How to adapt to life in a COVID-19 world.
Cynthia Gorney, a National Geographic magazine contributing writer, followed the title to her article, “We Are Not Made for This New Normal” with this subheading: “In perilous times, our deepest human impulse is to draw close to each other — the very thing we’ve been told not to do.”1
She is right. We have been created to draw comfort from the gentle touch and presence of loved ones.
Psychologists have researched the dynamics of human attachment for decades through an experimental condition referred to as the “strange situation,” in which a toddler spends some moments alone and then is reunited with a parent, and subsequently spends a few moments in the company of a stranger, then is reunited with the parent.
The child who is securely attached quickly recovers from the mild distress caused by the separation by seeking and receiving physical and emotional comfort from the caregiver. But the child who is insecurely attached displays behaviors that show that the parent’s response is either not expected, is unreliable, or feels like a threat to the toddler’s well-being.
The attachment classifications resulting from the “strange situation” as secure, insecure, or disorganized anticipates how 70 percent of the children will deal with emotions, close relationships, and even (emotional) trust in God 16 to 20 years down the road.2
For many, some of the most human moments of celebration and sorrow are now taking place behind face masks, keeping physical (social) distance, or in isolation. We are not made for this “new normal.” But adapt we must.
Why adapt? If you are like many of us, you were in a bit of denial about the duration and course of the pandemic early on. The experts talked from the beginning about it lasting from months to years. No, we thought, it will be gone by then. But it kept going and going.
We are not made for this. We are not made for lockdowns. We are not made to greet loved ones at a distance, without hugs and kisses. We are not made to avoid friendly faces. The experts were correct about the timing. Depending on where in the world you live, this “new normal” will continue for some time and with its own peculiarities.
Medical historian and “scholar of the plague” Gianna Pomata points out in her July 2020 interview for The New Yorker that pandemics bring about seismic social changes.3 Some end up improving things despite the high human cost, and in some cases, important and precious human qualities are diminished or lost. Change may be happening before our very eyes. We may have to adapt to more than we can grasp at this point.
What Do We Adapt To?
Initially, when the crisis broke out, mental health experts focused on how to cope with the multiple threats brought about by COVID-19. In coping, you primarily try to protect your present situation while hoping that the negative event may go away.
To truly adapt means that you accept elements of the new reality and make changes in yourself and in your life to live within a different reality. This is what is referred to as “the new normal,” changing the ways we socialize and learning to live with uncertainty while carrying on with as much of the “old normal” as we can.
Let me give you an example.
When you visit another country where you have never been, where you don’t speak the language and have no family or friends, you don’t learn the new language or try to dress like the locals. You are only visiting, so you don’t worry about how you’re going to make a living and may only taste the local food if you feel adventurous. You cope by using your smartphone to go places, use Google Translate to communicate, and find the essentials that will get you through the end of your visit.
When you are an immigrant, this is very different. You need to learn a new language, find a job, buy the foods available, and develop a new social network. Either you adapt or go home, or you remain very unhappy. Adaptation is not easy for many.
My wife and I were ill-prepared for our “new normal” after emigrating to the United States. We did not speak English. Our professional degrees did not translate into immediate jobs. And the most challenging part: missing family and friends. We were not made for this “new normal.”
Eventually, by God’s grace, we became “Americans,” not in the sense that we are indistinguishable from our neighbors, but we adapted and developed a bicultural identity — a nice blend of the “old normal” and the “new.”
Adaptation takes time, particularly as “our deepest impulse is to draw to one another,” while learning to live with the constant risk of getting infected with COVID-19.
How Do We Adapt?
What is the “new normal”? The “new normal” is emerging and developing. It tends to be filled with a mix of what we know mixed in with what is uncertain and possibly dangerous. Besides face covers, physical distance, frequent hand washing, and video conferencing, we need two essentials to adapt:
- “Normalize” uncertainty and risk without becoming complacent.
- Know what we are made for — not only what we are not made for. Affirming and enacting what we are made for as much as possible will protect our emotional health.
Normalizing the “New Normal”
Lebanese scholars Hiba Takieddine and Samaa Al Tabbah believe that in addition to the direct impact of lives lost, jobs that went from furlough to disappearing, retirement funds decimated, and the problems posed by sudden and drastic changes in the manner we do commerce, education, and travel, the “new normal” also requires flexibility to keep up and follow the guidelines as we move back and forth between various stages of risk.4
There may be permanent or at least prolonged changes in working from home, meeting through video conferencing, and even the way we worship. How long do you think it will take until you will feel comfortable shaking hands with a stranger or not panicking if someone next to you coughs or sneezes, or, for that matter, feel that if you sneeze, you will not be perceived as a potential “serial killer”? Yes, flexibility, patience, humor, and faith are required. You follow the public health recommendations and avoid being presumptuous that God will cover you under His wings when all you had to do was cover your face. And you can avoid unproven methods to protect you from the virus.
Pomata, the medical historian, tells of a folk belief and practice during the time of the “Black Death” when people thought that the plague was caused by “unhealthy air,” like sea breezes. It was thought that the workers who cleaned the latrines were immune. Thus, some people confined themselves for hours amid human waste to inhale “medicinal” air. If you wanted to take on this “practice,” it would certainly help you maintain others at the required “social distance” of six feet! But neither this practice nor other so-called folk remedies will protect you from COVID-19. Complacency is your enemy.
In practical terms, it takes time until your mind wraps around what you begin to see as a potentially permanent and not just passing change. The challenge to normalizing is magnified by the uncertainty and the risk of infection. How do we learn to cohabitate with risk while carrying on a “normal” life?
When I was completing my undergraduate training in psychology in Argentina, the country was ruled by a military dictatorship that was known for illegal detention, no legal process, torture, and possible death by the government’s forces. My school was a hotbed of what the government deemed a “den of terrorists.” It was not unusual to be observed by police in plain clothes.
The wrong word, the wrong place, the wrong classmate could get you dead if you were lucky, or tortured if you were not. I am far from being a hero, but I went to class, kept active in church, and socialized with classmates. I adapted but paid the price. One day I had a mini post-traumatic reaction when my brain did not quickly differentiate between the helmet of a highway patrol officer in Los Angeles and the helmet of an officer in Argentina who had my church youth group face the wall with our hands high and his fingers on a weapon. Over time, you learn what to do and what to avoid, trusting God’s protection and cultivating a certainty for the “real normal” — we are truly made for heaven.
In other words, amid the pandemic, you are informed what to do and what to avoid, following trustworthy experts, while you set your mind on the “real normal” for eternity.
The “old normal” and the “new normal” are not what we are made for. We are made for eternity.
The original version of this commentary was posted on the Inter-American Division news site. A second part of this discussion will follow.
1. Cynthia Gorney, “We Are Not Made for This New Normal,” National Geographic, July 2020, 20.
2. While the research on the emotional and relational impact of attachment classification is longitudinal, the research on attachment to God is not. However, research conducted with children, adolescents, and adults consistently shows a correspondence between the type of attachment to a parent and the type of attachment to God.
3. Hiba Takieddine and Samaa Al Tabbah, “Coronavirus Pandemic: Coping with the Psychological Outcomes, Mental Changes, and the ‘New Normal’ During and After COVID-19.” Open Journal of Depression and Anxiety 2 (June 2020), 7-19, DOI: https://doi.org/10.36811/ojda.2020.110005.
4. Lawrence Wright, “How Pandemics Wreak Havoc – and Open Minds,” The New Yorker, July 20, 2020.