Post-pandemic cultural change likely, but how much?
by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday May 17, 2020
For nearly two months, we’ve been called to “shelter in place” as part of a public health strategy to beat the coronavirus. Like most others our family has complied.
At first, I was proud of our compliance, but as time passed, I’ve realized it was a forced change in lifestyle because we didn’t have a lot of choices. After all, we can’t visit a favorite restaurant with friends because restaurants are closed down. Besides, our friends are also sheltering in place.
We can’t go to the movies, which we did almost every week. We can’t drive up to the park and watch the youngsters play baseball or romp on the soccer pitch because the playgrounds are empty. We can’t visit friends who are living in continuing care retirement communities because of the special vulnerabilities of older people in congregate living situations.
So, it’s hard to get puffed up about the choices we’ve made when we had no choices.
And we’re already working at home, so that was a no-change situation for us.
Still, despite inconveniences for everyone and hardships for many, there have been upsides. For example, even as we practice “social distancing”, we have greatly expanded “distance socializing”, finding that distance socializing has its own rewards.
First, we have adopted the new habit of “drive-by” visits, about which we’ve written before. Sometimes we are on the receiving end and sometimes on the driving end. Either way, social engagement at a distance is wonderful.
However, last Sunday, we experienced a new kind of drive-by – a drive-by birthday party. It happened this way.
A friend and fellow churchgoer at the USNA Chapel, Dick James, was celebrating his 86th birthday. One of our mutual friends and Chapel mates, Annapolitan Kathie Morrison, called to invite us to assemble near the James’s home in Riva Trace and then, at high noon, to make our presence known in an orderly and sequential drive-by.
Morrison orchestrated the celebration with Pat James, Dick’s wife of 57 years, and the drive-by went off like clockwork as drivers stopped just long enough to leave a card or flowers or linger for a chat. The neighbors came out to see what was going on, and soon they were also involved in the event. It was a wonderful experience and a great way to celebrate the birthday of a valued friend – all while maintaining recommended physical distance.
Despite hardships that are real and widespread, I’ve been surprised by how many in their bonus years are also finding these days to be a reinvigorating time of peace.
It’s a time of peace because so many events of daily life have ceased, leaving people alone with themselves, their partner and quietude. Even a drive-by birthday celebration takes only 30 minutes or so – and there is little preparation and no clean-up.
It’s reinvigorating because now there’s time to engage in tranquil reading, unrushed conversation or novel celebrations. Time to visit. Time to listen. Time to reflect. Time to think.
Or, as J.R.R. Tolkien said in Lord of the Rings, “All we have to do is to decide what to do with the time that is given us.”
Of all our gifts – time, talent and treasure – time is the most precious. Talent lost or made redundant (e.g., by automation or changing practices) can be replaced by cultivating other gifts or acquiring new skills via education, training or learning by doing.
Lost treasure can be replaced by new treasure that is discovered, handed out or created through hard work or wise investments.
But time cannot be banked. Once time passes, it can never be retrieved.
For better or for worse, the lockdown has changed our culture as it has forced all of us to change how we use our time.
Before sheltering in place, long-standing cultural habits kept many of us busy devoting that time to unnecessary meetings, social media banalities and other time wasters. The result was the culture of “busyness” that so many complained about in the pre-lockdown period – validating, again, Socrates’ warning to “Beware the barrenness of a busy life”.
“Culture”, after all, is simply a “way of life”, i.e., habits around the way we live, work, play, learn, move around, and think – including our beliefs, values and attitudes. With the lockdown, we can see that both our national and workplace cultures, our habitual ways of life, have been dramatically changed, at least temporarily.
But as the lock-down eases, the gradual transition can also be viewed as a respite that gives individuals and families the opportunity to think about what’s important and what’s not in their way of life – and, as we move toward re-opening, how much of our old life we want to resurrect and how much we want to leave behind as we shape a new culture in our family, our neighborhood, our workplace and beyond.
It remains to be seen whether we will return to our pre-lockdown culture or if a new culture will emerge, one in which new habits, institutions and practices will help individuals, families and communities flourish, each in their own way.
However, some changes seem inevitable – such as more working from home, more distance learning, more telemedicine, more online retail and grocery shopping, perhaps new rules of engagement among elected leaders, scientists and the media.
But how many changes, how much change and how fast? That remains to be seen, as only time will tell.