Re-Entry: What To Do When The Old Life No Longer Fits?
Finding our way back after the crisis can present unique challenges.
In space travel, re-entry is considered the most difficult part of the flight. A spacecraft gets only one chance to hit the earth’s atmosphere at exactly the right angle. Speed is key too: If an object re-enters too quickly, it will burn up like a meteor. Satellites sometimes re-enter the atmosphere and crash on the surface.
For soldiers, actors, top athletes, and other professionals who face extreme experiences as part of their work routine, re-entry skills are essential to their performance, and they learn early on to manage the transitions without crashing. For the rest of us, a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic remains an odd rarity that we are not prepared for, and finding our way back into our lives after it can present unique challenges, too.
While the pandemic is still raging around us and will continue for a while, a growing number of countries have lifted restrictions, with shops, offices, and public life slowly re-opening. As we’re re-entering our workplaces and relationships, including those we never left, what re-entry speed and angle are right?
The sudden vibrancy of “normalcy” can be numbing, and with every added social interaction the clarity of solitude becomes blurrier. After all these close encounters with death and other strange bedfellows, we are shaken, but no longer stirred. All the essential questions remain unanswered, although they are suddenly less open-ended, less beautiful, than they appeared just a few weeks ago. One the one hand, the crisis was one big “overview effect” and we gained a much broader perspective. On the other hand, we spent the majority of the crisis forced to embrace a new essentialism. The minimum viable life had its allure, but many of us must concede that the dream of living small turned out to be too big for us. And now we re-emerge, temporarily victorious over illness and isolation, and yet feeling defeated. Giving up old illusions wasn’t all that painful, but giving up new hopes so quickly — it hurts.
In fact, there might be a second wave of grieving when we realize that we are not returning to life, but death. That ‘getting back to normal’ might actually mean the soul-numbing reality of our monotonous, joyless work lives that had depressed us in a slow agony long before the pandemic struck. The heavy, singular mourning of a crisis or the repeated mourning of dreaded Monday morning meetings — as we return to work, we may have a hard time deciding what is worse.
So, are there any rituals that can help us cross this liminal space between old and new normal, our old and new self? That make us feel that somehow the crisis was “worth it”?
First of all, we can find helpful guidance in the reintegration of prisoners. Before the release, one key activity to conduct is inventory: take stock of your assets, your emotional resources, the strength of relationships, as well as your old and new skills, so you know what you can handle, and which situations you might want to avoid right after re-entry.
Second, acknowledge that the lockdown may have been a traumatic experience and that you might be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, a gnawing anxiety that continues for no apparent reason. Name those feelings and discuss them with colleagues or friends. Trauma can sometimes enable “post-traumatic growth,” ultimately resulting in higher levels of personality development, similar to the Japanese tradition of Kintsugi, the repair of broken pottery. Instead of hiding the cracks, it highlights them, making the object whole again while at the same time owning its “broken history,” as the psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman so beautifully puts it in his article on “Finding Meaning and Creativity in Adversity.” Kaufman cites research showing that 61 percent of men and 51 percent of women in the United States report at least one traumatic event in their lifetime, and suggests that the human capacity for resilience is significant. Kaufman points out that one of the keys to post-traumatic growth is the ability to fully explore feared thoughts, feelings, and sensations rather than inhibiting them or “self-regulating.” Those with low levels of so-called “experiential avoidance” report the highest levels of growth and meaning in life.
Third, give someone a gift. By receiving it, the other person will affirm your identity and help you re-orient yourself. Gifting is an effective way of reinitiating relationships without expecting anything in return but acceptance. It is also a good way to maintain the kindness and mindfulness that many of us have experienced during the lockdown. It is not surprising that exhibitions such as Lee Mingwei’s “Gifts and Rituals” and the 1:1 Concert series, in which one musician performed for an audience of one at a time, enjoyed so much popularity during the crisis. Both were gifts: of intimacy and attention, two of the most precious human resources.
Finally, carve out and protect a space for remembrance, for cherishing the memories from the crisis and lingering with the mixed emotions you might still experience. This could be a daily meditation or a journaling practice. Any regular activity, no matter how small, will help. Identify the things you have learned during the crisis that you want to carry forward, write them down, and literally gift-wrap them as souvenirs. Keep them in a safe place, and when the time is right one day, unpack them and marvel at your own capacity of not only having survived an existential crisis but having been able to reinvent yourself — and to re-enter forward.
This article was originally published on Psychology Today on June 7, 2020.