Going back, going forward

Earlier this summer, I had the privilege of speaking to a group of public school administrators and teachers from around the country who had gathered for a conference. The pandemic had resulted in a long, frustrating, confusing year for public schools and, of course, for students and their families. New methods of instruction were being created on the fly while students learned to adjust—or not.

I asked the conference attendees how many had lost someone close to them due to COVID. Over a third had. It had been a year of heartbreak, change, and struggle. People were ready for it to be over, to return to some semblance of normalcy.

So many are tired of all the hours spent on screens. So many are frustrated with the barriers to being with others face to face. At schools, at churches, at a variety of venues where people are used to gathering, the question has been repeated over and over: “When are we going back?”

I get it. Part of me wants to “go back” too. As I write this, my wife and I are still getting used to being back at church after months of teaching and watching services from home.

But to me, the question of going back begs another question: Back to what? Back to “normal”? Back to the way things were? If that’s what we mean or assume by the question, then my answer would be, We can’t. “Normal” has changed. We should stop asking what we need to do to go back. Instead, we should figure out what we need to do to go forward.

. . .

One important place to begin is by making it safe for people to talk openly about what they’ve suffered under the pandemic. We need to make sure that our schools and churches are places that, whatever our political differences, people can be seen, heard, and treated with respect and compassion.

Vivek Murthy, former Surgeon General of the United States, has written eloquently about the epidemic of loneliness in our country—a topic made particularly relevant by the social isolation imposed by the coronavirus pandemic. Recent research, for example, has demonstrated that symptoms of depression and anxiety have increased in recent months, especially among youth, and loneliness seems to be one of the driving factors.

You would think that the easy solution would be to “go back.” If people are suffering from loneliness, well, then, just throw them back together!

But it’s not that simple.

An article in The Wall Street Journal, for example, told the story of a teen who at first thought doing school from home would be an adventure; she could be on her phone during class! But her social life deteriorated as events she had been looking forward to were cancelled and pandemic pods fell apart. Then her beloved grandfather contracted COVID and died. When students did return to campus, she was diligent about wearing her mask, fearing that she would catch the virus and bring it home to her parents. But too many other students were lax about such precautions, stoking her fears.

This is a real-life example of how the psychology of loneliness works. In a nutshell, when we’re caught in the persistent grip of loneliness, it activates our brain’s automatic threat system, which pushes us toward acting defensively in social settings, fearing that something bad will happen. That defensiveness, in turn, puts people off. They respond in ways that feeling rejecting, which deepens our sense of isolation and loneliness—and so the cycle repeats.

This is what researcher and neuroscientist John Cacciopo calls “the loneliness loop”—the unfortunate (and largely unrecognized) social pattern by which the lonely get lonelier.

. . .

Having explained this to the school administrators, I urged them to get together with their colleagues to talk about how they might avoid unwittingly falling into the loneliness loop. Instead of rushing to get back to business as usual, could they make their schools safe places to grieve?

I heard later that some of them did indeed engage the conversation. Some had feared that they would have to keep all that they had suffered bottled up inside of them so as not to rock the organizational boat. They needed someone from outside the system—me, or someone like me—to give them permission and a reason to tell their tales of woe, to talk about what they needed to talk about.

So, please, let’s not just “go back.” Let’s figure out what we need to do to go forward, acknowledging how hard the pandemic has been for so many.

And let’s go forward in a way that leaves no one behind.