Updated: May 2, 2020
Adapting to life in and after COVID-19 means moving through a change process
The question I heard most often when the COVID-19 crisis began was, "when will things get back to normal?" When can we go back to school? work? the grocery store? the corner restaurant? When we can stop worrying about keeping six feet between us?
As days of shelter-in-place became weeks, though, the question shifted. "When will" became "will they." "Will things go back to normal?" became the new question on people's minds and lips. Will we go back to school this year? next fall? Will we be able to work in the same office? Will the restaurant on the corner be able to reopen? Will my relationships -- will my marriage -- survive weeks of being at home together?
This question, too, has evolved into a new question -- "what if things don't go back to normal?" This question, of course, holds both grief and possibility in its acknowledgement that what we knew as "normal" may be a thing of the past. What if my college closes, then what do I do? If my church doesn't reopen, do I want to try a new one? What if I could work from home every day or only go into the office when I have a meeting?
The fourth question that will be asked at some point is "what could this new future look like?" Notice the possibility here. Notice the creative invitation. Given the occasion of COVID, how might we recreate our lives, our organizations, our communities, our governments to achieve better -- higher -- aims? Could COVID be a means by which we collectively make a new normal that is more spacious, generous, sustainable for all?
Anyone familiar with theories of change will recognize the stages of transition inherent in this progression of questions. William Bridges' work, which I still find the most compelling in this regard, helps us understand how people move from an ending to a neutral zone to a new beginning.
In the beginning of a change process, people's experience is marked by grief and loss. To the extent that they could, they would go back to the day before any change began. "When will we get back to normal?" is a question rooted in nostalgia but also in hope that what we are experiencing doesn't actually have to change us. This crisis will pass us by, and we can resume business as usual. The current movements to reopen states and the whole country find their passion in this nostalgia and hope.
In the middle stages of transition, stages which can persist for quite some time, there is an oscillating between looking back to what was and looking forward to what might be. This "neutral zone" is often a season of emotional confusion. We are still grieving, and yet, we begin to wonder, begin to dream. We get clear-eyed about some of the things that we're losing that we actually won't miss, and we begin to dream about what might take their place. We also come to terms with how much we will miss the corner restaurant or how deeply it marked us that we weren't able to have our retirement party.
The new beginning is the last question. We begin to articulate a new reality for ourselves and begin to make it happen. We decide not to go back to the job that was killing us, and we recommit to the marriage that shaped us. We decide to bike more and drive less. We don't shake hands anymore, but we do hug those we love all the more. We work for health care for all and a meaningful social safety net.
One day, our grandchildren may ask why we did it, and we may think to say COVID-19, or maybe not. Maybe it just seemed like the only thing we could do when normal was taken from us and there was no going back.