“Cities are reopening. Lockdowns are lifting. And some people are starting to feel they can glimpse a return, however slow and partial, to normal. But the pandemic has changed us,” writes Sigal Samuel in an article for Vox.
She goes on to explore a number of changes people have made as a result of COVID; particularly changes that people hope will stick long after the virus has dissipated. These include buying less stuff; slowing down; prioritizing family and friends; exercising; values-driven activism; and spending more time in nature.
Reading Samuel’s article I couldn’t help but think that, for many cultures, COVID has been like an intense detox program. Our collective addiction is to novelty, buying things, constant stimulation, speed, productivity, and complexity. COVID locked us in a room—quite literally—where it was hard, if not impossible, to fulfill these desires. Most people were anxious for the first week or two but then realized they’d be okay, perhaps even better, without all the stuff that normally consumes them. COVID broke the addiction, or at least the inertia.
Will these lifestyle changes stick?
It depends. If you put an addict back into an environment that feeds their addiction, chances are they relapse. It’s hard not to eat candy if you live inside a candy store.
I’m not convinced mainstream western culture is going to overhaul itself as a result of COVID. Its candy—consumerism, striving, making people feel like they are never enough—fuels too much of the economy to magically disappear overnight.
I am, however, hopeful that individuals and small communities will change for the better. This will require setting boundaries that keep you and your tribe out of the metaphorical candy store once it reopens in full. The questions to ask include: What are the bad habits that COVID helped you break? What are the good habits that COVID helped you start? How can you create the structures in your own little world that will support those changes, even as the bigger world around you returns to normal?
For many people, I suspect this comes down to what the meditation teacher and writer Jon Kabat-Zinn calls voluntary simplicity: “going fewer places in one day rather than more, seeing less so I can see more, doing less so I can do more, acquiring less so I can have more.” Kabat-Zinn acknowledges that most people live outside of a monastery. Having rent to pay and kids to feed is real, not a switch you can turn off. “You don’t get to control it all,” he writes. “But choosing simplicity whenever possible adds to life an element of the deepest freedom which so easily eludes us, and many opportunities to discover that less may actually be more.”
COVID has brought about involuntary simplicity. It is on us to make the good parts voluntary. Make no mistake: this is not to be thankful for a virus that has killed thousands of people and caused economic destruction. It is simply to acknowledge that along with the suck there may be some good, and it’d be foolish to let that go to waste.