Change: this is hard in the best of times or even for the best of reasons. Stress measures have shown for decades that a new job, a marriage, a move to a bigger house – things that we expect should make us happy actually create distress. We are creatures not just of habit but of the familiar. I am still in mourning for a raggedy pink bath towel, worn to a perfect touch and water absorbance, that just disappeared. Nobody will confess to tossing it. I still look for it. Nice fluffy new towels annoy me.
There are also studies of factory workers feeling greater satisfaction in their jobs if they are consulted about a new paint color on the walls. It’s the consultation that matters, not the color: their opinion matters, they matter. Nobody consulted us on this Covid 19 virus. We feel helpless and anxious in its invisible threat, and helpless and anxious about what it will leave behind: another new normal.
Our basic sense of bodily predictability if not absolute wellbeing is no longer a given. Even if we had health problems or disabilities, they were familiar. Now that security is shaken, undermined like discovering we are living on a big earthquake fault line. Our habits and routines now require thought and decisions. More “work” to do. Economic changes reconfigure whatever financial security systems we had. Actual places and people will be changed. Our neighborhood and neighbors that defined our personal community will be changed. Where is the local deli and restaurants and dry cleaner and barbershop and….everything? This landscape itself by which we oriented ourselves every day will be different. Like my old towel, however worn and lacking inherent value, our surroundings were reassuringly stable.
Actual losses of people we cared about is a specific mourning too many of us will endure. But there is another mourning for what was there yesterday, perhaps still there but shuttered or scaled down. So the new normal is not normal, and therefore distressing. How do we maintain ourselves? Many of us try to keep up with the “before” by electronic meetings and always comment on the oddity of it but are grateful nonetheless. This is a bridge worth building so we can meet “after” with a common history of our journey from there to here.
Also worth building is a game plan for “after” even though it is largely undefinable as of yet. How are we going to hold on to the people who mattered as best we can? How are we going to modify our financial and daily habits in a spirit of recovery, not pretending there will be a simple reversion to before? How, and this is critical, will we talk to others about our experiences so that a through line is developed interpersonally? How do we help those who are struggling psychologically as well as financially and in daily patterns of living?
Service is healing. Being part of our own solution, and of others’ solutions, may bolster our mental health as we discover new ways in which we matter, aren’t helpless, and speak our truth about who we still are regardless of what has happened to and around us. Slowly our new towels will become our old comfortingly familiar towels and carry our history forward. Erik Erikson prescribed three “C”’s of adaptation: Congruity, Consistency,and Cohesion. He meant we learn to fit into something new; we learn to recognize ourselves in the new without loss of the old self; and out of that we become whole.