On Monday, France was the latest country coming out of lockdown in Europe.
I am a Brit living in France — a pure product of the European dream, until Brexit came along and shook things up (but let’s not digress into a rant!)
We were all waiting with bated breath for lockdown to be lifted. It’s finally happening … so why is everyone I’ve been talking to this week so miserable?
Monday was a day of torrential rain. The kind we don’t see in the south of France in May. Southern Europeans are always nonplussed as to what do with themselves when the heavens open. It calls everything into question, at least for the duration of the rain.
But I’m sure that’s not the full story.
The fact is, the “new normal” is weird
They have been preparing us for coming out of lockdown. The governments and the media, I mean.
The lexicon has progressed over the last few months from “getting back to the way things were” to what has since been labelled the “new normal”.
And the new normal does not resemble what we had before.
I went to the dentist on Monday. Yes, in the rain.
I was slightly late for my appointment as just before I entered the surgery, I experienced a long and violent bout of sneezing. (It runs in the family. We all sneeze very loudly).
This was tricky for two reasons, one because by now I had the obligatory surgical face mask on. Tricky, right? And, secondly, I had signed an online disclaimer just hours earlier to say I was showing no symptoms of the coronavirus. Damn it.
I felt pretty sure it was not the virus and just some kind of reaction; probably to the very strange smell the mask was emitting. I would, however, probably get lynched if I entered the dentist’s waiting room, sneezing as I went.
This is not the kind of thing we used to have to consider.
The sneezing did eventually subside, and I entered the surgery, or rather a scene that resembled the aftermath of a chemical accident.
We all had masks and were asked to cover our feet in those things medical staff put over their shoes during surgery, and to deposit our coats and bags in a large plastic bag. I was asked to sanitise my hands at least 4 times in the space of quarter of an hour. We were spaced 2m apart in a very small waiting room, seating was regularly disinfected, and no-one was to use the sink. Even if drinking was allowed, we could not run the risk of spitting. I entered by one entrance and left by another and during the whole consultation we had to repeat ourselves several times. Communication through a mask is a challenge.
This is the new normal.
Coming out of lockdown does not equate with the end of the virus
We know this in a front-of-brain way, but we haven’t totally integrated it into the day-to-day going forward. And that is hard if, like me, you have been working entirely from home for the last 2 months and getting your groceries online.
We went into lockdown to flatten the curve and give time to the hospitals to build and maintain capacity to treat those with severe forms of the virus. When you flatten a curve, you push it out over a longer period of time.
And this is the realisation that bites.
This weird “new normal” is with us for a while.
And, actually, there is a significant chance we will get sick. The only way this virus is going away is via the immunity acquired from a significant percentage of the population having been infected and having naturally developed antibodies or a vaccine being developed to do that job. Best case scenario we are a good 18 months away from either of those things.
But if we do catch the virus, there is the majority chance we will recover
Yes, that’s right. But thanks to media headlines like “the UK’s deadliest day”, we all now live in fear. We want to go out, but we are scared of going out.
The governments and media scared us into respecting lockdown rules, and now they want us out and about again, greasing the wheels of the economy. The entire weight of responsibility has been placed on the individual to decide what is best for them to do.
Schools in France are open, but it is up to parents to choose if they send their children back or not.
And anyone who listened to Boris Johnson’s speech a week ago, knows there are no clear guidelines as to whether one should go back to work or not in the UK.
We have to make choices that align with our personal situation
This is actually normal. Everyone is responsible for their own decisions. It is just easier sometimes to have someone tell us what to do. And from two months of having been told in the minutest detail what we can and can’t do, we have now been given “new normal” choices and it is daunting.
Maybe we need our children to be at school so we can work, because we need to pay the bills. Perhaps we don’t have the possibility of working from home and so have to take public transport to get there every day. It’s possible we are one of the frontline workers and are exposing ourselves to danger to help others.
Despite ensuring the barrier practices, all of these choices can be met with the judgement of others, and of ourselves. Are our choices putting ourselves or others more at risk? Are we a good parent if we send our child back to school when other parents are keeping theirs at home? The fact of the matter is we will all have to make decisions aligned to our individual reality.
It’s a level of personal and collective responsibility we have not been used to before, and yet it was always there. Coming out of lockdown has shown us this.
We don’t have the roadmap for coming out of lockdown
We have lost all points of reference since we started to prepare for coming out of lockdown.
My daughter’s school sent a very cryptic email this week as to how school would function from now on in. Masks, longer days, social distancing, no canteen, no playground. No fun. And this doesn’t concern my daughter. Just the first two years of lower middle school are returning next week. Reading between the lines, they have no idea where they will fit the other half of the students.
School and universities won’t be the same. Workplaces won’t be the same. Socialising won’t be the same.
When you make any kind of strategy or plan, you often look to the past identify what works.
I live in Toulouse and work in place marketing. Had you asked anyone about the city’s development strategy some 6 months ago, it would have centred largely around the aerospace sector and notably the presence of Airbus HQ. On the BBC this week, Toulouse was compared to Detroit and the North American rust belt. It’s not exactly the same, but the fact of the matter is the CEO of Airbus does not see Airbus getting back to 2019 activity levels for 5 years, by which time the local supply chain could have been devastated.
It is as if someone just threw all the pieces in the air and we are not sure where they are going to fall.
This is happening on a macro-economic level … and on an individual level for everyone.
The real crux of the matter is that our old certainties were based on nothing
This is what is hard for people coming out of lockdown.
This year has been a bit of a Groundhog Day for me. At the beginning of 2019, and as a result of a change of leadership impacting my public-sector client, I lost very suddenly my major long-term contract.
It was a difficult time. I had to regroup, refocus, dip into my savings, find alternative means of income and finally find some new contracts. But I did just that. I was working in a framework I knew.
Fast forward to March 2020 and I lost my contracts. Again. But this time around, I wonder whether my job will even exist over the next few years.
I still cannot travel more than 100km from my home. There are no flights to the UK and if flights do resume this summer, there will be a 14-day quarantine period for anyone coming into the UK. I am unsure as to when or how I will see my family and friends again soon, other than over a grainy video connection.
Life is actually based on uncertainty
I’m not a Buddhist, but I am a meditation teacher. One tenet proper to both the religion and the practice is the impermanence of everything.
I called on my 88-year old neighbour a few weeks ago. I asked her if she was doing okay and needed anything at the supermarket. She said she was fine and reminded me that in any case, we were all going to die. She laughed as I replied, “Well I just wondered if between now and dying you might need any bread or other basics?”
I am not recounting this anecdote to be morbid. The thing is, there is only one certainty in life, and that is death.
“‘All conditioned things are impermanent’ — when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering.” The Buddha
In the Western world we have become conditioned to believe we are almost untouchable. We have sterilised our environment. We think we can control everything and anything. Most people reading this have fairly comfortable lives. The real dangers of this virus are actually not in the virus itself and probably not in the Western world.
Experts are saying that the world has never faced a hunger emergency like the one that is currently developing, which will double the number of people facing acute hunger to 265 million by the end of this year. Hunger will kill people before the virus.
So how are you going to frame the “new normal”?
“Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional” The Buddha
That’s twice I have quoted him now, I know. I’m not a Buddhist but I like what Buddha has to say about certain things.
We are coming out of lockdown and you want certitude. You want the government to tell you it will all be ok. But the government doesn’t know. No-one knows. No-one ever knows.
It comes back to choices and assuming responsibility for those choices. The answer is not put your fingers in your ears and pretend it is not happening, nor is it to worry yourself sick.
As hard as it is, we all have to embrace the incertitude and look within as to where we are going to go next, without getting caught up in fear that we can apply to outcomes.
A lot of people confuse meditation with blocking out everything that is going on around you. Mindfulness meditation is actually about being in the present moment, but also aware of all that is going on. We are simply not according emotion or judgement to that which we see, hear or feel.
It is in this place that we find equanimity and the personal resource to take responsibility for our own lives and move forward.
No-one said it would be easy
Buddhists spend years trying to achieve complete equanimity both during — and outside of — meditation practice.
We are all going to have moments of “Shit. what next?”
Don’t be hard on yourself if coming out of lockdown is hard
Just try and focus on the good things in your day-to-day life to make it easier. And if you are reading this, it is unlikely you are homeless, destitute or starving and so that means there are plenty of good things if you look hard enough.
My daughter and I spent most of this week generally demotivated by work — of both the adult and school variety. I was having trouble reframing this lethargy into gratitude for actually still having some work.
By Friday, the rain had passed. I oiled the chain on my bike and cycled a good 30km, taking me well out of that 1km radius and all I have known for the past two months.
The sun was shining, the leaves were green, and the birds were singing.
It turns out it was just another beautiful, spring day in the south of France.
Photo by bruce mars on Unsplash