Another pandemic holiday is behind us. A year ago, we thought it would be the first and the last one. How are people feeling during this strange time? Is it a time of crises or indifference?
Our experience of the epidemic goes through the subsequent phases. We experienced the first phase exactly a year ago, it could be called optimistic or even – for some of us – euphoric. We believed in dealing with the plague quickly thanks to the restrictions introduced, and we succumbed to them relatively smoothly. Lots of people were happy that they would finally be able to sit at home, that they would not have to jostle with people at work and on the way. The interpersonal distance has increased in the Scandinavian style and many of us have been relieved, especially the introverts.
Later, however, the virus deprived us of our holidays abroad.
Yes, and that’s where we relieved the pressure at work and at home, lounging on the beaches of the world and indulging in being served for a pretty penny. It was really annoying. Then came the second wave, and many of us entered the stage of rebellion and denial. What at first seemed freedom has now become a palpable restriction or even oppression. A number of conspiracy theories proliferated, with which our helpless – just as all of us – government helped a lot, imposing logically contradictory restrictions, including the infamous forest closure. Some of us remained in the stage of optimism, fully complying with the restrictions, becoming obsessive and even terrorising our relatives, and the rest went in the direction of not accepting the plague, which was fully expressed in Krupówki during the memorable "drunk weekend".
These were two completely different, irrational strategies that were meant to give us the same feeling: "That this whole virus thing doesn’t concern us." The third wave reminds us much more clearly that it concerns all of us, that it is impossible to avoid this issue any more. It is like a third gate hit or a third wedding announcement. In the therapy room, I observed all the phases of mourning on an ongoing basis. Apart from existential fears, there were mainly problems with regulating distance in interpersonal relationships. On the one hand, isolation, on the other – excessive closeness. Some people complained about being too isolated and having difficulty entering into new relationships. Others couldn’t do with too much crowding in a small area of two or more people, who previously, due to being at school or at work, largely passed by each other. We all know the story about two hedgehogs who are close enough to keep each other warm, but at the same time far enough away from each other so as not to prick each other. Unfortunately, today we have a lot of both those stabbed and those who are cold.
A common strategy until recently was to get up in the morning and check COVID statistics, hoping there would be fewer cases. That hope is gone.
It is gone because people realised it was deceptive and painful. Getting up in the morning and seeing if the epidemic is over (of course it’s not, quite the contrary, actually) is a long series of disappointments that can even end up in depression. You can grit your teeth and hold on only for a while, but then you start lacking strength. In mourning, the final stage is coming to terms with reality, so now the days when we regret our losses and begin to adapt to the new reality are coming.
It is generally better to do this sooner rather than later, but each of us goes through this process at our own pace, which is only slightly controllable. The phase of irrational optimism and denial is over, it’s time to accept a version of reality in which the virus and its difficulties stay with us for longer. Perhaps forever.
So where can we seek hope?
For example, in our brain. Fortunately, the brain was designed in the course of evolution as a tool to adapt to changing circumstances (and not to seek truth, as some people think). Where animals die out, we are able to change our strategies to survive. As long as we accept that the desire for it to be "as it was before" is just an illusion.
And will our brain adapt to looking towards a future that cannot be planned? Some people have lost their sources of income and are trying to stay afloat, their loved ones have died or they are, for example, chronically ill themselves – these people really have reasons for having the darkest thoughts. There are also those who are in a mood for a change in lifestyle – less meetings, no coffee shops, fewer trips. I wonder if the latter group "has the right" to lose the will to live? How can you work so as not to lose it?
The need for security is paradoxically one of the strongest needs of this part of the world where we learn about wars and other natural disasters only in history lessons. We have become used to the illusion that the reality around us is a final and unchanging state. We have warmed up and developed in this safe warmth. Especially since for many of us, after lean years, fat years have come and it was possible as never before to develop our businesses and accumulate goods that strengthened our sense of stability. And suddenly, within a few weeks, the world we know begins to fall apart. The feeling of security fades away. I think that the deep sources of anxiety are common to both of these groups, although at first glance, how can the collapse of a business developed over the years or the death of a close family member be compared with the inability to drink your favourite latte in your favourite armchair in your favourite coffee shop?
However, both groups are starting to have a vague feeling that the world we know is a transitory, contractual, fleeting state. That our story is something like: "At first I was away for a long time, then I showed up for a moment, and then I will be gone for a long time again." As we already know, some are terrified that "they will be able to kill for water in a climate war." Maybe it is just a slogan of a professional activist – or maybe a vision of the future in which something like security and stability simply does not exist. Therefore, the struggle to regain your source of income and your beloved coffee shop on a deeper level is the same: trying to save your vision of the world as something permanent, predictable and controllable. How do you work on this?
Self-esteem based on a stable (external) world built around it is quite fragile – as long as the world maintains the status quo, I feel valuable and safe because I know the rules and know how to apply them. On the other hand, an inner sense of value and security is created during subsequent adaptations to changing environmental conditions. For example, yesterday I tested myself in one profession, tomorrow I will prove myself in another. Just yesterday I thought that my calling was a professional career, tomorrow I will start to appreciate family life (or vice versa). The more environments I learn about and start to be successful in, the sooner I understand that the source of my sense of security is inside me, not outside – that, in short, I can handle any situation.
Where can we look for hope, when – contrary to the assurances of Bill Gates – it probably won’t be okay?
In the process of mourning and loss in general, hope appears after crying the right amount of tears. In turn, crying just the right amount of tears means experiencing and accepting sadness and sometimes despair. Sadness is a reaction to loss, but it also means the acceptance of the loss. Disagreement with loss, on the other hand, is supported by anger, rebellion, denial and, consequently, the above-mentioned irrational strategies to deny reality.
In practice, this means that before it gets better, it has to get a little worse first. First, we have to accept the fact that the pre-covid reality no longer exists, it has ended irrevocably. It means something different for each of us: one person has lost their source of income, another has lost their source of pleasure. It is possible that we will face more reality fractures of this type related to climate change, the depletion of natural resources or the failure of financial systems. If we keep denying it, we will find ourselves in the position of a person who does not acknowledge their partner’s death: they still keeps their personal belongings, wait for them to come back from work in the evening, even talk to them, etc. This way they will never move forward, they will concentrate on denying the loss, which will eventually destroy them.
Our social rules of being together are just being shaken up. You can use this situation as an argument to yourself to lock yourself up in a voluntary quarantine. You can also start to wonder how to establish relationships in the new reality. At the moment I am observing how people are using the pandemic to pursue their own goals – many of them are still in the euphoric phase, e.g. "I have always hated Christmas with my family and now I finally have a strong argument not to take part in them." Others are wondering how to recreate bonds, which gives a chance to refresh worn out family rituals, to see if something really connects us. Today we have a good chance to discard what is old and fossilised in favour of what is new and fresh.
Fortunately, man is a strange creature who, in any reality, will divide the sensations in half: the pleasant and the unpleasant ones. If they live in the city – they will be pleased with the new coffee shop, if they live in the country – they will be delighted by the arrival of storks. Just like Tom Hanks on a desert island, they will experience their tragedies and joys – provided that they take care of how to arrange their life here and now, and not expect a plane every day to take them back to the known (but really better?) reality. One of the most beautiful things I hear from people today is that now they treat their partner less as someone who is supposed to fulfil one hundred percent of their fantasies, and more as someone who can unconditionally be counted upon for care and cooperation in these troubled times of plague.
I’m sure you remember the song by Tomek Lipiński: "Jeszcze będzie przepięknie, jeszcze będzie normalnie" ["It’s gonna be beautiful, it’s gonna be normal again"]. It seems that we are humming it less and less. So what song do you think we can replace it with?
"Jeszcze w zielone gramy" [We keep playing the green game] has a good chance from what I hear. But I would recommend Peter Gabriel and his "Don’t Give Up" with Kate Bush comforting him. I believe her. Relationships and fighting a common enemy can work wonders. I can add here the observation from psychotherapy – most of the people who start it have a conviction in their heads that one day everything will calm down and "be normal again", everything will go their way. With time, however, everyone acknowledges that they will not come out of therapy "cleansed" and happy, but rather well-prepared for the next twists and turns that will surely come. And this is what I would teach children – not how it "really" is, but how to cope with changing conditions. We can often learn from them ourselves. This is nothing really new. Panta rhei.
I feel very sorry for our children who will not see as much of the world as we have managed to see. But I think to myself that each generation has its own obstacles to overcome. How to be – in the end a decent person – and not be envious of the richer ("they will go skiing to Sweden even in a camper van"), those vaccinated ("they will be able to do more than me, the unvaccinated")?
Jealousy is not bad if it leads us to gain ourselves what we envy in others. Jealousy, on the other hand, is based on a very low self-esteem, where there is no faith that we can get or produce anything – so the only idea to eliminate inequalities is "wishing that our neighbour is as screwed in life as I am". It follows that decency is built on the sense of self-agency, and this can only be achieved by taking up new challenges and observing the effects of one’s effort and courage. The more goals I achieve, the less I envy others. It is not easy to implement such a recipe, so for now the best way to be a decent person is to ask yourself the question "how can I be a decent person?" every day.
Have you already had someone in your office you can say about, "This man or woman accepted the new reality and found themselves in it." How did they do it?
Those who treat the pandemic as one of a series of inconveniences in life that must be accepted do best. There are a lot of these inconveniences, so one more or less does not make much of a difference. They do not lose sight of their goals, or only correct the methods with which they will achieve them. They forge new paths. And there are a lot of people who are still enjoying the euphoric stage of the plague: finally I don’t have to rub elbows with people, and when I’m fed up with them, I can always say that my Zoom has crashed.
Someone once told me that he found it comforting to say: "All good things are behind me." Meaning that this someone has no more illusions. Can it really comfort you?
Only seemingly. Such an argument is often supported by another one: "I’m too old to change anything. You have to somehow get on with your life. The same old stuff." It is a specific mental construct, partially unconscious, that aims to escape the fear associated with the risk of opening up to new areas of life – and at the same time provides us with a strong argument not to see our fear and not feel that we lose by forfeiting. We think, "If I had only been younger, I would have changed a lot, but I’m too old. To convince myself even more, I will walk more stooped and talk to people only about my diseases." This strategy never fully works: there is always the bitterness of failure somewhere deep inside because we are unable to deceive ourselves one hundred percent. Even if you convince your brain, your heart will slowly start to pine.
"Tenderness and freedom. Let's build balanced relationships" is a campaign run by Kulczyk Foundation along with "Wysokie Obcasy" and "Gazeta Wyborcza Foundation".
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