Are You Ready for Post-Pandemic Life?
I am not what happens to me. I am what I choose to become. ~ Carl Jung
Back in November, I wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times about how I was restarting my life as the pandemic waned. Almost the next day, Omicron surged drastically putting life on hold again for so many of us in the 70+ generation. It was a heart-breaking postponement of our return to pre-pandemic freedoms.
Now in early March, the light is returning, and spring is almost here. The Omicron numbers are down, and, once again, I am ready for a new chapter of my life. A few days ago I decided to fly to Philadelphia to visit my son Jed and his wife Andrea. I haven’t been on a plane for two years.
As I prepared for the trip, I was aware of all the usual challenges of being older but also newly aware that there is a unique challenge for me at this particular moment in time. I am not the same person I was two years ago. And the world is not the same as it was before March of 2020.
This Moment is Still a Challenge
I feel more vulnerable than I did two years ago even though I have triple vaccinations. I am battered by two years of restrictions and social isolation. I am fatigued, worn out, exhausted from my persistent and sometimes frenzied efforts not to contract Covid. So far so good.
I internalized messages of my peril without quite realizing it. We older people have been repeatedly told by the media, the CDC experts, and often our own children that we are the ones that are most at risk. “Stay at home. Be safe. Wash your hands many times a day. Distance yourselves from other people. Don’t visit family and friends. Don’t go to stores, movies, or church.” I and millions of other older people complied. It made sense and we did what we were told to do.
But a tsunami of feelings followed in the wake of this new situation. I felt out of control, helpless and powerless. These were not my usual emotional states —or yours I imagine. I also felt worried, anxious, scared, unsettled, frustrated, and sometimes angry. But I was used to feeling all those emotions from time to time.
So why has my anxiety reawakened now? I found psychologist Martin Seligman’s theory of learned helplessness deepened my understanding of why I’m feeling stressed as the pandemic winds down. His theory, developed after many experiments, goes like this: when animals or people feel they have no control over the situation they are in, and when they come to see that no matter what they do or try, they can’t change their situation, they give up. They stop trying to change their situation. But here is what is most interesting and important for us today: even when the controls no longer exist, they still don’t try to escape or change their situation.
Many of us older people have lived so long within the guidelines for safety that now as things are opening up, it is hard for us to resume our old patterns of pre-Covid activity. We are conditioned to stay home and see people as a threat to our well-being.
Vulnerability as a lifestyle
I’m living this phenomenon. Peter and I decided it was safe to go out to a restaurant for Valentine’s Day. We talked about where to go. But time passed and we didn’t make a reservation. And then more time and Valentine's Day had come and gone. We had not made a decision not to go but clearly, there was some inner reluctance. They say in physics, a body at rest tends to stay at rest. This is where many of us remain today, at rest.
Another example. Recently I ventured out to a small exhibit of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo at a local museum. When one of the few other people at the exhibit came within 10 feet of me, I ran in the opposite direction. I acted like every person had Omicron and was a threat to my life. Maybe that was wise. But it was also conditioned behavior on my part, not exactly voluntary.
I believe it will take us months, maybe years before we have the same ease in the community as we felt pre-pandemic. We may never regain the same comfort with crowds, with shaking hands and hugging people. And it may be that the virus will remain in this country at low levels forever, as an endemic. But what is sad is that we have learned to see others as dangerous. Can we unlearn some of this reaction? Can we return to a balance point? And what is that point?
Travel is optimism in action.
I remained steady in my determination to go to Philadelphia despite all the challenges. Travel writer Paul Theroux’s adage spoke to me. “Travel is optimism in action.” Two days before my departure, however, Mother Nature intervened. A huge snowstorm was racing towards the Boston area where I live. For me, this meant another postponement. But I am used to that and I got my tickets changed for the next day. And today, I am back home having had a wonderful visit.
My days with Jed and Andrea, now empty nesters for the first time, were so much fun. We had lovely meals including a dinner at a cozy bistro, watched movies, looked at family photos, and just hung out. One highlight was walking in 50-degree weather at Longwood Gardens where fields of snowdrops and crocuses bloomed beneath the trees. My visit and the taste of spring was a reset from the cold of New England and the hard years of the pandemic that I had left behind.
This trip boosted my confidence that a new chapter in my life has begun. Going to Philadelphia was both my optimistic statement of intent and an action step. Of course, while we are out we must still take common sense measures to prevent a Covid infection, but those are fairly well ingrained in many of us. Are you ready to get up and go as the pandemic wanes?
I’ll leave you with a quote from Thomas Merton. “You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges of the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith, and hope.”