This blog is the transcript of Episode #64 of “Under 10: A Mini Podcast on Intimacy”. Listen along here.

In the last two last episodes I talked to you about self-pleasure. So many of you responded with gratitude that I could get out loud about this topic!  It pleasures me deeply to break the taboo about masturbation and give you permission to get out loud, too. This episode will be my last before a short break until mid-May. This week I want to take a wider view and talk about the social transition from masking and isolation to seeing one another’s faces and connecting again.  As the world continues to re-open, it can be tempting to just put the stressors of the last two years behind us. Yet, there are real costs to “just moving on” after living through a storm of the magnitude of the global Covid pandemic.  In this show, I’m going to explain why honoring and acknowledging what we all just went through is vital for protecting our ability to feel and live fully as we come out of the pandemic.  

 On March 11th the statewide mask mandate was lifted in Washington state, where I live.  For many listeners, the mandate in your area may have lifted long ago or perhaps you barely felt the impact of masks at all.  The pandemic certainly affected all of us differently. But I believe we can unequivocally agree, it affected all of us.  In recent months, while some of those effects continue to endure, others have lessened.  How have you been marking those shifts? 

 I will never forget the moment I first walked into our local grocery co-op without a mask. Initially I flinched, feeling I had forgotten something.  Then I felt dizzy, like my center of gravity was off. As I slowly moved through the produce aisles and no one gave me a dirty look or threatened to escort me out, I felt like I was waking up from a dream. It was surreal.  I have since “met” people who I actually knew but whose faces I’d never seen while also re-encountering people I hadn’t seen in years who I’m having trouble placing.  It’s quite disorienting.  Especially since no one I know is talking about this.  If any of this is true for you, see how it feels to hear me name it.

 Continuity is defined as the unbroken and consistent existence of something over a period of time. Research has shown that continuity in our life experience is very strongly linked to quality of life. As in, the more continuous and “unbroken” our life story is, the higher or sweeter our quality of life will be.  Over the last two years, while we were in various phases of lockdown, our collective social experience was discontinuous.  Many of the life chapters we might normally witness for one another went unseen and untold.  The collective social experience had cracks and breaks.  While there is certainly cause for celebration as some of the missing social pieces are coming back, I think it can be said that we are definitely in a time of transition.  How we acknowledge the interruption that transpired matters greatly to the degree to which we may restore our individual and shared quality of life.

 “Just move on”.  “Get over it”.  “Brush it off”.  “Keep going”.  How often did you hear phrases like this growing up? How often do you say them to yourself or to your children now?  We have long lived in a culture that denies pain and accountability for pain and rushes past impact.  After some of the worst times in my childhood, I remember the adults in my life seemingly carrying on as if nothing had happened even though we had just experienced a crushing traumatic blow.  No one sat us down and said, “This really did happen. It was devastating. Life has changed. And we are going to pause everything else so that we can let ourselves feel it”.  This kind of permission allows for a psychological and emotional “catching up” after a loss.  Lacking that permission, I never really caught up.  I just learned to override my internal experience in favor of moving on.  And very large parts of my emotional process got frozen. Over thirty years later, I am still thawing myself out.

 My experience is extremely common.  Most of us didn’t receive the support and emotional attunement in our childhoods to process our feelings in real time. As a consequence, we learned to look the other way when something hurts.  The thick layer of padding we had to erect between us and life in order to “move on” is a form of withdrawal.  It can show up as numbness, depression, chronic irritability and especially, the loss of the capacity to get close to one another.  We become less available. It’s like little bits of your somatic and spiritual real estate are being taken up by the cycling of stories and emotions untold and unprocessed. 

Rabbi-Yisroel Bernath wrote a beautiful account of a social experiment conducted in 2007 that speaks to this phenomenon.  During a busy rush hour morning at a Metro Station in D.C., a man with a violin played six Bach pieces for forty-five minutes.  Of the approximately 2,000 people who passed by during his playing, few paused.  He stopped playing to a silent train station.  What no one knew was that the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world.  His unnoticed playing on that train platform was the identical performance he gave just nights before to a sold-out theater in Boston.  The beauty he shared in that unexpected, underground metro environment was mostly missed.  Though we can argue that when people are rushing to work, of course they aren’t receptive to even world class music. And yet, shouldn’t beauty arrest us, no matter what we are doing?  I’m afraid that all of the countless times we overrode our need to slow down to discomfort, we also dimmed the receptors in us that register beauty tickling our senses and inviting us alive.  I want to be able to stop when beauty finds me.  And that begins by stopping when pain finds me, too.

 If you are noticing lately that you are in a form of perpetual jet lag, as if things feel slowed down or you’re moving through a fog, it’s possible that you are feeling the impact of parts of you stuck in the stress of the last two years.  My guess is that we all got stuck in and around 2020.  Our ability to engage with life again depends on us retrieving what got stuck.  And just moving on like nothing happened will be the equivalent of squeezing a layer of superglue between our fingers so that we have vastly less dexterity to engage with the task of living our lives.  If we actually had superglue on our hands, it would take a thick oil to permeate the glue fibers and lubricate our skin, undoing the bind of the glue. The lubricant for unsticking us lies in slowing down, acknowledging what just happened and making space to share feelings out loud with trusted others that haven’t yet been shared.

 Since I’m taking a break for the next month, this week’s homework has several parts. The first is, journal after listening to this episode. Focus on what got touched by this account. With this, you are remembering how to let yourself be touched. Name it in your body. Did your throat feel tight? Did you feel light headed? Did you laugh?  Second, invite a friend to listen to this episode and journal as well. Then meet up to share what you wrote and consider talking about what taking your mask off has been like for you. Take turns reflecting out loud on what parts of you got delayed or stuck over the last two years. For example, you may feel rusty in your social skills. You may feel uncomfortable being seen because you gained or lost weight.  You may feel lonely from the many social losses. Make this the kind of conversation not for fixing but for witnessing. And then consider inviting 3 more friends to join this process and create a group conversation. Finally, invite me to come speak to your group. I am offering talks to organizations on how to transition gently out of the pandemic and restore our quality of life. Contact me so that I can support your community to retrieve what got lost and revive the joy that is possible. It’s going to take support and practice for all of us.

 The truth is, when it’s pain, divisiveness, loss and fear of the magnitude we just experienced, we don’t just “bounce back”.  We need help and mindful attention to re-inflate the parts that got flattened and remind them how to bounce.  I am so grateful for your listening, so honored by your courage to look at what is needed and heal what got hurt. And I look forward to resuming our installments together in May.

Photo credit Antonio Guillem from iStock