Finding resilience in the middle of a pandemic

So much has changed over the past few years. We have lived through fires, floods, a pandemic, mice plagues, floods again and a pandemic again. One of my colleagues at the Resilience Centre coined the phrase, “We are all exposed to emotional whiplash.” We just get going again after a second and third lockdown, and then disaster happens, and we must change course quickly. We make plans to then be disappointed and cancel again and again. Weddings, holidays, funerals, Christmas and many other times when we could connect with our vulnerable and valued members of our community, are all changed at the last minute. We get our hopes up and then they are dashed.

After nearly three years of catastrophic events, the world has changed and continues to change. As a result, people are beginning to connect differently, they are making different plans and they are hoping for different things. To make it easier, we stop planning and just plod on with day-to-day activities, feeling strange and alone at every step. It is tiring and anxiety-provoking and makes us turn inwards.

But what if the current series of events is God calling us to change our mindsets? In our family, at Easter, we sit around the table and have a Christian Passover. We tell the story of the plagues of Egypt and often we wonder why they didn’t break after the first four – but no, there were more to come and finally, the death of treasured children was the plague that made the Egyptians change their minds and let the people go.

Lockdown created opportunities as well as challenges …

How many plagues would it take for us to change our lifestyles? “Commercialism, catchwords, political slogans, logos, brands and fashion clutter our mental and spiritual spaces. Our minds and bodies pick them up like a dark suit picks up lint. They decorate us” (Willard). We wear brand names to show people who we are and establish our identity. We are so cluttered that we don’t develop our own sense of self apart from what we wear or who we support. We have begun to be completely defined by the results of commercialism based on man’s demise – greed.

What if we could shake this way of life and take off our brands and be completely ourselves? Standing before a God who loves us and wants us to be in relationship with him. What if the challenge is to feel the anxiety in this world and as a result, look towards God for meaning and purpose and consider the bigger picture he has for this world? Perhaps, our relationships would change, and each of us may become more vulnerable, authentic and connected with purpose.

As a clinical psychologist, over the past 10-15 years, I have noticed the changes in our pace of life. Until the pandemic hit us, a common psychological practice was to teach people to be mindful, to slow down and to deliberately have moments of enjoyment. New therapies emerged based on mindfulness and reflection. Many family sessions involved teaching parents to switch off and spend time with their kids, and to enable kids to have at least one afternoon free of activities. This was in reaction to a world where waiting longer than a few minutes, was seen as a waste of time. So, we had to find ways to teach people to “stop and smell the roses”.

However, over the past two to three years, people have slowed their pace, shrunk their social circles, cut down on their commitments and generally become more self-contained. Lockdown created opportunities as well as challenges, but for those who have adapted easily, it had the benefits of connecting with those who are closest to us.

However, there have been catastrophes that have also hurt us. In Australia, we had fires and floods, plagues of mice, and restrictions placed on us which stop us seeing our elderly and most vulnerable people. Many people are anxious and hypervigilant about germs and fearful of the next bad thing.

Psychological services have been inundated with appointments for people who cannot cope with the new world. People who have been so cut off, they don’t know what to hope for in case it gets taken away from them again. We know from past studies of resilient people during wars, pandemics and natural disasters, that those who can hold onto hope and continue to see meaning behind the events they are in, are most likely to survive and grow.

It is the social navigation through difficulties that builds our resilience.

Resilience, however, is different to just surviving and growing. It is a process of navigating and negotiating through available resources, despite the adversity. Put more simply, it is the social navigation through difficulties that builds our resilience. It is, therefore, not surprising that those who are cut off from their most helpful relationships don’t do so well (and see the pandemic as a threat), while others who are locked in with their closest relationships do really well (and see it as an opportunity).

From what we know, to move forward and to continue to grow and become resilient in the face of more adversity, we need to focus on who we are with and how we can reach out to others despite the restrictions caused by the pandemic. If we focus only on ourselves, we become more isolated and have fewer resources as time goes on – fewer resources equals lower resilience.

Back to the Israelites walking out of Egypt. They did this together. They were a mob, with groups of families, following a leader who had the voice of God in his ear. They didn’t have social media to stay connected, but rather a tight network of people who, because they were persecuted, needed to support each other to get through. When the opportunity arose for them to flee, they did it all together and they did it quickly. They had resources in each other, and they had a purpose and it worked.

For us to move into the next thing, as Christians it is important to consider what we are learning to value, and how stripping down to just ourselves along with others who are also struggling gives a sense of connectedness. Finding hope by reaching out to others may be simply through connecting with displaced people entering Australia, as they escape their war-torn homelands. Simply sharing our resources and being more communal, is the pathway towards resilience in the new era.

Perhaps in the future we will say, “It took a series of plagues to change our mindset to let the people grow.”

Lyn Worsley is a clinical psychologist and director of The Resilience Centre in Sydney.