Updated: Nov 22, 2021
“Unprecedented.” It’s a word that has been used with unprecedented frequency since February 2020. It’s an easy word to throw around. How useful to have this handy shortcut as a summation of the enormity of where we are. It provides convenient emotional distance from its meaning which is understandably appealing for many of us, particularly our leaders. Whether it’s intentional or not, by defaulting to “it’s unprecedented”, we are describing the intellectual gist of the context which we’re living in rather than connecting to the emotional and behavioural reality. I invite you to pause. Literally. Stop and stand or sit still and think about what “unprecedented” really means to you in this context. It might just help to stave off lockdown shame if that’s happening for you.
The popular discourse that abounds is that, ‘We didn’t ask for this BUT we’re keeping calm and carrying on.’ ‘Our economy is unrecognisable BUT it will recover.’ ‘It’s very frightening BUT we will wrestle this thing to the floor together.’
Presumably we’ll all start practising our wrestling once we’ve got the sour dough out of the oven and we’ll pause Mandarin for Beginners whilst we clear the furniture out of the way to do it. Then we’ll get back to work because that will be the end of our lunch break and we’ll feel smug that we’ve ‘made the best of it’.
At the moment these are triggering long-held inner critics for many of us........we need to move from a BUT to an AND
The discourse is important because assumptions and expectations are transmitted through it. At the moment these are triggering long-held inner critics for many of us, which have the power to at best derail and at worst debilitate us, such that it becomes impossible to keep calm and carry on, or recover or wrestle. We could all benefit from a shift in the language. At the very least we need to move from a BUT to an AND. This may sound like a semantic nicety but there’s a profound difference in the meaning. ‘We didn’t ask for this AND we’re doing our best to keep calm and carry on.’ ‘Our economy is unrecognisable AND we will persevere to make things better.’ ‘It’s very frightening AND through collaboration we will empower each other.’
AND is compassionate. It acknowledges the distress – the human in this. BUT denies it. AND allows space for encouragement without alienating those who are not feeling so, “Yoga? Yay!” BUT is invalidating. AND is inclusive and hopeful. BUT is isolating.
A more compassionate narrative reduces the power of the inner critic by reminding us that we find ourselves here. We did not choose this.
Imagine if you’d been handed a contract at the start of your most recent employment which detailed: That your normal place of work will be your kitchen table; that if you have children or other dependents you will home-school them or otherwise care for them during working hours; that if you live alone you will agree to not do any of the normal activities that keep you socially sane. If you’re at the beginning of a possible relationship with someone you agree not to see them. If you have a long-standing relationship or marriage you agree to see your partner every minute of every day. You will plan and execute food shopping trips which will take up to several hours also during working hours and you will be expected to closely monitor the health status of yourself, your friends and family. If you’re managing a pre-existing physical or mental health condition you will continue to do so without the usual professional support. The work itself will be entirely different from what we described in your interview and it may change to another form at any moment. Your performance will be scrutinised daily. To help you with all of this, smiley broadcasters will remind you that you are free at any time to take up a new hobby to ensure you are making the most of this fantastic opportunity.
Would you have signed that contract?
We usually like to pretend that we are somehow in control of our lives. It’s relatively adaptive to think this. It’s what drives us to get out of bed in the morning and have a go. However, we get reminders from time to time that this is of course nonsense. Bad things happen regardless of how kind, brave, intelligent and determined we are. And when those bad things happen we don’t get to choose how we feel. The feelings happen naturally. We can learn to exert a bit of control over how we respond to the feelings and thoughts which arise from the bad thing, but even then, we can’t have complete control.
We can’t have complete control.
A member of my family, a former British Army Commando, compared the situation a couple of weeks ago to the times he served in Afghanistan and Iraq. “There will be brief periods of drama amongst a lot of boredom and some saving of money. We’re all going to watch a lot of Netflix”. It was said with tongue in cheek but I’ve reflected on it and concluded that for this particular member of my family, it’s largely true. His circumstances are very different from mine however and they will be wildly different from millions of others. So it’s not a terribly useful analogy. And that’s the point. Meaningful analogies are a struggle because these experiences are new. The fact that I have lived solo for a few years does not mean I am storming this audition for the new isolationist life. The same is true for those who had significant experience of working from home before. It is fundamentally not the same.
So. We didn’t ask for this, AND…
Therefore it’s ok if we haven’t come up with an adjusted life plan in all this time we’ve apparently had on our hands. You know, all that capacity you’ve had to reflect in stillness and in quiet to identify what really matters to you - the things you do and don’t want to be part of the ‘new you.’ To grapple with the life goals that you had which are now on hold.
It’s ok if we haven’t come up with an adjusted life plan in all this time we’ve apparently had on our hands
A couple of weeks ago when I couldn’t breathe, as PPE covered paramedics were walking into my living room and I was certain that I was going to die, I didn’t see a white light at the end of a tunnel. My life did not flash before my eyes. There was no divine awakening. I remembered that my Will is up to date and that I’d had a brilliant day with my niece relatively recently. In my head I sent a message to my WhatsApp Support Crew (which my friends created) to not worry because I’ve had a great life. Mainly though I was entirely focused on trying to remain calm and conscious and doing exactly what the paramedics told me to do. I didn’t have capacity to process why they were so calm. It was bizarre. Luckily for me (and nothing whatsoever to do with being ‘a fighter’, or ‘ a goodun’ ) I didn’t have to go to hospital and I’ve now recovered. I think often about those who have not been as lucky as me and those having to do an impossible version of grief. I have also reflected however, that I have still not had any earth shattering revelations of existential comfort. The grass does not look any greener to me. The sunshine is as glorious as it was but no more so. The populist gratitude brigade might suggest I’m not grateful enough. I’d suggest there’s still quite a lot going on right now and by the way there’s no evidence base for gratitude being helpful for our mental health. It’s enough to be surviving at the moment in whatever ways we can. We are enough. We can remind ourselves of this by considering where we are on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:
So. We didn't ask for this, AND...
Look what’s happening! Outbreaks of altruism everywhere! Londoners making eye contact and saying hello to each other from their socially distant places on pavements. Neighbours not only speaking to each other for the first time but being openly gushy and delivering essential supplies without hesitation. Our Thursday 8pm Clap for Carers is now an institution causing many of us to openly weep with affection and admiration from our doors/ windows /balconies. I hope this continues. I think it’s a good reminder that pre Covid-19 most of us (and certainly our political leaders) took our health and social care workers entirely for granted along with the rest of our public sector and local government services. We were dabbling in an arena where science and expertise were quietly subsumed by showmanship and sensationalism. Perhaps there could be a balanced shift back.
Our place in nature
Perhaps also, globally we could agree to respect nature now that we’ve been reminded of our place in the grand order of things. These two hopes are the only take aways I’ve come up with so far. My favourite forwarded sights are the pelicans flapping down the middle of the Mall in London; the croc sloping down the street in South Carolina, the sea lions waddling down the stairs in Argentina, the lions on the golf course in South Africa…there is an endless list apparently of nature reminding us who’s boss.
We’ve been reminded of our place in the grand order of things
These creatures are looking around hesitantly wandering themselves into new territory. Maybe with curiosity about novelty and discovery but definitely with hardwired reflexes to retreat to safety at any moment if it doesn’t go well. I wonder if we could accept that we are doing the same. We could follow their lead by ignoring the inner critic, putting the sour dough recipes down and turning the Mandarin off. I happen to have some letters before and after my name which suggest that I know a bit about the brain, emotions and behaviour. Sadly, this doesn’t automatically confer expertise in managing new global threats. I’m needing to remind myself of that to silence my own inner critic. I’m finding it tough at the moment AND I’m doing the best I can which varies day to day AND that’s good enough.
Dr Lucy Oldfield CPsychol, MA (Oxon), HUMAN.
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