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Feeling Anxious About Returning To Post-Pandemic Society? You're Not Alone

Originally published on May 21, 2021 10:36 am

After a long, dark year, social muscles have atrophied. In-person gatherings now call for weighty questions about COVID-19 safety. And many people, who during the pandemic found relief in empty calendars, don't want to go back to the world as they knew it.

NPR's All Things Considered heard from listeners who are grappling with these new realities, and we enlisted two experts to help answer those questions: Dr. Lucy McBride, a primary care physician, has been hearing a lot about these post-pandemic stumbling blocks from patients and Ekemini Uwan, a theologian, has written about letting go of the past in order to build a better future. Listen in the audio player above and read on for excerpts of their responses.


Touchy Questions

"How do I — and we all — navigate the social minefield that is determining if friends and acquaintances and family members are comfortable with in-person events and are vaccinated before we invite them to something? Are these just things we're going to have to get used to asking point-blank before anything that we try to do?" — Zachary Wilson, Pittsburgh

Ekemini Uwan: I do think there's a lot of liberty and some grace to ask these questions that would be much more personal to ask in the before-times, whereas it doesn't seem as inappropriate to ask now — and just asking them, "What's your comfort level?" And they can just say, "I'm not comfortable," and you accept that.

How To Be An Introvert

"I have found that being more isolated actually has invigorated me. How do I politely and firmly decline invitations for social events I don't want to go to once I can no longer use the pandemic as an excuse?" — Raymond Schultz, Manchester, N.H.

Uwan: The reality is that "No" is a complete sentence, as they say, right? We have been socialized to think that we have to give a reason for our "No," but I do think that you can simply just say "No."

Lucy McBride: If nothing else, the pandemic has laid bare the critical importance of addressing our own mental health. And, for some people, having optimal mental health is not just about not getting COVID, it's about having time to sleep, relax. So, I think that we need to realize what it means to be human: It's more than the absence of disease, it's making our needs known and communicating those to other people.

Maintaining A Work-Life Balance

"It was always hard for me to send my kids to day care every day. And the pandemic — although it hasn't been perfect, for sure, in many ways — has been an opportunity for me to work and be with my kids. That's just been amazing and I'm so scared to give that up." — Jill Settle, Silver Spring, Md.

Uwan: I do understand that reluctance and that hesitancy, and grieving the fact that we had an opportunity for things not to go back to what they were. We could have [begun] to forge a new normal, a new way of life, a new way of thinking — as it relates to work, as it relates to family. And those things have just not have happened.

McBride: When you are dealing with a crisis like this, you can have post-traumatic stress — and we all will on some level. There's also something called post-traumatic growth. I think that there are moments in our lifetime, and this is one of them, where we can really think hard and think big about what the future should look like. There's a lot we should let go of and a lot we can improve on.

Back To Small Talk?

"I feel like I've lost the ability to smoothly converse with other people. I'm wondering, how do we re-learn to do that after a year of having to think of other people as a danger?" — Jake Blount, Providence, R.I.

McBride: The way I'm counseling my patients is to really start gradually. You shouldn't perhaps go to a big cocktail party as your first outing. You might want to go a picnic with your close friend and see how it feels.

Uwan: I would also say, even with the question about the small talk, you know, do we have to bring that back with us? ... Maybe there's something in between, like making eye contact, being like, "How are you? It's good to see you." ... Acknowledging that we've come through something.

Meeting Division With Forgiveness

"How do you just get over and forgive people for not taking the pandemic as seriously as you?" — Gaby Markley, Los Angeles

Uwan: Instead of turning to judgment ... I think that we need to turn to wonder. What is the information or the disinformation that they're imbibing, that's shaping they're thinking? And I know that's hard to do, to be able to extend grace, to give some liberty and to give some latitude. But I do think we have to turn to wonder — even just for your own peace and sanity, if nothing else.

McBride: We need to give people a wide berth, forgiveness and latitude. Because we've all experienced trauma and everyone will process it in different ways.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A few weeks ago, Amanda Barbie (ph) celebrated her mother's 60th birthday in North Carolina. People in the family were vaccinated. They gathered outside, socially distant. It was the first time everyone had really been back together. And Amanda, who's an art teacher, brought something along.

AMANDA BARBIE: I showed up with this cardboard fan.

SHAPIRO: A cardboard fan.

BARBIE: I really tried to decorate it and make it look, really, as celebratory as was humanly possible. I even, like, danced over towards my mother and with a, like - look at our birthday fan.

SHAPIRO: The fan was for the birthday cake so her mother could wave out the candles. There would be no blowing on the cake, not after the pandemic.

BARBIE: Everyone just looked befuddled. And then, of course, a couple family members had almost that dad-joke groan - that, oh, OK (laughter), OK, got it. And so, like, you could see it dawn on everyone.

SHAPIRO: Her mom took the fan. She waved at the candles. It didn't really work very well.

BARBIE: It was a real specific moment where you're like, OK, this is different than it was before. This is going to be different than it was before.

SHAPIRO: As we all start to reemerge from a long, dark year, there are going to be a lot of moments like this, big and small, that we're all going to have to navigate. So we asked for your questions on how to human again after more than a year of isolation. And we have two experts here with answers. Dr. Lucy McBride is a primary care physician who's been fielding a lot of questions from her patients every day, and Ekemini Uwan is a public theologian who's written about letting go of the past to build a better future. And I'm so glad to have you both here. Welcome.

LUCY MCBRIDE: Thanks for having me.

EKEMINI UWAN: Thanks for having me, Ari. I'm glad to be here.

SHAPIRO: Let's dive right in with a question from Zach Wilson (ph) in Pittsburgh.

ZACH WILSON: So my question is, how do I and we all navigate the social minefield that is determining if friends and acquaintances and family members are comfortable with in-person events and are vaccinated before we invite them to something? Are these just things we're going to have to get used to asking, point-blank, before anything that we try to do?

SHAPIRO: Feels like we're living in a time where we have to ask really personal questions of people we might only know casually. What would you say to Zach, Ekemini?

UWAN: Yes. You know, I do think there's a lot of liberty and some grace to ask these questions that would be much more personal to ask in the before times, whereas it doesn't seem as inappropriate to ask now. And just asking them, what's your comfort level? And they can just say, I'm not comfortable. And you accept that.

SHAPIRO: Lucy, you're nodding.

MCBRIDE: I completely agree, Ekemini. I think that we all have experienced trauma in some way, shape or form during the pandemic, and so we're all going to be filled with mixed emotions facing...

UWAN: Yes.

MCBRIDE: ...The new reality that we're entering.

UWAN: Right.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. You know, over the last year, we've heard from so many people who've really missed human interactions. But when we put out this call for questions, we heard from a lot of people who have enjoyed being more introverted, like Raymond Schultz (ph) in Manchester, N.H.

RAYMOND SCHULTZ: I have found that being more isolated actually has invigorated me. How do I politely and firmly decline invitations for social events I don't want to go to once I no longer can use the pandemic as an excuse?

SHAPIRO: Yeah, what if we don't want to go back to normal?

UWAN: The reality is that no is a complete sentence, as they say, right? And I - we have been socialized to think that we have to give a reason for our no, but I do think that you can simply just say no.

MCBRIDE: You know, if nothing else, the pandemic has laid bare the critical importance of addressing our own mental health.

UWAN: Absolutely.

MCBRIDE: For some people, having optimal mental health is not just about not getting COVID. It's about having time to sleep, relax.

UWAN: Yes.

MCBRIDE: So I think that we need to realize what it means to be human. It's more than the absence of disease. It's making our needs known and communicating those to other people.

SHAPIRO: We got a lot of questions from parents, and our next one comes from Jill Settle (ph) in Maryland, who isn't sure she's ready to return to the way things were before.

JILL SETTLE: It was always hard for me to send my kids to day care every day. And the pandemic, although it hasn't been perfect for sure, in many ways, has been an opportunity for me to work and be with my kids. And that's just been amazing. And I'm so scared to give that up.

SHAPIRO: And, Ekemini, I know you've written about a return to normal maybe being the wrong way to look at this.

UWAN: Yes. Yes. I think a lot has changed for us. And we have changed, I think. In that piece that I wrote - it was about...

SHAPIRO: If I could just quote from the piece...

UWAN: Yeah, please.

SHAPIRO: ...You said, "Much about our former life was actually abnormal - its frenetic pace, its inequalities and its injustices."

UWAN: Absolutely. It just was not a sustainable pace, to be honest. But I do understand that reluctance and that hesitancy and, like, grieving the fact that we had an opportunity for things not to go back to what they were.

MCBRIDE: I think that's right.

UWAN: Right? We could have began to forge a new normal, a new way of life, a new way of thinking as it relates to work, as it relates to family. And those things have just not happened. I'm curious about what you...

SHAPIRO: Lucy?

UWAN: ...Have to say, Lucy.

MCBRIDE: I think that's right. I think when you are dealing with a crisis like this, you can have post-traumatic stress, and we all will, on some level. There's also something called post-traumatic growth. I think that there are moments in our lifetime - and this is one of them - where we can really think hard and think big about what the future should look like. There's a lot...

UWAN: Yes.

MCBRIDE: ...That we should let go of and a lot we can improve on.

UWAN: Yes.

SHAPIRO: So many people wrote in to us with just, like, basic questions about muscles that they haven't used in more than a year, like Jake Blunt (ph), who's a 25-year-old musician in Rhode Island and is worried about just ordinary things like small talk.

JAKE BLUNT: I feel like I've lost the ability to smoothly converse with other people. And I'm wondering, I guess, how do we relearn to do that after a year of having to think of other people as a danger?

MCBRIDE: The way I'm counseling my patients is to really start gradually. You shouldn't, perhaps, go to a big cocktail party as your first outing. You might want to go to a picnic with your close friend and see how it feels.

UWAN: Right.

SHAPIRO: Ekemini, you're nodding.

UWAN: Yeah. But I would also say, even with the question about the small talk, you know, do we have to bring that back with us?

MCBRIDE: Small talk is overrated. You know what? After - you know, we've been dealing with some...

UWAN: Do we have to?

MCBRIDE: ...Major, major issues here, right?

UWAN: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: OK, but let's imagine, like, we're all back in the office for the first time. We go to the coffee...

UWAN: OK.

SHAPIRO: ...Machine to refill our coffee cup, and we see a colleague who we're not close friends with...

MCBRIDE: Right.

SHAPIRO: ...But we haven't seen in more than a year - like, that's just not a conversation that I've had in - how many months now?

MCBRIDE: It's true. It's true.

UWAN: Sure. Sure.

MCBRIDE: Are we going to say, how was your pandemic?

SHAPIRO: Right.

UWAN: Right. We don't want to say that, right?

MCBRIDE: I hope not because there's no small answer to that question, right? It's not like, oh, it was fine.

UWAN: No, but maybe there's something in between, like...

MCBRIDE: Yes.

UWAN: ...Making eye contact, right...

MCBRIDE: Yes, eye contact.

UWAN: ...Connecting and being like, how are you? Like, it's good to see you.

SHAPIRO: That's what I was just thinking. Like, it's really nice to see you again.

UWAN: Yes.

SHAPIRO: Doesn't have to be a conversation starter.

UWAN: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: It stands on its own.

UWAN: Something like that, acknowledging that we've come through something.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

MCBRIDE: Yes.

SHAPIRO: I'd love to end on a question about forgiveness. And this comes from Gaby Markley (ph), who's 25 years old and lives in LA.

GABY MARKLEY: How do you just get over and forgive people for not taking the pandemic as seriously as you?

UWAN: Yes.

SHAPIRO: Ekemini?

UWAN: Yes. Gaby, you know, that is such a very real question, and I think it's a common question. Instead of turning to judgment, which is actually kind of my default, if I could confess...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

UWAN: Can I confess on this show?

MCBRIDE: Amen.

UWAN: And so (laughter) that's my default.

MCBRIDE: Totally.

UWAN: But I think that we need to turn to wonder. What is the information or the disinformation that they're imbibing, that's shaping their thinking? And I know that's hard to do, to be able to extend grace, to give some liberty and to give some latitude. But I do think we have to turn to wonder, even just for your own peace and sanity, if nothing else. I think you have to wonder.

MCBRIDE: Ekemini, I couldn't agree with you more. We need to give people a wide berth, forgiveness and latitude, because we've all experienced trauma. And everyone will process it in different ways.

UWAN: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Physician Lucy McBride and theologian Ekemini Uwan, thank you both so much.

UWAN: Good to be here.

MCBRIDE: Thanks so much for having me.

UWAN: Thank you for having me.

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