We’re not ready to go back
In the U.S., COVID restrictions are loosening up and the “roaring 20s” of post-pandemic life are in sight, but we need to pause and process before it’s too late
If you’re joining this newsletter for the first time, welcome. It’s been an action-pack few months since my book launched and I’m thrilled to be back with you all. This month, I write about the transition into a new phase of pandemic living and what’s at stake.
We’re not ready to go back
I’ve been thinking a lot about the work of Francesca Woodman lately. Woodman was a brilliant, young photographer known for her haunting self-portraits. Prolific until her final days, she produced over 800 photographs by the time of her death at the age of 22 — each an inquiry into space, identity, gender, and self. Using her characteristic long shutter speeds and double exposures, she is often portrayed as blurred and in flux, occupying a liminal space — an inbetweenness that is difficult to describe. In her photographs, her body is both subject and object, of a place and distinct from it, present and absent at once. She is often simultaneously emerging from and disappearing into her surrounding environment, creating an eerie sense of displacement.
Am I in the picture? Am I getting in or out of it? I could be a ghost, an animal or a dead body, not just this girl standing on the corner, Woodman once said of her work.
To occupy space in this way — to be a part of and also apart from one’s surroundings, folding into and emerging from one’s environment at once, finding one’s place in the world while also staking a claim within it — is not unlike the tension many of us feel about how and when to reenter society in a post-pandemic world that, like us, has inevitably changed. Like Woodman, we find ourselves in the liminal spaces in between. Are we of the world or apart from it? Are we ready to reenter society or holding back?
Recently, the CDC announced that vaccinated Americans can go out maskless in polite society. Many people were rightly excited — after over a year of uncertainty, not having to wear masks meant we were one step closer to the lives we lived before. Now, travel is making a comeback, restaurants are dusting off their dine-in menus, and post-pandemic shopping (and dieting) is picking up. One look at the local COVID case count (or the world’s) tells you the pandemic isn’t over yet, but for the lucky and vaccinated among us it’s safe to say that at least one version of pandemic living is ending. We are in the early stages of getting our lives, jobs, health, and communities back.
Yet for many of us, what should have been happy news felt disorienting and daunting. Rather than excitement, we feel pressure — to go back to the Before Times, even if we aren’t ready, and to sort out our lives, which have been in flux or on pause for over a year, into something passable for adulting. If you relocated during the pandemic and kept to yourself (because making friends as an adult is hard enough without the added stresses of contact tracing), you may suddenly feel you’re supposed to be making friends. If your social circle is strong, you may feel bad about being the friend who isn’t ready to socialize. If you’ve been toying with an alternative lifestyle or temporary relocation and punting on decision-making, the time to play and experiment may be up. Suddenly, life is supposed to go on — and if you’re not ready for it, it can feel like it’s moving forward without you.
Why should so many of us feel this way? Partly, I think, because many of us feel we’ve only just figured it out — “it” being how to manage our lives during the pandemic — and now have to start over again. After nearly a year and a half of unease and uncertainty, we managed to make a place for ourselves within the chaos, thanks to the pods we formed with friends and family and the imperfect systems we devised to get through the day-to-day. Few of us would say we’ve enjoyed our particular pandemic bubble, but it was ours, whatever it looked like. Now, we’ve been asked to enter a new gray zone as we transition out of pandemic constraints and routines. We’ve been asked to leave our pandemic lives behind and instead to move forward, and quickly. But the thing is, we are exhausted.
Many of us are not ready to forge ahead because we have not yet processed how we got here in the first place. We haven’t had time to stop and think about anything in over a year, besides survival — that’s what being in a perpetual state of fight or flight does. Throughout the pandemic, careful contemplation was reserved for risk analyses rather than self-reflection. It’s no wonder that the expectation that we can quickly flip a switch and return to “normal” feels out of reach. Can we really “return” to pre-COVID times? Just what is there to go “back” to anyway?
Many of us understandably feel anxiety over what’s to come. You may want to go to a friend’s wedding without thinking about which one of the guests declined to get a vaccine, or go to a restaurant without worrying about whether there is sufficient airflow. You may want to feel comfortable leaving the house without hand sanitizer, or enjoy a trip to the gym without assessing how far apart the machines are spaced. You may look forward to the day when a sneeze is just a sneeze, and not something to shudder at. You may want to forget what it felt like to see every person as a potential vector for an unknowable thing that could leave you and your loved ones very, very sick.
But more than nervousness or fear of what will happen if I take off my mask in public, hang out with a group of friends, or go back to the office without knowing everyone’s vaccination status, what I really fear is not having the space to think. We need more time — to process, consider, breathe, and simply just to be. That means making space to recognize the trauma we’ve all been through and grieving that. It’s also pausing long enough to recognize the herculean efforts we’ve put into keeping our marriages together, our jobs afloat, our mental health in check, our friendships strong, and our parents and children safe. And it’s giving ourselves the luxury of making decisions on our own terms, rather than someone else’s — the government’s, our employer’s, or even our friend’s.
The need for space to contemplate isn’t frivolous — it’s essential to being able to function in the world, and even flourish. Trauma takes time to heal.
With that space, we can grieve. We can be sad about the missed opportunities — the weddings and baptisms we couldn’t be there for, the one-time shot at a future in pro sports that disappeared, the graduation ceremonies we could not attend in person. We can mourn the loss of life, and companionship, the loss of friendship for our children and for ourselves, the loss of income and stability. We can grieve the pregnancies we put on hold, the dreams deferred, the cancelled family visits. We can wish for the pre-pandemic version of ourselves — the selves who may have faced all sorts of challenges, but nothing like this. You can miss the you-ness of who you were before.
We can also recognize that we are different today than we were over a year ago because of our experiences, and appreciate that. Today we are more fearful, lonely, and exhausted than we were before, but we are also more resilient, optimistic, courageous, and hopeful. The lucky among us thrived during the pandemic — in terms of productivity, creativity, or a sense of self we gained in solitude — and can take these riches along with us in this next phase. Others struggled mightily to balance our work, family, and mental health, but we survived thanks to our resourcefulness, strength, and resolve. Many of us existed in the in between, sometimes catastrophizing, sometimes rationalizing, sometimes — often — just taking things one day at a time. Still, as terrible as it was at times, we did it. Though we might not be ready for what comes next, we can be proud and relieved and humbled to be making it to the other side.
Finally, we can pace ourselves. Things will be different, maybe for a while, but we get to decide how we navigate this new set of changes. Social norms will need updating. Life changes made during the pandemic may merit reconsidering. The splintering of our communities — due to pandemic relocations, pod restrictions, or otherwise — may need repairing (or replacing). These changes can feel overwhelming, but it’s important to remember we have some say in how we emerge. As it turns out, no one is going to hold our hands and slowly or gently walk us back into the real world — not the CDC, not our local government, not our employers, or even our families. It’s up to us to manage that transition. There’s no right way to ease out of a pandemic, so rather than submit to others’ expectations, the key is to go at your own pace and emerge however and whenever feels right to you.
Jumping in before we are ready can have harmful effects. Some of us will tell ourselves we’re fine, but when we unnecessarily snap at our partners, flake out on our friends, and disconnect from our teams, we’ll know we’re not. Some may even blame others for our fears and unfairly project our anxieties onto them — as we are seeing now with the rise in hate crimes against the AAPI community, and as we saw post-9/11 in increased discrimination against Muslim, Sikh, and Arab Americans. Others will withdraw to cope. But we need to process our fears instead of projecting them onto others or pretending they don’t exist.
Some of this work must happen at an individual level — in our families, in our communities, at our places of work and worship. Some of it must happen at a systemic level — in recognizing this moment of grief and normalizing the need to process our collective strife before asking workers to return to business as usual and children to forget the isolation they felt all year. Some of it will happen through art and culture — artists will rise to the occasion, as they always do, to help make sense of this moment. They will put feelings into form and translate our experiences in ways we might struggle to do on our own.
I appreciate those who feel ready for the next phase. I’m glad to have them lead the way. I wish I felt that nervous but exciting back-to-school energy already, that sense of possibility and openness. But I’m not there yet, and I think that’s okay. For now, I’m just going to do my best to create some space to consider it all.
Ximena Vengoechea is the author of Listen Like You Mean It: Reclaiming the Lost Art of True Connection.