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Adapting to Change: The Pandemic’s Impact on the Self

Written by Anushka Bose.

We are now a year into the COVID-19 pandemic. A year into an indefinitely confined period where we’ve pivoted and morphed into new versions of ourselves each day, depending on what the day asked of us. Time froze for a while, and its current thaw is happening at a pace that is both exciting and scary. As we hopefully near the end of the pandemic, we enter a period of reflection. How has the pandemic impacted our collective understanding of life, time, and the self? How has the pandemic impacted our identities and our relational worlds? Join me in unpacking these questions and beginning to understand the challenge of adapting to change.

Adapting to Change: What Was  

Throughout the pandemic, our dance with change has been dichotomous to say the least: some existing friendships have taken the back seat, some acquaintances have become friends, and some strangers have become confidantes. The idea of meeting a group of friends might have increased our anxiety but walking down the street to buy a cup of coffee might have decreased the isolation of being stuck at home.

To some of us, everyday commonalities began to hold more significance. Perhaps you paid more attention to the beauty of the natural world around you or appreciated the brief conversations you shared with neighbors in ways you never did. Even the simultaneous silence and togetherness of being in the same room as a roommate might have instilled a sense of comfort and safety. 

Life feels different, to say the least. The pandemic has impacted our identities and relationship with life. While many of us have had to grapple with loss and its pillars—grief, loneliness, despair, heartache, etc, others might feel caught in a melancholy loop. Connecting through social media and Zoom is simply not sufficient social stimulation for most of us. 

A State of Exulansis

In the pandemic fog, connection feels both energizing and depleting. We desire more closeness, but too much of it has us running back to our little caves of privacy, where nobody is privy to our thoughts. It’s funny that such a beautiful and tying knot as human connection can also become exhausting when we are burnt out. The idea of responding to another email, or attending a Zoom meeting meets makes most of us lethargic. 

Speaking from personal experience, the pandemic has put me in a state of Exulansis, a word I’ve recently discovered.

Exulansis is the “tendency to give up trying to talk about an experience because people are unable to relate to it—whether through envy or pity or simple foreignness—which allows it to drift away from the rest of your life story, until the memory itself feels out of place, almost mythical, wandering restlessly in the fog, no longer even looking for a place to land.”

It feels contradictory to say that, because as much as I love to write and share my thoughts in an open medium like this, I am just as inclined to withdraw and safeguard my thoughts. Perhaps this duality represents the malleable and versatile nature of the human personality, and the pandemic has surely made us visible to many sides of our own self. 

Collective and Individual Grief

The pandemic has brought along both collective grief and individual grief, and the two have merged together. The chaos exists in being unable to separate the collective from the individual, or vice versa. You might have noticed that everyone is on a different trajectory, with regard to how they feel any given week, and that highlights the net difference between the two realms of grief. Collectively, we all succumbed to an ominous force and the entire community took the brunt for that.

Individually, some people faced higher stakes than others and experienced higher levels of painful emotions. The loss of a life, location, way of life, a memory—the ambiguous nature of loss, extending beyond a human life, tampered with our sense of self. Thus, the state of exulansis might make us feel fatigued to connect with others because of the interconnected nature of our collective and individual grief.

Adapting to a Post-Shutdown Environment

The world is slowly springing back to life, albeit in very different timelines, depending on where you are located. Vaccine rollout programs are the new glimmer of hope.

But now we are faced with some bigger questions that weigh heavily on our shoulders. As we wake up—what does that new world look like? Can what has been lost be found again? Can we heal the fractures of the physical and emotional distance that have taken place in our communities? 

Personally, I’m struggling to uncover the numerous ambiguous losses that have taken place for me this year. The tangibles and the intangibles. The common denominator being the loss of a way of life.

With the loss of a way of life, we also lose who we were in that mode of being. Have you ever been to different parts of the same city, or a different country, and found yourself acting a little differently? Maybe it’s the greeting you say, maybe it’s the way you plan your day; maybe it’s the way you communicate in a different language. And when you return to your home base, you notice you lose that mode of being you were in elsewhere. 

Because time and space are lost in the pandemic frenzy, will we revert back to our old mode of being when this is all over, or will we walk around with more stiffness in our postures and tones, in a mode of vigilance?

The wake-up will likely warrant a collective emotional relocation. Similar to a move, we’ll have to place the boxes of our thoughts, aspirations, and anxieties into a new format. Will the current boxes be too heavy to carry to this new emotional space? Will we leave some boxes—and parts of ourselves—in our old pandemic self? Does the new belong with the old, or in place of the old?

Arielle Hein: Redesigning Time

In creative technologist Arielle Hein’s TEDxMileHigh Talk, Hein discovered that redesigning time gave her life more meaning and freedom. Hein is an artist, technologist, and educator who explores the imaginative use of emerging technologies.

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As Hein explains, “our modern lives are ruled by clocks and meticulously scheduled down to the minute or hour. We take this measure for granted.” While we all agree to follow one way of measuring time, the pandemic has shown us how time can move differently. The pandemic has reinforced Arielle Hein’s assertion, where time and space feel contradictory—both obscure and specific, slow and fast, motivating and depleting. 

Moving in Parallels: Gratitude and Desire  

We are living in a time where our desires are at war with survival. We might find ourselves still wanting, but rejecting that discontentment. “At least I am alive,” you might find yourself saying.

This wanting has almost become blasphemy. We have relegated out wants and desires, as if they are an automatic negation to gratitude, to what we already have. It is perfectly reasonable to be grateful but still desire— desire for more, for better, for different.  

While the self has temporarily been divided by the pandemic, we can slowly begin to reconnect the grief and hope; sadness and joy; the old and the new. 

Lost and Found

Esther Perel, a New York Times bestselling author, and renowned psychotherapist, noted in a recent virtual video workshop, “if you ask the right questions, you think differently. When you shape the story differently, it changes your experience. A different conversation leads to a different path.” 

If we ask ourselves the right questions, we have to want to know the answer. In the asking, there is a wanting. A desire to unlock the answers. Sometimes these answers might reveal parts of us that we’ve kept repressed and that can be uncomfortable. But with each answer, we achieve clarity about both our inner desires and anxieties. As we adapt to a different life post-pandemic, part of moving forward will require us to ask ourselves and our communities the right questions.

The questions represent unresolved mysteries, and perhaps while solving them, we will be greeted by unexpected discoveries. Perhaps the lost can be found again.

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