As vaccination rates pick up, even in the face of the quick rise of various COVID variants, we are at a period where some countries are having to lock down while others are opening up. In my own country, the United States, various states have experienced harsher or more mild waves of disease, and some have locked down substantially while others have barely restricted behavior. Leaving aside the political dimensions of these differences, the time will eventually come where we will – at whatever level we have experienced it – leave our more locked down life and return to what people have repeatedly called our “new normal.” But what will it be like to do so? To think about that question and about how the pandemic has changed us, just before Easter I sat down (via Zoom, alas) with two of my favorite people, Dr. Jim Coffield and Dr. Carolyn Sinclair, both licensed professional counselors and professors of counseling and both among the most insightful people about human nature I have been fortunate to meet in my life. The following transcript of our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
TWI: So, we’re going to chat about how to leave lockdown this afternoon, and right at the start we have to note that “lockdown” has not been a unified experience – the experience of various men, women, and children in the last year ranges from those who have experienced almost complete isolation all the way to those who have basically showed no real change in behavior. But even with the extreme of those who have rejected or basically ignored social distancing, we have all experienced a huge change in life. So, just to start, what do you think this period has done to us?
JC: The biggest thing has to do with isolation. There are countless studies that show us all sorts of dangers that come with isolation, that loneliness is a higher risk factor for poor health than smoking. There has been a long litany of studies, both before and during the pandemic, about the importance of connecting with other people, and that’s been one of the harder things for us to do during this time. For instance, even when we do go, if your church is open, we’re still 6 feet and reserving space. One of the most damaging things about this time is that we were already a lonely people, already talking about loneliness as an epidemic in society before this, and now it has become the norm. That turbocharged loneliness is one of the most troubling things. And if some of the changes of the pandemic like working remotely become more long-term, we’re going to have to figure out what to do with that. If you’re working remotely, for instance, you lose the watercooler time talking about life, the moment in the break room catching up; we lose many of the things that add color to relationship.
CS: I would this add to that as well: the anxiety and uncertainty of life. It’s not that we had certainty before the pandemic, of course, but we had the illusion of it. Especially for adolescents and children in this time, that has been profound. The threat is invisible; we don’t know where it is and if will impact ourselves and our family. So for all of us, but especially adolescents and children, we’re seeing anxiety with feelings of helplessness.
JC: At some level, anxiety is connected to control, and when we don’t have it, we become anxious. You’re right – maybe we never actually had control even before the pandemic, but our lack of control has become more salient – not just in public health or our own health, but politics, economics, business. Everything seems more out of control. Anxiety goes up when perceived control goes down.
TWI: Before we move on, what other impacts are you seeing? For me, I have been blessed not to end up with anxiety attacks, and I’ve had about as easy a run of the past year as could be hoped. Much of my work was able to be moved online; I actually got in better physical shape; and I’ve been blessed not to lose loved ones. I feel tremendously fortunate, and I don’t take that lightly. If you told me two years ago I would ride out a global pandemic and still be able to have Ben and Jerry’s in the freezer, I wouldn’t have believed you. Nonetheless, I’ve just noticed strange changes. For instance, ever since the pandemic began, I’ve been sleeping an extra hour per night. And before you say it, yes, I’m getting older, but it happened so suddenly, and right at the start of the pandemic, that something else is going on than just age. I read a nice piece by Ellen Cushing in The Atlantic about how the pandemic is messing with our brains, how she keeps forgetting things that she never would have imagined she’d forget. She details how the decrease in physical activity and variety is creating a mild cognitive impairment for many of us. What other things do you see happening that might not be as apparently connected to the pandemic as anxiety?
CS: I’m hearing a lot of short-temperedness and irritability. These aren’t what people would self-identify as anxiety, but it’s very much life not reflecting the biblical fruit of spirit, and it’s people not able to deal with the things going on in the world and it showing in our relationships.
JC: Yes, we only fight battles we can win. So, in situations of stress that are out of our control, we don’t deal with the big things and instead go for either being numb or getting obsessed with little stuff that makes us irritable and, frankly, obnoxious. First, in our society are so many ways to numb yourself – all the things in addiction categories: alcohol, pornography, drug use, even misuse of food – those have all gone way up. They all have a numbing aspect to them. Where I live, churches closed but liquor stores stayed open, because were considered crucial in a way the churches weren’t. Waffle Houses, gas stations, or liquor stores – places you can buy numbing things were open. That says something about who we are. On the second category, it’s very difficult to live in tension, not knowing what the future will hold, if things will change. For some people, when they get COVID it’s a big deal, life threatening, but for others it’s not as much, so we don’t even know that – what to expect if we do get it. So, we often try to control something else, our children, our spouse, our job, our environment. And this creates a lot more relational tension among people. Spousal abuse has gone up during the pandemic.
CS: Coming off that, the refrain I keep hearing is “through no fault of my own, life turned upside down.” And that’s temporary for some of us, but it’s permanent for many, people who have lost loved ones, lost their homes, etc. So, coming back to “normal” will never be what they left. They didn’t ask for this or cause this, but they’re saying, “Look at the mess my life is now.”
TWI: Building off that, which age group are you most worried about?
JC: Hm. Maybe the better way to say that is to say that each epoch of life has been impacted differently. For children, I immediately think of the loss of socialization because there’s been no school. There have been so many missed milestone moments and life experiences that they didn’t have. They don’t even know what they didn’t have. For those in middle age, where big task is work, even the language of essential and non-essential is going to have an enduring impact. What does it mean to be seen as non-essential? This has changed what offices will look like. Then you think of folks with children. Each epoch of life has some unique concerns.
CS: I might take this one on a different path. Personally, in Northern Virginia, our congregation has been more isolated from those who have been impacted the most severely, but in many places, there are families who have lost 2-3 generations to this, 5-7 of the elder generation all in a single year. One person with whom I spoke lost three of four of that generation all in the past year. We have less of that, and I honestly have no idea what that would feel like to have that much loss in a single year. That’s a lot of loss.
JC: Also, some of the rituals of that loss are denied. My wife ended up in the emergency room, and I wasn’t allowed to go back with her. For eight hours, sitting there alone, not by her side, I felt completely helpless. Usually there are rituals that help us deal with loss – a funeral, coming alongside a hospital bed with family. Many have struggled and died alone with COVID and because of the isolation it requires. That’s quite unique.
TWI: Most of us lived for “when this is over” with the implicit assumption, even if we say otherwise, that there will simply be an end point where we can start up as if there wasn’t COVID anymore. But it’s clear that “when this is over” is turning out to be a gradual affair. What would you say to us in facing that?
JC: It’s interesting, my son thought it would be instant freedom when he got his vaccine, and I think many of us did, but it hasn’t been freedom. We still need masks, and things aren’t different yet. We have to face that there’s a false belief of “I’m going to get freedom back,” when the reality is things have changed a bit. So, we’re going to need to recalibrate what is important and not. We need to be careful not to just do the American Way, to overdo it and do twice as much to make up for what we missed.
CS: Yes, there will be a huge temptation for that. I hope it’s a more gradual slide back into normal, but that’s not what I see. What I see is families back to signing their kids up for everything up they had before, getting back to going eight different directions at once. People are jumping in feet first. One thing I have been thinking about is this big emotional push – regathering – wanting to “get back to what it was.” We’ve been looking at what was lost, but there will also be a whiplash. There have also been some gains during COVID. Personally, I have gained not having to commute. Now you’re going to put that DC grind back in my life again. I was talking this week with a family that had been forming a new camaraderie, a new bonding experience. Back to normal may lose that bonding with each other. I fear them losing that.
JC: Carolyn, I think that’s really wise. One thing people should do is a real inventory of what they want to put back in their life and what they don’t. Sometimes we don’t live with that kind of intention, thinking about what was gained or could be gained. One of my prayers has been, “Lord, don’t let these difficult times be wasted.” I’ve been more involved with family, at home more. I’m not sure I want to lose those priorities.
JC: One other thing that will not change quickly is that people have become incredibly polarized. Certainly, there was a lot of polarization in our country before COVID, but the pandemic has created a visceral and emotional response in us. Human beings make our decisions in life based mainly on emotion, and then we rationalize the idea, but the decision making is largely done outside of our rational mind. Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind enunciates this quite well. We’ve all experienced the pandemic emotionally whether like it or not. And the resulting polarization is not going away – the battle lines were drawn. Now it’s not just political battle lines, which were polarizing enough, but now those political battle lines are also about my health, how people should treat others, what it means to sacrifice for another, and what it means to be a good person or not a good person. Now it’s not about your politics but about whether you’d prefer me to be dead so you can live the way you want. Or that you’d prefer to lock me down because of your fear. Maybe DC was this polarized before the pandemic, but now we all are. We’re not going back to before, but back to an even more divided and polarized society than the one we had when the pandemic began.
CS: I think you’re right, Jim. I was reading a blog the other day, and her point was “we all need to belong.” This whole polarization phenomenon has been about finding where we belong. As a Christian, it makes me ask, “Can we fill that gap, find that place where we can get united about where we belong and fit in the family of God. Can churches be that place?”
JC: What a beautiful vision for the church. When the world becomes polarized like it has, it becomes very black and white, with no gray. So, if I want to belong, I have to go to an extreme place. To belong, I must be part of a very extreme view; otherwise, I’m cast out. It would be beautiful for the church to say that what’s most important in belonging to each other is our faith in Christ.
CS: What helps a group have cohesiveness is to have a common enemy. For the church, what would we unite against?
JC: What some churches have been doing is getting on one side or the other of various issues and made those issues the thing that church has rallied behind. They aren’t rallying around the gospel, but social issues. It does create a sense of camaraderie, but it’s a lesser thing to be committed to. It’s a fascinating reality, because it’s a false sense of camaraderie, at least in comparison to what the gospel proclaims. The church is supposed to be waging the biggest battle – life/death, good/evil, light/dark – not “out there” but in here, in the human heart. If church has any high ground left, it’s in the battle for the human heart, not social issues. It’s easier to say the battle for good/evil is out there, but it’s really found in my heart today as I decide how I engage my neighbor.
TWI: Before we run out of time, let me ask this. What is going to be hard for us as we start reengaging with other people? For instance, I was the speaker a retreat at a lake house with a group of young adults. I honestly have been turning all such invitations down this year, but this group had quarantined for 2 weeks, testing at the beginning and testing again a few days before I arrived. They had taken enough care that it seemed doable to join them. (And, I will add, it met the governor’s orders at the time.) But when I got there and walked into a house with a bunch of strangers and had to choose to take my mask off, it was a very conscious – and somewhat uncomfortable at first – choice, though I quickly adjusted. What will it mean to learn to socialize again?
JC: The obvious thing is that we haven’t touched each other in a year. Will we go back to hugs, shaking hands, etc.? One thing every society has is a comfortable social distance, which for Americans was 2-3 feet before someone was in your space. For one and a half years that’s become 6 feet. I was in the grocery store the other day and accidentally got a bit closer to someone, only for a moment, and the look she gave me was, “What are you doing in my space?” Even with masks on, I could see it flare in her eyes. People who have been alone, especially those living alone, singles, working from home – some people have gone days-and-days or weeks-and-weeks and not touched anyone. So, I think you’re right, there’s going to be a learning curve. What does it meant to have a business meeting that’s not on Zoom and includes some regular social conversation? Even our conversation today, we have three people with a lot of mutual respect who basically like each other, but we jumped right in, because when the Zoom meeting starts, you get right to it. Normally what would have happened is a warm up period, more of “So how’s your family? What’s been going on?” Now we just got right to the point, because that’s what we’ve learned to do this year. The Zoom meeting is one hour and fifteen minutes, and I don’t want to waste it with casual talk.
CS: This brings to mind one other segment of the population that I’m most concerned about, not adults nor really young kids, but the ones in the middle, the children and students just learning social skills. Now for a year they’ve been taught, “It’s not safe to be in a room with people; not safe to touch; not safe to…” They were just in the midst of learning how to do those things and then they were suddenly told “Don’t.”
JC: Yes, that’s when people are just starting to acquire those sills you need to be successful in life. A redemptive life is a life of connection. Think a of a junior high school student just learning to connect. How do I invite people into that space of my life? It’s a hard learning process, but all of a sudden it was just taken away. What will this do when emotional and social development was stopped for a year? I don’t know what it will mean in this situation, but I know in every other sphere if you stop development in a crucial time has an impact forever.
TWI: What would you say to a parent who says, “That terrifies me – because that’s my child”?
CS: The first key is finding where the parent is, because her or she will be instrumental in setting the tone for a reset. Yes, you can’t make up a year’s loss. But we are counselors, and we have to believe that God can redeem anything. So, we can be intentional in helping our children navigate the anxiety. Help them understand the now versus then. Parents will set that tone for their children.
JC: So much of socialization is caught not taught, so what the parents do with their fears and anxiety is significant. The second thing is for parents to be patient with their kids, because they won’t develop as quickly in this area. Parents tend to be, “Son, learn this and apply it. Let’s go.” That won’t work so well in this situation. Instead, parents need to be – or become – aware of their children’s experience and what it’s been like. In other words, the learn/apply approach probably isn’t going to go for this one. Parents need to be patient, to talk to their children – and listen – about what this has been like for them. Don’t tell them what it’s been or how to think about it; start by asking them. The more we can engage their experience the more we can apply truth and learn.
TWI: Our time is up, and my word length is probably somewhere fifteen minutes back anyway. There’s more that could be said, of course, and much more will be, but thank you both for helping us think through the beginnings of what it will mean to step into the next stage of pandemic life as we gradually emerge from these past months, what really has been the bleak midwinter, into what comes next.