The Dark Days of the Pandemic Are Behind Us

5 min read

It is hard to believe that it has been three years since we faced the first Christmas of the pandemic. Living in our quarantine bubbles, we deployed masks and hand sanitizers when we had to venture out to work or get food and tried to stay connected to each other via the screens of our phones, computers, and televisions. As we cheered on the first responders and grocery store workers doing their part to keep us alive, we worried about the economic impact of the shutdowns and whether our supplies of toilet paper and cat food would outlast the shortages. Back then, just thinking about not being able to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas with our friends and families made us wonder if life would ever return to normal.

What a difference a few years make! Testing ourselves for Covid, relying on vaccines to provide immunity, and returning to our normal activities without masks all seem normal. Travel is up, airline flights are crowded, and public gatherings are legal again. It is tempting to slide back into our routines and hope that this will be the last pandemic of our lifetimes. But experiencing traumatic events can provide us with the opportunity to grow and rethink our assumptions about the future. So, what did we learn from the pandemic? And how can we use those insights to light the way in 2024?

For one, social connections aren’t a luxury, they are a necessity. One of the things we recognized during the pandemic is that we’re social beings, who thrive when we are surrounded by people who meet our social needs. For those of us who are introverts, this might mean spending time with a small group of family or friends, while for the extroverts among us, it might entail maintaining a busy social schedule, both in person and online. While a screen filled with faces enabled us to continue meeting with our colleagues, teaching classes, and connecting with others, it wasn’t the same. Without the non-verbal cues and attentional focus common in face-to-face meetings, we struggled to stay engaged. Those of us who lived alone struggled with isolation while we all longed for the familiar holiday routines we could no longer pursue.

With this in mind, the upcoming holiday season might be a good time to focus on developing and nurturing our relationships with other people. This doesn’t mean we need to frantically attend every party we are invited to, or that we need to go into debt buying gifts. But what if we think in terms of writing heartfelt notes to those we care about rather than travel logs that masquerade as Christmas letters? Or organizing low-key potluck meals to catch up with old friends or finding a holiday event where you can serve as a volunteer. Sometimes, the absence of something makes you realize how important it is to you.

Tolerating differences in opinion is crucial in a civil society. The pandemic challenged all of us to deal civilly with people with whom we disagreed. Whether the issue was to get vaccinated, how to handle the lockdown-related supply chain and economic challenges, or whom to trust about pandemic-related information, we all found that people we otherwise liked or loved held very different views than we did on issues related to the Covid crisis.

When faced with the choice of whether to take a stand or agree to disagree, many of us decided that discretion was the better part of valor. While the pundits on television would have us believe that we live in a nation of extremes, the reality is that on most issues, Americans cluster closer to the middle than our convoluted political processes and polls show. This might be a good time to reflect on the fact that the founding fathers specifically created a system that would allow people with different values to live peacefully with each other.

Adaption to change is a key component of effective stress management. The human brain tends to prefer familiar situations, information it can easily categorize, and simple solutions. However, learning to be flexible and adaptive makes it easier to roll with the punches when things around us are in flux. During the pandemic, factories switched from making Q-tips to making nasal swabs, restaurants pivoted to takeaway food and outdoor dining, parents figured out how to balance working from home and homeschooling, and we even found we liked some of the changes. Examining our assumptions and changing our routines isn’t easy, but the pandemic showed many of us that we are better at coping than we thought. Although we are back to establishing our routines again, it might be nice to leave room for the occasional spontaneous moment, and to remember that there are often multiple ways to solve a problem.

Resilience isn’t about whether you are stressed, it is about how you cope. To be resilient we have to be willing to change our expectations, to tolerate uncomfortable emotions, and to change our behaviors when we face new demands. While the majority of us wish the pandemic had never happened, the truth is that we found ways to cope, we took care of each other, and contrary to the many doomsday predictions, we are looking forward to another holiday season.

At a time of the year when ritual and reflection take precedence, this would be a good year to think about how far we have come and to give ourselves credit for all we have learned and accomplished as a result of the pandemic. The star is often seen as a beacon of hope and a symbol of excellence. Imagine how bright we could make 2024 if we focussed on fostering: Social connections, Tolerance, Adaptiveness, and Resilience. That’s a STAR that would keep burning long after we put away our holiday stars and ornaments.

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