We’re all beginners at this

Are we just beginning to feel the true impact of the hard reset to our lives that has been forced by the pandemic?

Life’s eternal trick is the surprise that comes around with such regularity that the only truly surprising thing is how it never ceases to surprise. Yet somehow it always seems to creep up and put you right back at the beginning.

Towards the end of each summer, I want to avoid writing that post. The post about how it’s only when you get to lift foot from pedal that you realise the toll taken by life’s relentless forward motion. Yet exhaustion always seems to take me by surprise. The out-of-office went on, and as if by clockwork, mental exhaustion hit. Is there some distraction trick going on, some cosmic sleight of hand that ensures your attention is always diverted from what is truly going on?

This feeling of depleted batteries is not new to me. But as with so much else in 2020, it was somehow different this year. A more intense level of mental exhaustion. I spent much of the waking hours of the first few days feeling not quite awake at all. Cloudy, aching head. Nothing left in the tank. Nothing left to give.

Dealing with a different kind of uncertainty

No two people’s experience of the pandemic will be exactly the same. But could there be underlying patterns of reaction common to us all?

It seems that I might not be alone in this particular kind of exhaustion. In an excellent post entitled Your ‘surge capacity’ is depleted – It’s why you feel awful, Tara Haelle examines the reasons for her own recent experience of exhaustion. Her words ring a lot of bells for me. Haelle found – as did I – that adapting to the first phase of the pandemic (and its attendant disruption to life as we knew it) wasn’t as hard as one might have expected. The wear and tear started to kick in later. Haelle says:

“In those early months, I, along with most of the rest of the country, was using ‘surge capacity’ to operate, as Ann Masten, PhD, a psychologist and professor of child development at the University of Minnesota, calls it. Surge capacity is a collection of adaptive systems – mental and physical – that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters. But natural disasters occur over a short period, even if recovery is long. Pandemics are different – the disaster itself stretches out indefinitely. ‘The pandemic has demonstrated both what we can do with surge capacity and the limits of surge capacity,’ says Masten. When it’s depleted, it has to be renewed. But what happens when you struggle to renew it because the emergency phase has now become chronic?”

Masten tells Haelle that the unfolding nature of the pandemic has instilled in us “a different kind of uncertainty”. This uncertainty gnaws away at all aspects of life. Surge capacity can only take us so far. Masten says that it is only to be expected that the real psychological toll of the pandemic is now starting to be felt:

“Why do you think you should be used to this by now? We’re all beginners at this. This is a once in a lifetime experience. It’s expecting a lot to think we’d be managing this really well.”

It is vitally important to acknowledge and to find ways to deal with exhaustion, if and when you feel it. It’s not always easy – or even possible – to carve out the time needed fully to recover and to restore your energies. But if it is possible, it is the best thing you can do for yourself.

Haelle generously shares a number of ways to manage the exhaustion that stems from the loss of life as we knew it. I particularly like the idea of working to create “a resilience bank account [by] gradually building into your life regular practices that promote resilience and provide a fallback when life gets tough”.

I am thankful beyond words that I have had the chance to take two weeks fully to unwind. September is here, and with it the return to the coalface. I hope that this break has restored sufficient energy and resilience for whatever comes next.

So what might come next?

The opportunity to begin again

Enso

If you’re reading these words, you have the privilege to be alive right now. These are testing and transformative times. Everything feels up in the air. This means that amidst the disruption there are also opportunities for positive change.

In an August 2020 interview with The Quietus, Brian Eno shared some lovely words on how we might use these times to reframe how we perceive life:

“I was talking the other day to a carpenter who lives nearby. He was astonished by how little money he’d been spending over the last months because there were no shops open. It had changed all his perceptions about how much he needed to earn, about what he really liked doing. He’d discovered he enjoyed being with his children by the river… As for the social effects: it’s been so nice seeing people having an alibi to be nice to each other. England has been through five years of division and anger. Now something has happened that allows us to reach across and say ‘Are you OK?'”

I love Eno’s idea of the pandemic gifting us “an alibi to be nice to each other”. Why not?

I take heart from Haelle’s closing words. She reminds us that yes, we are beginners at this – but beginners can learn, change and deal with the challenges they face:

“Our new normal is always feeling a little off balance, like trying to stand in a dinghy on rough seas, and not knowing when the storm will pass. But humans can get better at anything with practice, so at least I now have some ideas for working on my sea legs.”

We have the opportunity to rethink our lives. We have the opportunity to make the post-pandemic world better. We have the opportunity to begin again.

We’re all beginners at this.

But we can and will get better.

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