By Dr. Daniel O’Neill, Professor in the Center for Counseling & Human Development
Covid isn’t gone, as we’re seeing lately with the increase in case numbers. At the same time, the numbers of those who are vaccinated are increasing. We’ll be living with this in-between state—virus circulating, more immunity—for a while. We won’t be able to throw away our masks. People will still be observing precautions when indoors or unable to keep social distance. We will still be doing risk assessment—and one thing I’ve learned is that people judge risk very differently. We may be living with people who judge risk in basically the same way we do, but when we’re back on campus we’ll be with many different people with different approaches to risk. We may need to be clear about what we’re comfortable with and respectful of differences.
A phrase I heard early in the pandemic has stuck with me. We are NOT all in the same boat. We are in the same storm–but different boats. Everyone’s pandemic experience has been very different. I’ve heard some people talk about the pandemic as a “great pause” which has allowed them time and space for introspection, for creativity etc. Lots of ‘silver linings.’ For others the pandemic has resulted in tremendous loss, financial devastation, job loss, grief, isolation and stress. And for others there are all kinds of combinations of these. What I expect is that people will be coming together and sharing common experiences, as well as plenty of unique perspectives. I imagine we will begin to share our pandemic stories with each other. It will be important to listen to each other and to not make assumptions about what people have been through.
There will be awkwardness, I think. I also think it will be important to acknowledge these feelings and yet be open to the other emotional experiences that are present. Personally, I feel a little out of practice (I’m an introvert so the quiet insular life hasn’t been so difficult for me) but I know I’ll really enjoy seeing Millersville colleagues again, catching up, talking and laughing together. Some of the anxiety I feel about being social again is anticipatory. I suspect that once I am seeing and talking with people in person again that I’ll enjoy it. It may be harder in my imagination than in person.
People who suffer from Social Anxiety though will face that challenge as they resume their in-person experiences. That will feel drained and overwhelmed at times. Their coping strategies will feel rusty and it will take time to find their footing.
Maybe the most important tip of all would be to practice compassion. Compassion for others–giving people the benefit of the doubt, a listening ear, reassurance and positive support. Compassion for ourselves—allowing ourselves to feel awkward and uncertain, to be patient with ourselves and our adjustment to yet another new normal, and to acknowledge our efforts.
I’m nervous and excited—they are often opposite sides of the same coin. I know it will take time to feel comfortable working in the office again with so many people. But, I cannot wait to try to get across campus just before 11 a.m. on a Tuesday or Thursday with the rush of students on their way to class. Our beautiful campus will be bustling with activity. A sense of excitement and purpose in the air. I won’t be so lost in my own thoughts or worrying about my to do list the way I was in years past. I may try to catch someone’s eye and smile—even if they won’t be able to see it behind my mask.