nature to try and plan for tomorrow, to envision a future we desire for ourselves then make plans and preparations to face the likely challenges as we pursue it. One of the most maddening aspects of our current circumstances is how it has rendered all those plans and preparations irrelevant.
An enormous and unforeseen factor has not only frozen the game it feels as if it has wiped virtually all pieces from the board while also blocking our ability to know for certain if has actually done so until some undetermined date somewhere vaguely off in the future. Talk about burying the needle on uncertainty.
As counter to our natures as it may feel one of the most helpful things we can do for our own mental health is to turn off our future-planning and goal-setting habits and practices, or at the very least turn them down to a minimal simmer.
Our most typical and trusted method of surviving through a difficult or traumatic experience is to place a goal somewhere forward on the other side of it then draw strength from it in order to persevere. Whether it is to get us through the next year, next month, next day, or next minute as long as the target has genuine value to us it works. We are able to push forward empowered by our belief that our situation ‘then’ will be different enough to bring an end to the pain we are feeling now.
It works. It is one of our most reliable tools and at the moment we don’t have any real access to it. We can’t make any reliable targets or goals for our futures because we have no idea what the actual picture will look like when we finally do reach ‘after’. We don’t know what it will look like or when we will get there only that the longer it takes us to reach it the less predictive powers we have.
If the entire planet had been able to respond like Vo, the small town in Northern Italy which was able to test its entire population then quarantine everyone with the virus thus halting the spread in its tracks, then this crisis would have played out quite differently. But with a global population of 7.7 billion people in 195 different countries there simply are not enough resources and far too many different factors and moving parts to control everything that tightly.
We do have some conditional predictive powers. We do know that once certain statistics reach certain levels for certain sustain periods we can begin to look at relaxing restrictions. The trouble is there has yet to be universal agreement about exactly what all those values need to be or, in some places, what level of government is supposed to be responsible for those decisions.
Our loss of access to long term planning and preparations does not mean, however, that we are powerless. There are choices we can make, actions we can take in the here and now which have purpose and impact. In fact, what we need to do for the sake of our mental health is also the one paradigm shift we can get started on right this moment.
Narrow The Focus To Now
One of the truths which bringing things to a sudden halt is now thrusting into our faces is how much of our lives we spend fixated on things out ahead of us. What began as annoyance and disappointment over cancelled events, trips, and opportunities has grown to a kind of hopeless dismay as the timeline for the retrieval of those losses has gotten longer and longer. Our angry and panicked worrying that we might never go to another concert or sporting event is in part completely understandable given the sudden weight of the very real dangers and risks which have upended everything. But it also a sign of our instincts grasping for their ever-present future targets which we have come to heavily depend on for our motivation and life satisfaction.
The cruise next spring, the concert or game in the fall, the pub on Friday night, a meal with friends or family on the weekend, dinner out at a restaurant, the friendly exchange with the barista during your daily coffee stop, sharing lunch with co-workers, there is nothing wrong with having things to look forward to. But as a society, with help from the persistent pressures of consumer culture, we have become dependent on them. Our prevailing attitude has become one of getting through what we have to do now so it can pay off later. And as soon as it does we start looking forward to the next one.
It has been very gratifying to see mental health professionals pushing back against the pressures to be productive while in isolation. It’s important to maintain activity to stave off damage to our physical and mental health but we are all facing intense stresses as result of the crisis unfolding around us. While it may be coming from a well-intended place and a reflexive surge of our ‘must keep striving’ cultural mentality it is important we don’t fall into the trap of trying to cram our current square peg into our previous round hole.
Our current situation is not ‘time away from work’. It is a different kind of work.
An important shift in thinking all this stillness can offer us is a chance to actually sit and exist with ourselves as we are now and to figure out how to find satisfaction in the current moment without any need for future dangling carrots. Not just an attitude of gratitude, though that certainly is healthy and helpful, but the realization that our lives are actually lived in the current moment. Goals and purpose are important and useful but ‘now’ is the only moment we ever truly have hold of and experience. The ability to find value and contentment in that is truly priceless.
We all need purpose in our lives and for the vast majority of us this has revolved around career paths, aspirations, and relationships. In order to feel a part of something, which is crucial to our sense of self and wellbeing, we need to have some sense of where we are going and what role we are playing.
In our current crisis we all still have roles to play and purposes we can invest our time and energies in. For most of us our best contribution to the battle to control the virus is staying home, definitely easier for some than others. We need to set aside the one, five, and ten year plans for now and focus doing what we need to enable us to sustain safe isolation. From financial concerns, to supplies, to whatever methods are most effective for you to maintain your mental and physical health during a trying and traumatic time.
For those who are working in essential spaces, doing so safely is a dual partner in that mission. What you are doing is playing a major role in other people being able to do their part, which is vital and immensely appreciated work, but your safety and mental health is still just as crucial if not even more so. Work has changed from being a forward looking path to ‘this is what I need to do today’ type of mentality which is all it needs to be. Focus on today. You can focus on tomorrow tomorrow.
And for those working in front-line health care spaces the same paradigm applies. There are those who are working on getting you the things you need for tomorrow and the day after that but you can only be responsible for the patients in front of you today. Tomorrow’s needs will come tomorrow, narrow the focus and do what you need to do in order to deal with today.
It’s not about giving up or being reckless, the human mind and soul can just only carry so much at one time. We have developed a cultural impulse to carry the coming days, months, and years around with us at all times. It is draining and distorting at the best of times. Rather than leave that impulse twisting and churning trying to set targets in the ephemeral smoke of our uncertain future we need to set it aside and truly focus our attentions and energies on our current moment.
As for the other potential paradigm shifts which are coming there are some preparations we can make for them in advance by identifying where the main shifts are going to occur and by sussing out the nature of our current connection to them. If we can do that we not only set ourselves up to be ready to participate in the future shifts we can also gain a better understanding of what form those shifts should take to be the most healthy and valuable to us individually and globally as a whole.
What Is Essential
There is already a great deal of discussion about how our perceptions of which jobs, business, and services are truly essential are going to change. They are important conversations, long overdue, and will hopefully lead to positive changes in the ways different jobs and services are socially regarded and financially compensated. Those conversations have begun but the true shifts in those regards will only be able to happen ‘after’.
What we can do on that front now is to look at our own lives and apply the same word. In industrialized nations there are a great many things we have become accustomed to and reflexively brand as ‘essential’. An experience like this can offer us a chance to give everything in our lives a good hard look from a very different perspective, anyone who has backpacked for a significant amount of time can tell you how much it changed their perception of how much living you can do on a dollar.
There are a great many things we are all missing at the moment but how many of those things are we discovering we actually need? When we reach ‘after’ many of us will desperately clutch at every missed ingredient but if we give ourselves time and permission to genuinely notice and recognize need from want perhaps we will be able to approach the building or our new normal with a different set of priorities.
The Human Need For Touch
The various phases of easing back into full societal function will be challenging to figure out and navigate. Our elation at being able to interact with each other once again will have to be tempered with caution and restraint which in many ways may prove more difficult than the lockdowns. Human beings require touch for a whole host of physical, mental, and emotional reasons. The lockdowns have taken it from us but the next phase will confront their most damaging side-effect with regards to touch. We will now have to deal with the need to fear it.
Even the least touchy-feely of us are suffering the impact of isolation. It is no longer a matter of whether or not we desire touch, it is now something which can be genuinely dangerous. How we will tackle this at a cultural level is yet to be seen, the good news is we will all be going through it together. But at the personal level we can prepare ourselves by acknowledging our universal need for touch, preparing ourselves for the continuation of physical distancing practices, and doing our best to remember it will not be an act of aversion or insult but one of mutual consideration. We might even develop a more genuine respect and appreciation for touch when our access to it fully returns.
The Purpose Of Our Technologies
The internet was originally conceived as a way to more greatly unite us which has wound up doing just as much or more to separate us. From shifting our focus to the virtual world instead of the real one to social media transforming out interactions into a slot machine popularity contest wherein we have no idea what reaction our contributions will receive or what tone they will take.
The internet has connected us is some powerful and important ways but it has also brought out and capitalized upon the least noble parts of our nature. This experience, however, has pushed its original intended purpose back to the forefront. Our current ability to maintain connection and contact even while in physical isolation is unlike anything any generation has known before.
Whether or not the ‘like’ chasing returns as powerfully will depend on us. Will we let ourselves forget how this crisis altered our perceptions of our needs or remember how it made our digital world a crucial source for support and a connection rather than a wilderness we rush about in seeking the random approval of strangers?
Our Relationship With Leadership
There are also a great many predictions forming about how different leaders will be treated, and remembered, once the crisis has passed. Some are already be hailed and unexpected heroes, from the individual level all the way up to the national, and others are being prophesized as doomed. Whether or not you were fortunate to have competent leadership when and where it was needed there is enough collective global evidence of the absolutely vital importance of competence as well the consequences when it is absent.
But at the personal level the circumstances and demands of this crisis are also giving us an unflinching picture of our relationship with our leaders. Both in terms of our trust in them, as well our perceptions of whether or not they have earned it, and of our willingness to be led which is markedly different between Eastern and Western nations. If we are given a directive which greatly alters the patterns and preferences of our lives are willing to follow it or do we view our personal comfort and preferences as superseding?
A big part of the answer to that question is our trust in our leaders. If we don’t feel they are acting in our best interests then we are more likely to resist than comply. And if the messages we are getting from our leaders are chaotic, conflicting, and repeatedly misleading it becomes almost impossible to have any trust in them.
But we are all stressed and afraid which is not the greatest state to be in for making difficult decisions. And, unfortunately, it is also one of the most lucrative opportunities for a bully. When we are scared and uncertain our impulse is to grasp on to anyone who seems genuinely sure and bullies are always unflinchingly certain, even if they are making it up as they speak. Right or wrong they are always sure which can make them dangerously appealing to those in the grips of fear, something they will gladly take every advantage of.
There will undoubtedly be shifts and changes in many leaderships once we reach ‘after’ but until then the important thing we can look to is our own personal relationship with being led and what we feel we need from that person in authority. The changes will come. What form those changes take will depend on us hopefully having a better understanding of what kind of leader we each need and where we would like them to lead us.
The great paradox of our current situation is that things for everyone have changed drastically and, for most of us, are also completely standing still. The initial change has been sudden and enormous but then has sat in place, neither moving back to previous familiar configurations nor moving forward into new ones but promising the certainty of one or the other at some point in the future. With several phases in between.
Things will never go back to exactly as they were because even if they could we will not be the same people. The best thing we can do to prepare for potential large scale shifts in our global paradigms is recognize our previous ones, something the halting and upending of them can help us with, and focus down to who we are right now. If we have a grasp of who we are, how to find contentment, and what we truly need then when the wheels do start to turn we will be in a better position to join the steering of those wheels in more healthy, sustainable, and fulfilling directions.
We will get through this, we will reach ‘after’. Until then, whether we wanted it or not, we are all getting a hard-core crash course in Zen philosophy.