Earlier this year, when the nebulous promise of effective vaccines seemed like they might come true, people began to imagine and plan for a return to normalcy in life. “I can’t wait for COVID to end” was a common refrain. The feelings ranged from cautious optimism to outright euphoria. Visits to grandmother and grandfather were no longer of vital or mortal importance. Singles had to do bar and bed hop; the media dubbed it “hot vax summer”. It was as if the Americans, at least, were finally going to be able to put the pandemic in the rearview mirror.
The emergence of the new omicron variant has made it clear that this is not really how the crisis works.
The discovery of the highly mutated omicron has shocked the whole world. Due to the record number of cases, states across the United States have instituted standards of care in crisis which allows hospitals to legally prioritize care based on expected results due to a critical lack of resources in the face of overwhelming needs. Considering where we find ourselves in nearly two years of a pandemic, perhaps a better question is whether or not the crisis is never will be finished.
The crisis is not a finite event or even a finite series of events. Crisis is not the “blip” so casually referred to in Marvel’s Avengers, describing the sudden disintegration and reappearance of half of life across the entire universe. There is no “solution” that erases a crisis or a clean break that separates us from it. On the contrary, the crisis is a continuum which increases and decreases, which attracts us and spits us out. It is a constant rocking of circumstances and emotions. The crisis is, frankly, really messy.
Crisis is also, by definition, rare. It’s hard to plan. If you could prepare for it, it wouldn’t really be a crisis. And because of that, we are neither familiar nor comfortable with what it feels like. Until the global covid pandemic becomes a collective as opposed to Iindividual crisis, it was easy to see the crisis as “something that happens to others”.
Because we are not so unfamiliar with the feelings the crisis can inflict, most of us were unable even to contextualize the experience of COVID. Last March, an interview that harvard business review conducted with grieving expert David Kessler has gone viral. “This discomfort that you feel is grief,” gave a name to the anxious dread-filled feeling that people carried in their chests. When we label an emotion, we begin to understand it. If we understand the emotion, we can take action to counter its effect. As Kessler said in the interview, “When you name it, you feel it and it runs through you. Emotions need movement.
If asking when the crisis will be over is not the right question, what is the right one? A better framework for looking at the crisis would be to look at how we are going through it. If there is no defined endpoint as such, is there a process or timeline that we are moving forward in? Just as grieving is a process with many stages, crisis is a series of stages that we go through until the experience becomes part of us, woven into the fabric of our being.
Asking when COVID is going to end is not only contrary to the nature of the crisis, but it also reflects a certain helplessness in the face of the situation. While much of the crisis is beyond our control, how we deal with ourselves and what we demand of others is entirely in our control. But you have to know what to expect.
When people think of the crisis, what usually comes to mind is acute crisis. This is the period of time immediately following the onset of a seizure. This translates into the Spring / Summer 2020 pandemic. The origin of the word crisis is Greek and represented the literal tipping point between life and death. This is why the acute crisis feels so heavy. It is a sharp turn between the status quo and a very uncertain future. Everything is upside down and you don’t know what to think about it. It’s survival. Adrenaline and cortisol flood your body, which can leave you overwhelmed, stressed, anxious, in shock, or even emotionally numb. These feelings will eventually subside, but may continue to resurface as the crisis unfolds. The mistake is to believe that an acute crisis encompasses the whole crisis when in truth it marks only the beginning of it.
The acute attack gradually subsides and becomes Iimmersion. The duration of the immersion phase depends on the nature of the crisis and the person’s ability and desire to adapt. During Immersion, you are still very aware of the seizure but you have become somewhat used to its cadence. Yes, there are still landmines, but they don’t come at you as often and they certainly don’t have the same power.
Humans have a remarkable ability to adapt to even the most uncomfortable and difficult situations and part of that adaptation is just repetition and conditioning. Every day gets easier because you’ve learned what to expect and new skills to help you adjust. Most of us remain perched in immersion now, continuing to watch new layers of COVID unfold. This step is similar to what people called the new normal some time ago. The problem with that is:
- There is nothing normal about it.
- This implies that the crisis is over.
It’s not. You’re just used to it.
Going through the stages of the crisis is not necessarily linear and the pace varies. Some of us linger in an acute attack while others quickly jump into immersion. Some people find themselves stuck in immersion, never being able to fully accept and adapt and move on. But the goal is to achieve the integration.
Integration is a psychological term used in various forms and defined as “the coordination or unification of parts into a whole”. During the crisis, onboarding is when the experience has become part of your personal narrative. It no longer looks like a foreign appendix that you carry with you. You are not in denial and you are not angry. You are able to recognize the ugliness of the fit and fold it in on yourself, the warts and everything. It doesn’t mean that the parts of the fit aren’t painful anymore, but the pain is wrapped up in the bigger whole.
Achieving integration requires that you decide to move forward. In some cases, it can even feel like giving you permission to move forward. More importantly, it means letting go of the idea that life will someday revert to what it was before the crisis. The crisis changed the course of your life and now you have a different one. They may have similarities with each other, but they are not the same. There is no better or worse, they are just different; the paths too divergent to be evaluated.
We can see the integration in the face of the COVID crisis when we look at companies that understand that the future of office work will never be the same. For better and perhaps worse, the genius of widespread remote work is out of the bottle. Employees appreciated the flexibility and lack of commuting that they appreciated working from home. Not only do they hate going back to what they used to be, but they are also discovering new bargaining power. And many employers see the benefits of not being limited by geography in hiring, not to mention the cost savings from a potential reduction in office space. Rather than being reactionary to an ever-changing landscape, they decided to embrace a new path forward.
It is a very natural human impulse to aspire to the end point of a crisis. Our very existence is a series of ritualistic demarcations of beginnings and ends — birthdays, funerals, graduation ceremonies, and so on. We celebrate New Year’s Day because it marks both the end of one year and the start of another. We organize funerals as part of the celebration of the life of the deceased but also as a recognition and a milestone from which we can move forward.
We don’t get that clear line with the crisis. Finding out that the crisis is a longer task than expected can be a little overwhelming. But understanding that we have the power over how we go through a crisis provides both direction and hope. That everyone could use right now.
Jenny Schmidt is Director of Communications for The Ravenyard Group, a crisis management consultancy that combines strategic, business and legal expertise with a focus on wellness.