How to be real in surreal times: 10 pandemic lessons for the future

"The times, they are a-changing." - So sang Bob Dylan all the way back in 1964; little would the beloved singer-songwriter realise just how relevant his words would be more than five decades later when, at the outset of 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic changed everything.

Earlier this week, UK Prime Minster Boris Johnson announced that, as a country, we are now getting set to live with Covid. With all the restrictions that have come to firmly define our 'new normal' existence over these past two years set to be officially scrapped, we really are, right now, on the cusp of entering a brave new world. Literally.


At the very outset of the pandemic, I observed ten lessons that life under lockdown was teaching me - and now, before life shifts back too much in its previous direction, I'd like to share these again. In doing so, I hope to not ever again lose sight of what matters most.


The following article was first published on LinkedIn in May 2020. Some cultural references may no longer be up-to-date, but have been retained as an accurate picture of lives lived under the most surreal of circumstances.

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This has been a year unlike any other. For so many of us worldwide, 2020 has been a shocking time of loss, drama, tragedy and the unexpected. Every day seems to throw up a new challenge and obstacle to overcome, as a world that had become all-too-accustomed to on-demand gratification has been forced to slow down, breathe and, in many cases, stop altogether.


This period of enforced lockdown in which we have all found ourselves has unquestionably been unsettling and highly challenging. Few of us - with the exception of those still with memories of WWII rations and hardship - have experienced anything like this before. Generation after generation has become used to a life of plenty, as the cult of the individual has risen to the fore.


But Covid-19 has changed everything. At least, it has for now.

As I type this on a sunny Sunday afternoon, with my young family making noise and memories all around me, none of us know when this will end, if it will end, and what life will look like afterwards. But: do we actually need to know that right now? Or should we instead just live in the moment?


Amidst the day-to-day household and home-schooling responsibilties, two months of lockdown have provided plenty of opportunities for introspection and reflection. It's given back the one thing that so many of us in today's fast-paced world sorely craved: time.


I've learned 10 important lessons during this time of social isolation. My hope is that these resonate with you and spark a little bit of inspiration along the way, as we all continue this journey together. Stay safe, and look after each other...


1. Be patient


There are two ways of approaching life right now: impatiently wishing that everything would 'return to normal' - or patiently waiting to see what happens next without wishing time on. The latter option accepts that this is a global pandemic, outside of our control, and that there is very little that can be achieved by endlessly worrying about it.


Of course, it's important to take an active interest in current affairs and we need to stay connected with the virus' development, but exercise caution with news consumption during this time if you are finding it is affecting your mental health and emotional resilience. There is such a thing as too much information, and never-ending 24/7 news cycles - reporting rising death counts, vilifying Government policies and speculating about the future of our world - can be harmful and lead to heightened levels of anxiety.


Consider: is it essential to rush back to the way things were? Why? Each day is a gift.


2. Be present and grateful for now


All of us are missing doing things that we loved. We miss the experiences and routines that shaped our lives, the friendships that give those lives meaning, and the closeness with our loved ones. The absence of these things isn't easy.


But ask yourself: what can I do, right now, to be present and joyful in this time, as things stand? What special moments can I create today that will take my mind off the wider situation and make things seem OK, even if it's just for an hour or two of blissful distraction?


Practising mindfulness and being content in the present is the key to happiness. In the plentiful world in which we have become accustomed, very few of us truly need anything - we all covet material possessions (it's a natural part of being human in the 21st century) but usually the things we think we need are actually things we want. There's a big difference.


3. Be reflective


What was the life you were living before lockdown actually like? Were you truly happy in what you were doing, how you were living, and how you were treating others?


If this all miraculously ended tomorrow, would you actually want life to go back to 'normal'?

I wouldn't. I want to emerge from this experience better, stronger and more emotionally resilient. I want to rise from the ashes of this time with more self-awareness, more compassion for others, and a greater understanding of the incredible power that very small acts of kindness can make in this world.


As Greta Thunberg has famously said many a time, no one is too small to make a difference.

Take time to be reflective, keep a gratitude journal, and don't lose sight of what you've learnt during this period when life inevitably becomes all-too-noisy and distracting once again.


4. Be understanding


We're all in the same boat - but also, not really. One person's experience of lockdown will be completely different to another's even if, on the surface of things, it seems to be the same.

All of us went into lockdown with different hopes, dreams and ambitions for 2020 and beyond. All of us went into lockdown in different mental and physical states, with different dependencies, and with different emotions.


And all of us were caught unawares, and were unprepared, for lockdown.


We've all had to process the un-process-able. We've all had to make sense of a senseless situation. And we've all had to do our very best to remain calm and positive at a time when it can be hard to see the positives if you're not in the right mind to do so.


Wherever your head is at, and whatever you are dealing with personally, be understanding of those around you and see if there's anything you can do to help. Often, just asking is enough.


5. Be creative


Have you always felt that you've got a novel in you, just waiting to burst to life on the page? How about that guitar that's been gathering cobwebs in the attic for years? Or that unicycle that you've never quite gotten around to mastering?


When lockdown got underway, it was all too easy to become despondent amidst the uncertainty. It was hard to commit to anything when the world in which we live had changed beyond recognition, literally overnight.


But as each week passes, it becomes easier to adapt to a different, slower pace of life - and with that comes the chance to get the creative juices flowing. However you're guided, give creativity a shot - it's great for mental agility, and you just may end up with a masterpiece or a new life skill to hold on to for the years to come.


6. Be there for others


Lockdown has stripped away the rituals, routines and communities that so many of us rely on to make sense of the world. We don't have the day-to-day workplaces, commutes, clubs and leisure pursuits that have been the fabric and bedrock of our lives for many decades.


But that doesn't mean that we can't have community and be there for others - and lockdown has unquestionably made many of us more connected than ever before in some ways. We have lost the 'busyness' that has come to define modern life and, in its place, we have found time to facetime our parents, phone our elderly relatives, attend online quizzes with friends and regularly check in on people we are dear to. And that's so vital right now.


If there's someone who is on your mind right now, don't overthink it: give them a call and check they are doing OK. Just a quick message of encouragement can make the world of difference. A moment of connectedness can have a lasting impact, and how you act now won't be forgotten by others in the future.


7. Be resilient


One virtue that is much needed today is resilience: the ability to bounce back. To thrive in life and in business, we need to be able to recover and regroup following traumatic situations. All of us need strategies to cope with anything that life throws at us.


Many will have discovered these strategies in recent months. We've all been tested, and many have found inner strength and resolve that they didn't know they had. When calmer waters return, this resilience will be drawn upon to navigate future storms.


We have all been deprived of moments, experiences and events that we were sorely looking forward to this year. We have all missed out on our plans, and many of us have seen the course of life changed in ways that would have been unfathomable only three months ago. But we do not have to be broken by this; when you do not get what you want, sometimes you can find that you end up with so much more.


8. Be thankful - and forgiving


With the 'pause' button firmly hit on life currently, it's futile to make too many future plans right now. Nobody knows what's to come next. But now is a great time to look back - especially on past relationships - and consider if there are any grudges or past grievances that you need to let go of. Past wrongs and disagreements may well seem much less significant in the face of what the world is currently facing. If you can do so, use this available time now to forgive others - even privately or by reaching out directly.


And be thankful. Is there someone that you've never gotten around to thanking, who may have had a big positive impact on your life without ever realising it? Now is a great time to take a step outside of your comfort zone and thank someone and offer a kind word or two.


9. Be generous


The world's overarching response to the pandemic has been one of kindness and generosity. Families, neighbourhoods and communities have supported one another through unquestionably trying times, bringing a side of human nature back to the forefront in a way that many feared had become lost in the western world.


That doesn't have to end once a 'new normal' has emerged. Wherever your skills lie or whatever your area of expertise, see if you can use these generously to help others. Kindness breeds kindness, and a generous gesture, word or act goes a long way at this time. It could make all the difference.


10. Be open to living differently


Things won't be the same after this for many of us. Sure, one day it's inevitable that society will find a way for the infrastructure and leisure pursuits that we've all grown so used to to return in some form or fashion. But dig below the surface, and many of us have been transformed by this experience - and have no interest in returning to living in the same way as we did before.


Now is the time to take stock of small changes that you've made during lockdown that have felt good and been beneficial to you, your family and those you've come into (socially distanced) contact with. Hang on tightly to these, even when popular culture tries to pull you in another direction.


Life can be different after this, if you want it to. It's your choice, and yours alone.


There is a brave new world that lies ahead. It is there for the taking, if you want to seize it.


I know that I do.


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Ben Veal MCIPR is founder & director of Second Mountain Comms, an award-winning consultancy offering content, PR and strategic support to purpose-driven companies and charities: meaningful communications for a brave new world.



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