Chronic anxiety is mutating into apathy, but we still don't get to quit the pandemic.
People are spent. As we collectively brace for what is waiting for us the next twelve months, even atheists are desperately praying that we aren’t stepping into 2020, Same Song, Third Verse. The last two years handed us a lot of hard lessons we didn’t sign-up for. Many of them are valuable, yes. Still, we’re tired of learning and desperate for a break. As we contemplate how best to move forward, we have to figure out how to find our way in a VUCA world.
VUCA was a term coined by the U.S. military in the 1990s to describe the post-Cold War world: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. I don’t know when or if a post-COVID universe will exist, but the characteristics that described the world after the Berlin Wall crumbled are eerily similar to what is happening now.
People act in extreme, erratic ways in desperate conditions. For two years, emotions have run high. People have had to function in psychological overdrive in a way that no human was designed to for a prolonged period of time. Morgan Housel recently wrote, “A lot of things don’t make any sense. The numbers don’t add up, the explanations are full of holes. And yet they keep happening – people making crazy decisions, reacting in bizarre ways. Over and over.” We’re shocked, but we shouldn’t be surprised at all. Everything is scrambled and amplified when life is turned upside down.
We want to know how this story ends. When the nightmarish tale will be over? I can’t say. No one can. People have been tricked into thinking they could see light at the end of the tunnel so many times they don’t trust their senses anymore. When exactly are we “done”? People are over it. But that doesn’t mean that we all get to quit the pandemic.
The pandemic has revealed a reality most people didn’t previously appreciate: we live in a very complex world. Invisible threads that connect so many aspects of everyday existence became painfully apparent when we stopped receiving all of our Amazon packages in two days and couldn’t buy cans of soda at the store.
The world is logistically complex, but it’s psychologically complicated, too. The last two years have been a time of reckoning. Stripped of their defense of busyness, people were forced to slow down and step back. Reflective space was created to take stock of what we were doing and why. The early days of lockdown placed considerable strain on relationships, some of which never recovered. We’ve endured a time of protracted grief. Some experiences of loss were tangible others, not.
The trauma of the last two years has marked the human race. People are changed by pain. Trials break or transform you. In the aftermath of the pandemic, you have a choice—will you choose to be stronger because of your suffering or will you be defeated?
In a state of heightened emotion, one way people reserve emotional bandwidth is to see in all-or-nothing extremes. Holding nuance requires a lot of energy. Despite all of the black-and-white thinking that is going on, we are living in gray ambiguity. Decisions about what is right or wrong are growing murkier by the day. Who's to say what is better or worse anymore? Now, many things just are. We’ve reached a point where everyone is just choosing from a menu of imperfect, undesirable choices as we calculate risk and try to figure out how to move forward.
VUCA environments are anxiety-provoking. Anxiety is an emotional state that many people became intimately acquainted with throughout the pandemic. It is a natural, adaptive response when faced with a threat. Anxiety keeps us alive, but the brilliant survival-instinct feedback loop in human brains and bodies weren’t designed to stay turned on this long. Our amygdalas are exhausted.
There are no easy explanations. For many questions, there are still no answers at all. As we stand in wait while chaos continues, how can we cope?
Extend grace. To yourself and everyone around you. Assume positive intention a majority of the time. Humans regress under stress. In the moments when you aren’t showing up as your best self, forgive fast, move forward, and do better next time. Don’t fixate, judge, and preach when someone is being a jerk. You’re unlikely to change them, so reinvest your energy somewhere else. Suspend judgment and extend the same gracious understanding you’d want if someone overheard you shouting at your kids behind closed doors. Single moments in time don’t define who we are.
Anchor to Purpose
Instead of reeling about unanswerable questions or looking for someone to blame, walk your attention to how you can make a difference. People will continue to do wild things. Truth is always stranger than fiction. It’s impossible to predict what tomorrow has waiting. Our path forward will remain unclear. And yet, you have tremendous opportunity to show up, centered on your “why.” Today is all you’ve got. You’re promised nothing more. Use it to do something that will matter—something that counts.
You don’t control when school closes or who decides to get a Pfizer jab. You aren’t setting high-level political policy, you’re just having to live with it. Feel your feelings about all the things. Then, get clear about what you can actually do. In a crazy-making world, grab hold of things you get to decide and bring intention to choices and actions.
Someday I will sit with my children and tell them the tales of the twisted weird, wonderful tragedy that was pandemic life. There will be aspects I look back on with sadness and awe, others with nostalgia. I’ll have the clarity that only highlight affords, and hopefully some of the wisdom, too. But that day is not today. I’m still living in the midst of the current version of madness. Right now I’m just rocking sick kids, sitting on Zoom calls, going to the gym, getting ready to move to a different country this summer, holding space for my patients, trying to successfully launch a startup, and attempting to not burn dinner at night. Like most people I know, I’ve spent two years toggling in quick succession between survive and thrive.
We often think discomfort is impermanent. I remind patients in times of intense emotion or struggle that “not every day will feel like today.” The suck of right now is not forever. Of the few things in the world I can promise, I vow this. But when things seem hard, it’s not an excuse to tap out. You’ve developed an impressive track record the last two years that you can do hard things. Keep doing them. Slowly, and then suddenly, you’ll realize someday in the future, you’re moving with a lot less friction.