When I was a kid, I was rarely sick during the school year. When school was out, however, either for holidays or the summer, down I went: measles, mumps, pneumonia! It turns out I do best, mentally and physically, when under some stress, like the daily pressures of school, for instance. Stress seems to hold my health and mental state stable: without it I break down, get sick, or feel odd or unanchored. I’m therefore not surprised that folks are struggling with the release from the constrictions under which we’ve been living for 18 months. Maybe the limitations have been holding us in place, so that as they are lifted, we feel a bit unanchored, awkward.
Finally, we are allowed to hug… or hold back. Finally, we are permitted to go to the movies, yet we stall, stay home, and watch on our smaller screens. Finally, we can sit on a patio with friends, yet we stay on our own balconies. Finally, we can go to a restaurant… and we make another meal at home. Finally, we can go to a museum, but we cue up another movie on Netflix. The world is opening, yet we have become fearful, or at least hesitant, to make plans that may be, once again, jettisoned by forces outside our control.
And so much is outside our control! The quality of the information upon which we have based our actions since the beginning of the pandemic has been variable at best, often incoherent, and downright incorrect at worst. What’s the new drill? Masks are obligatory in the cinema. At first, no popcorn or snacks were available, so masks were worn all the time; now that the snack bar is open for business (snacks being a large part of a cinema’s bottom line), the mask rules are relaxed so you don’t have to wear it while you’re watching the movie. Is this science or capitalism? Scrambling to keep up with the rules and the science is sometimes a mammoth challenge.
But getting back to the release from confinement: how do we take these first steps? For some, it’s simply a matter of dropping these newly acquired habits (but don’t dump that mask just yet and don’t ever give up washing your hands, although that hand-sanitizer smells awful!). For others, it is relearning even the smallest things. Are you ready to sit in a bar? In the poorly ventilated back of the bar or only up front, where the door opens regularly? Do you elbow bump, or can you permit a fist bump? Ready for a hug? And what of “les bises” (I live in Quebec, after all, where the two-cheek kiss was hard for me to learn, and has been harder to forego)? With, or without masks? Or no bises at all? Only with some people and not with others, depending on their level of comfort? Or ours?
What do we do with our awkwardness, our fear of contamination, of doing the wrong thing? When the pandemic started, we were confused about what to do to keep others and ourselves safe. We felt off-kilter, isolated, irritable, exhausted, anxious and many other challenging emotions. Most of us became accustomed, to greater and lesser degrees, to the new restrictions. Some found a certain peace, being released from the pressure to conform to social obligations. Others felt isolated, depressed, abandoned. Work for many of us became something one does from home and something that runs into the other hours of our life since the lines of delineation were erased. Everything was slightly or greatly altered.
So, as we emerge from a world-wide event that we had never experienced, how can we bring a gentleness to it? We couldn’t expect to be at our best during the restrictions, so why should we be expected to be at our best with this strange reopening within a very different reality? How can we forgive ourselves and others for being betwixt and between, for not necessarily being able to be smooth and elegant in this transition? One of my most helpful, guiding thoughts is a “kindness mantra”: This person is doing the best s/he can, with what s/he has in this moment. Sometimes, “this person” is us.