By Steven Petrow,
One of my favorite songs after college was the 1985 Phil Collins hit, “We Said Hello, Goodbye (Don’t Look Back).” With the pandemic starting to ease, I found myself thinking about it again, and streamed it:
“Turn your head
“And don’t look back
“Set your sails for a new horizon
“Don’t turn around don’t look down”
I know I’m not the only one hoping to leapfrog into the future, relegating the pandemic to a good-riddance past. Indeed, a recent Ipsos poll found that the “most anticipated event” for 74 percent of Americans is simply no longer thinking about the coronavirus, social distancing or masking.
Laura Wallace, a social worker who specializes in life transitions and grief, told me that she’s definitely seeing this trend among her patients.
“We’re not a society that’s programmed for reflection,” she said. “It’s as if we’re always looking forward or we’re always staying so busy, or focusing on acquisition of experience or of time or of status or of money. . . . It’s always a forward motion.”
Is that a good thing? As much as I feel the inexorable draw of the future, I also feel the weight — the drag — of the past year. I can’t help but look back. But, in doing so, I’m finding some surprising revelations.
I fell into reflection several weeks ago while attending a Zoom memorial service for a family friend — and role model to preteen me — Bob Schartoff, who had died exactly a year earlier at age 84. In a tearful eulogy, his son, Adam, 57, described how he had spent his dad’s final days “maxed out in covid protective gear,” but thankful to be able to hold his hand. “I would tell him that I loved him and he would smile and say it back. It was important to convey to him that he did a great job. That he was a great husband, great brother, poppa, great grandfather, cousin, uncle, friend . . . and most of all . . . that he was a great Dad.”
On my laptop screen filled with little Zoom windows, I could see many friends who were, like me, wiping away tears. I realized it was the first time I’d wept during these long, strange pandemic days. To say it was cathartic is an understatement.
A week later, while interviewing Wallace, I emphasized how much I feared the pain of looking back. “I’m a pleasure-seeker, not a pain-seeker,” I told her.
She empathized but also emphasized an important distinction: “There’s a really big difference between taking a psychic break from pain and blocking it, [which] creates more anxiety.”
Until Bob’s memorial service, I had blocked the pain.
Blocking the pain, she told me, is a missed opportunity: “What we’re missing is the ability to think, ‘What went right there?’ ‘What helped?’ ‘What did I contribute?’ ‘How did I stand up to that challenge in ways that I can repeat and/or build off of?’ ”
Thinking about our lives as being “before” and “after” the pandemic also runs the risk of forgetting the “during.” Jean Carter, a psychologist in Washington, D.C., said many of her patients are avoiding self-reflection and exploration about the ways that the pandemic has changed their lives.
“It’s as though the ‘during time’ didn’t exist, or was just something that we endured and now want to move on from, almost as if it didn’t happen or didn’t make changes in the arc of our lives,” she said. “We need to think about what the ‘during time’ means,” because it will help us “to look at what we may have learned.”
The forced social distancing and even isolation of the past year has been separated from what Carter calls “the construct of regular life” for many people who have waited for the pandemic to end with a return to normal life. It is almost as if life didn’t happen during this time. Recognizing the many layers of impact of this “during” time can bring into sharp relief the kind of self-reflection she sees as missing these days and useful for the days to come.
I understood Carter’s point. For example, as much as I resisted looking back on my marriage, as I was divorcing, I knew there were lessons to be mined as I moved on. Would I even be able to go forward without doing some of that painful exploration? My own therapist urged me not to lock and close the door behind me but to look into myself (metaphorically) to take stock of what had taken place. Ugh. But I did the work. And I learned some important stuff.
Same for the year of pandemic living. My first inclination was to come out of lockdown and just shut that door behind me. Good riddance. Up, up and away! But I decided to apply the same strategy of looking back on that year to get a better understanding — with some distance — of the potential lessons. I came to see how my frenzied professional life (pre-pandemic) masked my more authentic nature, which is introspective and introverted.
In looking back, I could see more clearly a surprising comfort in being home, and not on a train, plane or automobile as I usually had been. I called it what it was: the gift of time and place. My late grandmother always liked to say, “Busy people are happy people.” While that may be true, I could also understand that happy people do not need to be busy people. I had to stand still and remove many of my daily distractions to see that.
I asked friends on social media to look back on what regrets, if any, they might have about the past year, even as they prepared to leap forward. Frankly, I was surprised by the number who told me they wished they had kept a journal to help process their thoughts in the moment, and to better remember the year in the future. Journaling can be such a useful tool to do this kind of work.
One former colleague posted that “I learned I cannot read or write unless I am in a healthy state of mind, so clearly I was not feeling calm enough to write.” In a similar vein, a neighbor wrote: “I wish I had practiced more mindfulness. I was scared and angry and didn’t really know how to manage my mind. I tried to avoid/control instead of learning to accept and let go.”
Her own self-advice: “Know better. Do better.” No doubt these are all lessons to take along into the “after” chapter.
Some folks took umbrage at my even asking.
“This is a strange question,” a friend from graduate school replied. “Even if no judgment is meant, it assumes the past year was somehow mishandled or not fully taken advantage of.” Another proved even more blunt: “Shaming potential!” I begged for a little latitude. Self-reflection can help us see how far we’ve come rather than the distance still to go; it might also help us recall the things we’ve done right, again useful for the future.
As I realized during Bob Schartoff’s memorial, self-reflection is also a sweet chance to relive happy memories. The grown-up faces in those Zoom windows were the kids I’d once played with: hide-n-seek, kickball, and my favorite, Red Rover. Such innocence. Such fun.
Reminded of that joy, I vowed to seek out more of it in the weeks and months to come.
Still, it’s a balancing act, Wallace said, pointing to “the need for reflection in conjunction with foresight.” This is what she refers to as “the simultaneity of opposites.”
To explain what this means, she said: “If I ruled the world for five minutes and I could teach the children something, it would be that . . . things are not just on/off, black/white, good/bad. Things are nuanced.”
In other words, let’s not think strictly about our lives pre- and post-pandemic as two distinct entities, but as an opportunity for personal growth. Which reminded me of some other lyrics from that Phil Collins 1985 song:
“Some people keep running all their life
“And still find they haven’t gone too far
“They don’t see it’s the feeling inside
“The feeling inside . . . ”
Whether you call it self-reflection or personal exploration, we’re talking about those feelings inside, experts say. Don’t block them off; don’t stay so busy; don’t be in perpetual forward motion. They hold much to teach and guide us in the days and weeks to come.
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