New normal? Part 1 – After the summer break

The ‘Scandinavian Ramadan’ (as a friend of mine dubbed the Scandinavian phenomenon of a total hiatus of anything work-related in July) nears its end, and most of us are contemplating the return of what constitutes the daily life during the other 11 months of the year. While in Finland the pandemic has been on a hiatus as well, the news from outside our porous boundaries highlight that just like our version of Ramadan, the hiatus has been predominantly a Scandinavian phenomenon (with the exception of Sweden, with its own approach and trends regarding the corona virus). 

This means that people are returning to work with somewhat schizophrenic sentiments. On the one hand, the spring scare has lifted and the restrictions still lingering in July have made little such changes to our ways of summering that could not have been ignored. Enter any shopping mall, and all seems business-as-usual. On the other hand, it requires an intentional partial blindness and deafness to not notice the fact that globally the virus is far from being under control. However, coupled with a certain disposition of considering the boundaries of a nation to be somehow impenetrable, including to such intruders as tiny viruses, it is indeed possible to hold on to a dream of life having returned to ‘normal’. But most of us do acknowledge that while we’ve enjoyed a nice break, the threat to individual health and societal operations is far from over. 

I’ve been mulling over these thoughts and wondering about the unfolding of the fall in terms of how to best personally deal with the ongoing uncertainty. I came up with the following list of two things.

1. Stress: Understand, identify and manage it

In one of my spring blogs I wrote about the fight-or-flight mechanism our brains are equipped with. Going deeper into the phenomenon, a very nice article in HS (only in Finnish and for subscribers, sorry!) explicates the mechanism of stress further: our brains are fundamentally still the survival-oriented brains of the hunter-gatherers, equipped nicely to dealing with rapid shocks, but physically damaged by prolonged stages of worrying. Our brains would prefer sudden scares that activate the full survival mechanisms embedded in us, accompanied by the relief of having survived and the relaxation and recuperation period charging them to deal with the next scare. 

Unfortunately, our brain is not capable of distinguishing between the life-threatening threats encountered by the hunter-gatherers and the modern sources of stress we currently experience. Nor does it fare well with continuous stress – especially as prolonged stress physically alters the brain in ways that create a vicious cycle. The parts in our brain responsible for the (flight-or-fight) responses to stress grow and become increasingly sensitive to even the smallest potential sources of stress, whereas the parts in our brain normally charged with calming us down become overworked and thin out. 

Stress levels cannot be controlled by sheer will, nor should the impact of ongoing stress be ignored. Fortunately, we also know how to reduce stress: engaging in enjoyable activities, being with people we like and love, laughing together, petting animals, practicing mindfulness in its various forms (yoga for one, archery for another – it’s not about what one is doing but the result of gaining full focus on what one is doing), sleeping and eating properly, and physically exercising enough to give the body the movement it needs. 

This fall there are ample sources of stress, but falling into the pit of continuous stressing is counterproductive and downright harmful – not only to us personally, but also in the wider scale of things as stressed out people make stupid decisions. We need our wits about us, which means that we must acknowledge the threat of stress itself (beyond the threats constituting the sources of stress), and organize our rebooting working life in ways that leaves us enough time and energy to activities that reduce stress. 

2. There is always only today

You will not win the lottery. I will never have a perfect house that stays miraculously tidy. If your energy-consuming work project ends, another has landed on your desk while you had not been paying attention. If my kids will not give any cause for concern, I start worrying about unemployment. When you land your dream job, you’ll encounter marital issues. When I have the perfect car, my bathroom floods. When we have the vaccine for COVID-19, there will be a global political, environmental or economic calamity looming around the corner. In other words, while the sources of stress vary throughout ones’ life, there will never be a day when all the life’s little components are in perfect order and mutually nice alignment. 

In that sense, the following autumn is no different to our life before or after the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus and its impacts are after all just additional chinks and wrinkles of imperfection in our always imperfect lives. Therefore, any approaches or mindsets oriented towards waiting for better times, waiting for the tranquility of the post-corona era, are fundamentally misleading. We always have only today, with its constellation of problems, blessings and unsortable bric-a-brac. 

While a cliché, the old proverb urging us to live “as if every day was our last and simultaneously we would live forever” is actually very apt. Each today is a small time machine, because the actions we engage in reverberate into the today of tomorrow: we have the power to influence our future. At the same time, that power is far from absolute, as each day brings its own surprises. We can choose to either emphasize the surprising nature of tomorrow by waiting or fearing it, or to focus on our own agency in the extent it exists. Choosing the latter approach means accepting the today as it has turned out, and making it the best today that we right now can make it. 

Summa summarum: my new semester promises

I am going to try to fashion my fall into an assemblage of both energy demanding and energy giving activities. I will make an effort to have my daily routines consist of intentionally embedded activities that I know work for me as relaxing and stress reducing – with the equally intentional active ignorance of all of the themes that I know to eat me up, be they work-related, domestic issues or wider socio-political and environmental themes. At the same time, I will try to do my best in tackling the issues I have power and control over, to try to nudge the things I can to ‘the better’. Whatever constitutes ‘the better’, or whatever it is that I can have an impact on, will remain to be seen…

Milla

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