A CIL Reflection: Emerging from Covid by Alexis Johnson

Last Sunday I hosted a 7-person lunch in my dining room. For most of my life that would be an unremarkable event, but this event was the largest gathering we have held in over two years. Some of these people did not know one another; all of us had to trust that the other had been ‘safe’; that is, had acted in ways we ourselves would act. I wear masks in stores and the few times I have been on public transportation. I eat in restaurants that have tents for outdoor dining. I ask people if I can hug them when I see them. These choices reflect the lasting affect of the pandemic on my nervous system. 

As we come out of the deathly worst of Covid, I, like many of you, find myself even deeper into uncertainty and therefore anxiety. When Covid was a potential death sentence my choices were clear: shelter at home, go to a grocery store masked and early in the morning, work and socialize only virtually. I hated it; I got used to it. Now as we begin our third year of living with this virus we are told it is endemic like the seasonal flu. What does that mean as far as our behavior is concerned? I really don’t know yet. Each day presents new opportunities to practice facing uncertainty and risk. 

As an air born virus, Covid forced us into an untenable dilemma: we need social contact and Covid meant that social contact could kill us or at least make us very ill. Yet that real need persists. Our brain and our nervous system are always interdependent with others. Our very biology was formed in the context of a caring other and it is in these contexts of safe caring others that we thrive. Dan Siegle reminds us that our mind is an emergent process co-created in the space between two people. We think best with working with trusted others. We can process painful emotions best in the context of trusted others. But in a pandemic, contact can literally kill us. 

In order to thrive we need a sense of belonging and a sense that someone cares about us and we have someone to care about. We are inherently social, needing both intimate conversations and more casual fellowship. Without these interactions we are bereft, ultimately lonely, even despairing. 

Even before the pandemic hit, we knew that loneliness was overwhelming many of us, particularly older adults who live alone. Our former surgeon general Vivek Murthy has written eloquently on loneliness, giving us the science proving that too much alone time is hard on us physically and mentally, ultimately decreasing both our quality of life and our longevity. After two plus years of enforced aloneness we are all suffering from too little face to face contact; and now we are in liminal space, the transition between the safety of withdrawal and the possibility of returning to more social and cultural life. 

For the past two or three months, I have noticed both in myself and my clients a reluctance to rejoin ‘normal’ social exchanges. I have not given myself the freedom to putter or window shop in my small town, small pleasures I once took for granted. Leaving the house has been a planned outing with mask on to be done as quickly and efficiently as possible. The little exchanges with the people who run the bank, or the grocery store, or the pharmacy have been reduced to my deliberately making eye contact and saying thank you – so different from the spontaneous side comments or inquiry from before. The mask that I believe keeps me safer also impoverishes me. 

As I reflect on these behaviors, I wonder if it is time to feel more relaxed in the wider world – at least some of the time and some places? Like every human being I look around to see what others are doing; we all learn by imitation. Right now no one can say with certainty this is right, this is wrong, you will be safe here, you will be unsafe there. So I look at others and see fewer and fewer people wearing masks both inside and outside. Again, I check with my inner world, my inner gauge of my personal safety balanced by my need for fellowship, for community. 

Like you, I know many people who have gotten Covid (so far I have not) and all of them are essentially OK. All of them say it was a harsh experience, some of them have a residual cough. I also know a million Americans have died over the last three years. I listen to the experiences of the people I know and wonder “well is that a potential price I am willing to pay to resume normal’ life? I never constrained my life during normal flu season. Is this to be compared to that? I never hesitated riding the train into NYC or attending a dinner party or going to the theater. All of those are still up for grabs. Depending on how much I want the contact, want to see the friend, enjoy an exhibit, I might ride a train or see friends for dinner; however, theater is no longer in my repertoire. That is my personal risk calculation, and like the mask I wear in public it impoverishes me. 

We have endured a collective trauma – a pandemic that killed millions of people around our planet. How can we re-emerge into our changed world? There are no rules for everyone is different. Theaters are full again. Large indoor gatherings are happening. Many people have picked themselves up, shaken off the fear and ‘moved on’. Others, like me are more cautious, weighing each step on that inner scale of safe-unsafe. I do believe that most of us will get this virus, no matter how careful we are. I am grateful for vaccines and anti-virals which will make that experience at least endurable. My stance is: Yes I may get it but I want to put that possibility as far into the future as possible, hoping for the mildest case possible. 

We know from the history of the 1918 flu that it was quickly forgotten, even though tens of millions people died around the world. No one was untouched. But Life is powerful and demanding. Grain must be harvested. Kids must be fed. Most of us will step back into our personal normal rhythms sometime during this year unless there is another harsh variant. Like any collective trauma it affects us each differently. If someone dear to you died, especially if you could not be there, could not hold their hand and bear witness, you will carry this trauma forever. All of us ‘lost’ these two years and that will be a lesser, yet still meaningful loss. 

A few years before the pandemic, Clarissa Pinkola Estes wrote in an essay: Do not lose heart. We were make for these times. These powerful words have stayed with me ever since. If I am ‘made for these times’ then I can face them, make my decisions based on both my well being and the Greater Good. I continue to find those words stunningly relevant. 

Deeper into the essay, she continues: Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. I take this to mean that when I act with others it helps not just me, but them as well. So I, along with my dear colleague Judith, teach in small groups, gather small communities together so we can support each other through liminal spaces, some uniquely personal and some like the pandemic widely collective. We practice knowing how we feel and what we think; we practice sharing those inner gleanings; we practice what we have come to call ‘not Othering’, seeing you as more like me than not. 

All of these practices enhance connection, lessen loneliness. All of these practices allow me and everyone else to live in our liminal spaces and find our steps through this collective trauma. We have been on Zoom for over two years. In both May and June we will meet in person again – what a thrill to see ‘real’ people. And yes, real people mean a little more risk. For me it is time.

May you find your ways to connect with whoever and whatever gives you joy.

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