As we go forward into 2022, it’s easy to feel as if we have been cast in a movie for which there is no script. Our lives, disrupted by QR codes, travel restrictions, mandated vaccinations, self-isolation requirements and working from home, have still not returned to normal.
Some of us have clung onto the hope that science will save us, or that the economy will rebound. But many are struggling with depression and anxiety, which are epidemic right now: cases globally increased more than 25 per cent during the first year of the pandemic, according to a University of Queensland-led study.
As Omicron rages, an undercurrent of paranoia lingers in human relationships. When was the last time a stranger, or even a friend, gave you a hug? (Some 64 per cent of us miss hugging the most, according to research by Oracle Australia.)
“Everyone is still anxious, to varying degrees, and the question is, how are we going to come out of it?” says Professor Joy Damousi, a historian and director of the Australian Catholic University’s Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences.
“In other global crises, such as World War I and II and the Great Depression, we were also plagued by uncertainty and obsessed with what the future would look like.” She adds: “We all want to know what the answers are, but there are no answers yet. One thing the pandemic has taught us is that anything could be around the corner.”
NAVIGATING A PRECARIOUS WORLD
It was in late December 2019 that the first cases of Covid-19 were reported in Wuhan, China, and from that trickle of concern came the greatest shock to our health and psyche, and economies globally, in recent times.
What makes recovery particularly difficult is that most humans don’t handle uncertainty well, says Edwin Trevor-Roberts, a career-management consultant and the chair of the Centre for Work, Organisation and Wellbeing advisory board at Griffith University. “We’re simply not wired for it,” he says. “Neuroscience has shown that we have a threat response in our brain when we experience uncertainty and do everything in our power to try and reduce it.”
Healing the collective mind may prove to be as challenging as rebooting global economies or shoring up the health of the most vulnerable in our community. A Google search yields a wealth of blogs not only about the virus and vaccines, but also on the theme of how to be happy post-pandemic. In the wake of the trauma we’ve experienced, and in the face of future threats — such as virus variants and ongoing government controls, coupled with significant climate change events — it would be trite to suggest that contentment can be achieved in a few simple steps.
Life can seem precarious when we consider that our wellbeing may be dependent on the development of additional vaccines or all countries signing a climate pledge, says Adam Piovarchy, a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Sydney and a research associate at the University of Notre Dame. “However, in general, despair is not the right approach,” he says. “We still have a lot of valuable things in our lives that we can nourish and attend to.”
While it’s unlikely to be all sunny days from here on, one question worth asking is what makes life good, suggests Piovarchy. “It may be pleasurable sensations or experiences, such as eating out at restaurants or seeing a concert, or having our desires satisfied by having good friends, a loving family or success in our career.”
He adds: “But it can also be our judgement about life as a whole. Regularly engaging with things that are positive is a skill that can be practised over time.” This, he says, helps us become better at dealing with challenges.
On another positive note, Professor Andrew Dawson, a social commentator and the chair of anthropology at the University of Melbourne, believes that, when harnessed correctly, crises and the uneasiness they create can be a force for change. “For example, the Spanish Flu pandemic led to the development of socialised medicine,” he says.
At the same time, Dawson acknowledges that there are erstwhile intimacies that may be forever transformed. “Will we ever shake hands again in a post-pandemic world, where the modern myth of the bounded body is likely to be replaced by a renewed awareness of its essential porousness?” he asks.
REBUILDING HUMAN CONNECTION
The landscape architect Sam Barber, who has long expressed his philosophies for wellbeing and restoration through his designs, has never been busier than he is right now. He says clients are recruiting him to reimagine spaces, both public and private, as they consider how they want to live post-pandemic.
Rather than create built environments where separation perpetuates isolation, Barber’s designs facilitate a connection with nature. In this way, they not only nurture people, they also prompt social interaction — something public health orders have discouraged over the past two years.
“Isolation equals chaos,” he says, “which has the propensity to fuel addictions and mental health issues; the opposite to that is connection — with family, friends, peers, colleagues and nature.”
He adds: “Contemporary life continues to evolve, and unforeseen challenges will continue to surface, but human-centred environments are integral to mental health and wellbeing.” As Trevor-Roberts sees it, those who thrive in the uncertain future that lays before us may actually be those who are the most connected, rather than the fittest.
Joseph Campbell’s 1949 book, “The Hero With a Thousand Faces”, analyses the archetypal hero’s journey, in which a character crosses into a challenging, unfamiliar world and receives the assistance of a mentor and allies in their quest to return home. This plotline is universal, occurring in every culture at every time, says the story analyst Christopher Vogler. It poses multiple questions, including: what will tomorrow be like?
Damousi, who describes herself as an optimistic person, believes that not only will the majority of us weather the changes brought about by the pandemic, some of us may even bounce back with renewed energy, determined to make the most of life because it is short. “That may mean leaving a job, especially if it involves a two-hour commute, reorganising relationships and looking at where we really want to put our time.”
Microsoft research shows that more than 40 per cent of the global workforce is considering leaving their employer — #TheGreatResignation — while anecdotal evidence points to thousands of people having already abandoned permanent homes (#VanLife).
Dawson suggests that rather than focus on individual healing, we should consider redirecting our anxieties and widening our lens. “We know now that Covid-19 affects disproportionately those groups which are ethnically, socioeconomically and geopolitically marginal,” he says. “Yet where in its wake is the serious debate about addressing these inequalities?”
In the mythological tradition, the hero who returns to the “ordinary world” and does not have something to share — an elixir, of sorts — is seen to be unenlightened. In fact, the journey is meaningless unless the hero comes back with love, freedom, wisdom or the knowledge that the uncertain world exists and can be survived — elixirs so powerful that the whole world is changed by their existence.