'Post-Traumatic Growth' And Looking Ahead To Life After The Pandemic : Consider This from NPR The promise of post-pandemic life is exciting, but that doesn't mean it won't get awkward at times. We asked for your questions about how to navigate this new normal and we have some answers.

Dr. Lucy McBride, a primary care physician, and public theologian Ekemini Uwan have both written about this transitional moment Americans are living in and have some advice.

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How To 'Human' Again: Advice For The Long Transition To Post-Pandemic Life

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A few weeks ago, Amanda Barbee's family got together to celebrate her mother's 60th birthday in North Carolina. It was the first time everyone had really been back together since the pandemic.

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AMANDA BARBEE: My family was two-thirds of the way vaccinated. A couple family members had not passed the two-week mark for post-vaccination.

SHAPIRO: So they gathered outside, socially distant. And Amanda, who's an art teacher, brought something along.

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BARBEE: I showed up with this cardboard fan.

SHAPIRO: A cardboard fan.

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BARBEE: I really tried to decorate it and make it look really as celebratory as was humanly possible. I even, like, danced over towards my mother with it. Like, look at our birthday fan.

SHAPIRO: The fan was for the birthday cake so her mother could wave out the candles. There would be no blowing on the cake, not after the pandemic.

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BARBEE: Everyone just looked befuddled. And then, of course, a couple of family members had almost that dad joke groan, that, oh, OK (laughter). OK, got it. It's like - you could see it dawn on everyone.

SHAPIRO: Her mom humored her. She waved at the candles. It didn't really work very well.

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BARBEE: It was a real specific moment. We were like, OK, this is different than it was before. This is going to be different than it was before.

SHAPIRO: CONSIDER THIS - post-pandemic life is coming. And that's exciting, but it may still be a little awkward, too. We asked for your questions about how to navigate this new normal. And in a moment, we'll have some answers. From NPR, I'm Ari Shapiro. It's Friday, May 14.

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SHAPIRO: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. The latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just out this week is that fully vaccinated adults can safely resume most activities indoors or outdoors without masks or distancing. But even CDC director Rochelle Walensky said this will take some time to get used to.

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ROCHELLE WALENSKY: We have been doing this for 15 months at this point. And not everybody's going to want to shed their mask immediately.

SHAPIRO: She spoke with NPR's Ailsa Chang after Thursday's announcement.

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WALENSKY: It's going to feel a little bit uncomfortable if anybody took off their masks in the last two weeks...

AILSA CHANG: Sure (laughter).

WALENSKY: ...While they were going outside.

CHANG: Feels like a social faux pas now, yeah.

WALENSKY: (Laughter) Exactly, exactly. So I think it's going to take us a little bit of time to readjust. But that is exactly what our guidance is saying right now.

SHAPIRO: Of course, mask mandates from businesses and local governments still apply, and the CDC says you should still wear a mask while using transit, like buses or planes. But overall, the new guidance signals a big shift in the pandemic, at least here in the U.S. As more people begin to get back to something that looks like normal life, there're going to be a lot of moments, big and small, that'll take some getting used to. We asked for your questions on how to human again after more than a year of isolation. And we have two experts here with answers. Dr. Lucy McBride is a primary care physician who's been fielding a lot of questions from patients every day. And Ekemini Uwan is a public theologian who's written about letting go of the past to build a better future. Good to have you both here.

LUCY MCBRIDE: Thanks for having me.

EKEMINI UWAN: Thanks for having me, Ari. I'm glad to be here.

SHAPIRO: Let's dive right in with a question from Zach Wilson (ph) in Pittsburgh.

ZACH WILSON: I'm 38 years old. I teach middle school. So my question is, how do I and we all navigate the social minefield that is determining if friends and acquaintances and family members are comfortable with in-person events and are vaccinated before we invite them to something? Are these just things we're going to have to get used to asking point blank before anything that we try to do?

SHAPIRO: Feels like we're living in a time where we have to ask really personal questions of people we might only know casually. What you say to Zach, Ekemini?

UWAN: Yes. You know, I do think there's a lot of liberty and some grace to ask these questions that would be much more personal to ask in the before times, whereas it doesn't seem as inappropriate to ask now in just asking them, what's your comfort level, right? And so pitching it back to them. And they can just say, I'm not comfortable, and you accept that.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

UWAN: Because people are going at their own pace. Some people are going full-throttle. Some people are, you know, are still trying to navigate how they're going to begin to function. And so I think we need some grace and some liberty for people.

SHAPIRO: Lucy, you're nodding.

MCBRIDE: I completely agree, Ekimini. I think that we all have experienced trauma in some way, shape or form during the pandemic. And so we're all going to be filled with mixed emotions facing the new reality that we're entering. And then I would say this - if you're not aware of people's vaccination status, being outside is always safe. Outdoor transmission just doesn't really happen. So if you're outside, you can be unmasked and feel good that you're going to be safe.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. You know, over the last year, we've heard from so many people who've really missed human interactions. But when we put out this call for questions, we heard from a lot of people who have enjoyed being more introverted, like Raymond Schultz (ph) in Manchester, N.H.

RAYMOND SCHULTZ: I have found that being more isolated actually has invigorated me more such that I don't really want to attend many social activities. How do I politely and firmly decline invitations for social events I don't want to go to once I no longer can use the pandemic as an excuse?

SHAPIRO: Yeah. What if we don't want to go back to normal?

MCBRIDE: I think it's a great question. And I actually wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Post about FONO - fear of normal. My kids talk about FOMO. My teenagers talk about fear of missing out. I am experiencing some FONO myself, where I really have enjoyed sitting on the couch on Saturday night with my dog and elastic waist pants.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MCBRIDE: But we have to face social interaction. Human connection is part of being healthy.

UWAN: Right, right.

MCBRIDE: I think the key is just knowing what you need to be healthy mentally and physically and then trying to meet those needs.

UWAN: The reality is that no is a complete sentence, as they say, right? And we have been socialized to think that we have to give a reason for our no. But I do think that you can simply just say no.

MCBRIDE: You know, if nothing else, the pandemic has laid bare the critical importance of addressing our own mental health.

UWAN: Absolutely.

MCBRIDE: For some people, having optimal mental health is not just about not getting COVID, it's about having time to sleep, relax.

UWAN: Yes.

MCBRIDE: So I think that we need to realize what it means to be human. It's more than the absence of disease. It's making our needs known and communicating those to other people.

SHAPIRO: We got a lot of questions from parents, and our next one comes from Jill Settle (ph) in Maryland, who isn't sure she's ready to return to the way things were before.

JILL SETTLE: It was always hard for me to send my kids to daycare every day. I always just wanted to finish work and get to my kids. And the pandemic, although it hasn't been perfect for sure in many ways, has been an opportunity for me to work and be with my kids. And that's just been amazing. And I'm so scared to give that up.

SHAPIRO: She said, I don't know what the new normal will bring, but I'm not ready to let go of them. And, Ekemini, I know you've written about a return to normal maybe being the wrong way to look at things.

UWAN: Yes, yes. I think a lot has changed for us. And we have changed. I think - in that piece that I wrote, it was about...

SHAPIRO: If I could just quote from that piece...

UWAN: Yeah, please.

SHAPIRO: ...You said, "much about our former life was actually abnormal - its frenetic pace, its inequalities and its injustices."

UWAN: Absolutely. It just was not a sustainable pace, to be honest. But I do understand that reluctance and that hesitancy and, like, grieving the fact that we had an opportunity for things not to go back to what they were.

MCBRIDE: I think that's right.

UWAN: Right? There was this opportunity, I think, that we lost in that we could have began to forge a new normal, a new way of life, a new way of thinking as it relates to work, as it relates to family. And those things have just not happened. And I think that there's valid reasons why we don't want to return to normal. I'm curious about what you have to say, Lucy.

MCBRIDE: I think that's right. I think when you are dealing with a crisis like this, you can have post-traumatic stress, and we all will on some level. There's also something called post-traumatic growth. I think that there are moments in our lifetime - and this is one of them - where we can really think hard and think big about what the future should look like. There's a lot that we should let go of and a lot we can improve on.

UWAN: Yes.

SHAPIRO: So many people wrote in to us with just, like, basic questions about muscles that they haven't used in more than a year, like Nick Burns (ph), who's 68 years old, lives in Park City, Utah, and has been working remotely for almost 60 weeks.

NICK BURNS: And I'm very used to Zooming and being on the phone, but I feel like in the weeks ahead, I'll be facing a kind of reverse culture shock.

SHAPIRO: And I want to add in here a similar question that came from Jake Blunt (ph), who is a 25-year-old musician in Rhode Island and is worried about just ordinary things like small talk.

JAKE BLUNT: I feel like I've lost the ability to smoothly converse with other people. And I'm wondering, I guess, how do we relearn to do that after a year of having to think of other people as a danger?

SHAPIRO: How do we relearn these skills that we've taken for granted our whole life that we haven't used in more than a year?

MCBRIDE: You know, we're wired for survival as human beings. We're also wired for connection. So we need to flex those muscles. And the way I'm counseling my patients is to really start gradually. You shouldn't perhaps go to a big cocktail party as your first outing. You might want to go to a picnic with your close friend and see how it feels.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Like with any fitness routine, you're not going to start out by lifting the heaviest weights. You're going to work your way up to it.

MCBRIDE: Right, just like you wouldn't show up at a cocktail party on your first outing if you're, you know, socially anxious at all. You wouldn't go train for a marathon on Day 1.

UWAN: Right.

SHAPIRO: Ekemini, you're nodding.

UWAN: Yeah. But I would also say, even with the question about the small talk, you know, do we have to bring that back with us?

SHAPIRO: Small talk is overrated. You know what? After, you know, we've been dealing with some major, major issues here, right?

UWAN: Do we have to?

SHAPIRO: OK. But let's imagine, like, we're all back in the office for the first time. We go to the coffee machine to refill our coffee cup. And we see a colleague who we're not close friends, but we haven't seen in more than a year. Like, that's just not a conversation that I've had in how many months now.

MCBRIDE: It's true. It's true.

UWAN: Sure. Sure.

MCBRIDE: And I was wondering, you know, how after sort of the holiday vacation and you come back to work in January, everyone says, how was your holiday? Are we going to say, how was your pandemic?

SHAPIRO: How was your pandemic? Right.

UWAN: Right. We don't want to say that, right?

MCBRIDE: I hope not because there's no small answer to that question, right? It's not like, oh, it was fine.

UWAN: No, but maybe there's something in-between, like...

MCBRIDE: Yes.

UWAN: ...Something that advances us past small talk, but something before the existential questions - making eye contact, right?

MCBRIDE: Yes, eye contact.

UWAN: Which might be a big ask for this person - right - as we're beginning, but really connecting and being like, how are you? Like, it's good to see you.

SHAPIRO: That's what I was just thinking. Like, it's really nice to see you again. Doesn't have to be a conversation starter. It stands on its own.

UWAN: I missed you. Can we say that? I missed you.

MCBRIDE: I think that's right. Instead of asking questions, you know, I've learned to try not to ask so many questions because I'm the mother of three teens. But instead, have a statement, like, I really am glad you're here. I'm so glad to see you again.

UWAN: Yeah, something like that, acknowledging that we've come through something. Like, you're on the other side of this.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

MCBRIDE: Yes.

SHAPIRO: I'd love to end on a question about forgiveness. And this comes from Gaby Markley (ph), who's 25 years old and lives in LA.

GABY MARKLEY: I'm from, like, a pretty conservative part of LA County. And, like, there are so many people who I see without masks. And I feel like I get such, like, blind rage at it.

SHAPIRO: And she's afraid that, going forward, it's going to be hard for her to let go of that feeling.

MARKLEY: How do you just get over and forgive people for not taking the pandemic as seriously as you can?

UWAN: Yes. Gaby, you know, that is such a very real question. And I think it's a common question and a reality that I think a lot of people are wrestling with right now in real time, right? So I do think we have to - and I know this is hard - instead of turning to judgment, which is actually kind of my default, if I could confess. Can I confess on this show?

MCBRIDE: Amen. Totally.

UWAN: But I think that we need to turn to wonder. What is it that this person is processing? What is it that they're going through? What is the information or the disinformation that they're imbibing that's shaping their thinking, that is altering their worldview? And I know that's hard to do to be able to extend grace, to give some liberty and to give some latitude. But I do think we have to turn to wonder, even just for your own peace and sanity, if nothing else.

MCBRIDE: Ekemini, I couldn't agree with you more. We need to give people a wide berth, forgiveness and latitude because we've all experienced trauma, and everyone will process it in different ways.

SHAPIRO: Physician Lucy McBride and public theologian Ekemini Uwan. And just a reminder, we would love to get some feedback from you on the podcast. There's a short anonymous survey at the link in our episode notes. If you've already taken it this week, thank you. It's a big help. You're listening to CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Ari Shapiro.

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