Six months ago, we went to church, in person, for the first time since the pandemic began.
For me it had been fifteen months—fifteen months since I sat in a pew and saw the faces of the people I worship with without a screen as an intermediary. Fifteen months since I tasted the bread and wine of communion.
And fifteen months since I’d had to go somewhere on a Sunday morning.
That’s the difficulty, isn’t it? We had longed for “normal” for over a year. We had been missing coffee dates and dinners with friends and in-person worship and all the things that we used to do with other people, face to face, in the days before the word “social” became associated with “distance” rather than “connection.” Our fatigue, our burnout, and our discouragement were all so easy to attribute to these “unprecedented times,” and with that attribution came the assumption that the advent of normality would also bring health and energy and enthusiasm and everything we felt we’ve been lacking since the world shut down last year.
We were not altogether wrong, of course. Uncertainty is draining. Conflict and decision-making (both of which have been far too abundant over the past two years) are exhausting and disheartening. And the measure of connection we achieve over a screen is a poor substitute for being genuinely, physically together.
But re-entering normal life doesn’t just bring back the comfort of knowing the event you signed up to attend three months from now will still be happening when its date rolls around. It doesn’t just bring back the girls’ nights and church services and hugs we’ve been missing. Re-entry also brings the expectation of attendance at however many functions taking place on however many evenings each week.
It brings back the need for efficient mornings to get us out the door, for evenings with just enough time between events and bedtime to put on our pajamas but not quite enough time to linger with a book.
It brings back the debate between staying home and disappointing our friends, or going out and draining our spirits.
In-person church is a beautiful blessing, one I hope to never take for granted again.
But it means having somewhere to go on a Sunday morning.
I wasn’t really worried about getting out the door on Sunday mornings. I attended church weekly for the 25 years of my life that preceded the pandemic, and I had no reticence whatsoever about resuming that routine now.
The rest of my social calendar, however, was a different story.
I had grown accustomed to slower days, quieter evenings. I had gotten used to the spontaneity of an empty calendar, the openness to decide in the moment what my mind and emotions need. A long walk? A half-hour with a novel? A cup of tea and an early bedtime? It was up to me—no justifying my choices to someone who expected me to choose otherwise, no guilt over canceled plans. And no need to forego caring for my mental health to meet a pre-arranged commitment.
That level of spontaneity isn’t possible in a world where we make plans, with other people, outside our homes, in advance. And as my calendar slowly began to fill itself up after nearly a year of relative emptiness, I found myself reluctant to embrace the return to normality I thought I was longing for.
Now, six months later, we’re entering a holiday season that looks more like 2019 than 2020. We have a couple of family gatherings this year that weren’t possible last year. We have a couple of holiday events at church, a couple events with family, a couple more with friends. And even though I missed all of these things desperately last year—even though I chafed at the loneliness and isolation we had to endure—I find myself feeling hesitant to fill up my calendar the way I used to.
I’m sure some of you are eager to get back to normal. You’ve either hated the solitude and empty calendars of the last year or have had even more responsibility piled on your plate, and you’re ready to march back into your normal, busy, social life without a second thought.
This post is for the rest of us.
As much as we long for connection with real-life people in real-life, non-Internet spaces, the anxiety of the past year has still taken a toll. Our energy is depleted, complete exhaustion only a couple of late nights away. And when we look back at the schedules we used to keep in “the Before-Times,” we feel overwhelmed just thinking about being that busy again, moving from event to event with no buffer in-between to decompress from one social occasion and gear up for the next.
“I can’t go back to the way things were,” we tell ourselves. And instead of greeting the gradual influx of invitations with excitement, the way we thought we would six months or a year ago, we feel our hearts sink, torn between the desire to reconnect with our communities and the opposing tug of our profound weariness, coupled with our impulse to soothe that weariness with an empty schedule.
If “mental health” means “time to relax,” and if “normal” means “a full schedule,” no wonder we hesitate to embrace the “back-to-normal” we’re beginning to enter.
For me, it comes down to fear
I’m afraid of burnout. I’m afraid of what happens when I pour myself into so many events and activities that there’s no time left to tend to my own heart and soul.
I’m afraid of the late nights that always seem to go along with social gatherings. I’m afraid of the cloudy thinking I’ll feel the morning after, the flattened emotions, the lack of focus. I’m afraid of the inevitable spiral into depression and anxiety that always happens when I don’t get enough sleep.
I’m afraid of being busy all the time. I’m afraid of what happens when my whole life is always moving toward the next thing, and the next, and the one after that—when I’m either preparing or recovering every day, never at rest long enough to just be.
I’m afraid of “home” becoming just a place where we spend the night.
I’m afraid of meals becoming ways to shovel nutrients into our bodies before we rush off to the next thing rather than moments of meaningful connection.
I’m afraid of our lives being reduced to externals, to things that can be scheduled and checked off a list—and I’m afraid of being so weary from all this outward focus that I have nothing left to give to the private, unseen, unscheduled work of being a whole person, of cultivating beauty and safety and quietness in my home and in my heart.
Last spring, I wrote about the question I ask myself when I feel a lack of purpose:
Is this an activity problem or an attitude problem?
That post is for the times when our lives feel empty, when we feel we lack direction and meaning and wonder if the answer is to seek out more commitments, more activity. But the more I’ve thought about my current increase in activity, about all the fears that (for me) are wrapped up in this return to normality, the more I’ve realized that the same question applies here.
Sometimes my anxiety and exhaustion come from too much activity—from overscheduling and overextending myself. There’s wisdom in acknowledging that I am finite, in accepting my limitations by setting boundaries around sleep and solitude and leisurely evenings at home. When my calendar begins to grow over-full and my energy begins to wear thin, it’s an act of kindness to clear enough space to let my mind and body be still.
Sometimes, though, anxiety doesn’t come from doing too much; sometimes it comes from believing that “this” (whatever “this” is) constitutes “too much.” Sometimes, the problem is not how much we’re doing, but how we think about what we’re doing. Attitude, not activity.
We come up with so many rules about what we think we “need” to be our healthiest selves, and having formed an expectation about what a healthy life looks like, we cling to it religiously. Ah, those expectations! How earnestly we believe that our lives must match the image we’ve created within our minds! And how firmly we believe that if our life deviates from the ideal we’ve manufactured, we will suffer as a result!
The truth of the matter is this: if I believe a certain amount of busyness is too much for me to handle, it will be. Because, reluctant though we may be to admit it, what we believe determines how we experience our lives far more than our circumstances ever could.
If I believe my mental health can only thrive when I spend five out of seven evenings at home, alone, with a book, I’ll constantly feel like my mental health is failing whenever I have evening plans.
If I believe I need four unstructured hours every single day to practice self-care, I’ll feel weary and neglected and deprived when the bulk of my days are spent on work instead.
If I believe having a schedule equals having no margin, and if I think caring for my mental health means keeping that schedule open and flexible—well, frankly, I won’t really emerge from pandemic-times. Not in any way that counts.
At the core of this attitude problem is my expectation that a healthy life consists of much leisure and little work, when the truth is the exact opposite. Work is not an aberration; it is the normal result of a purposeful life. Leisure and rest are ways we prepare ourselves for meaningful work; they are not, in themselves, the end-goal of life. A life full of purpose and honest labor and meaningful connection with others does not constitute a lack of margin any more than a field filled to overflowing with wildflowers constitutes an overcrowded lot.
There is a tendency in our culture to overschedule ourselves, to be busy every moment of the day, and I’m certainly not advocating we succumb to that restless pace of life. Too much activity usually leads to exhaustion and burnout. But I’m becoming equally convinced that, in our efforts to evade burnout, we sometimes go too far the other way, to the point that we begin to think the antidote to too much hurry is no amount of exertion at all.
Because while it’s true that busyness does not always equal “purpose”, it’s equally true that a completely open schedule does not equal “margin.”
It’s like thinking the answer to overcrowded housing developments is to raze the wildflowers in the field.
I still have evenings with no plans. I still have chunks of time blocked off when I won’t say yes to spontaneous plans, times for me to decompress and sit in silence and think my own thoughts instead of the thoughts the world thrusts upon me. Solitude matters, and leaving margin in our schedules (insofar as we’re able) matters, too.
But there’s a huge difference between a little margin and a mostly empty calendar.
If mental health meant an empty calendar, I would have no coffee dates with friends; no backyard barbecues; no Saturday morning brunches; no Sunday morning in-person worship. I’ve lived that life for over a year and a half, and it was not a life of health, but of isolation and solitude and profound loneliness.
Yes, there were times when I felt rested and relaxed, released from the burden of constant hurry and overwhelm and free to spend time reading, baking, and spending quiet evenings with my husband.
But those times were not the whole story—just as the happy social times to which we’ve all been longing to return were only one side of our story back then.
Both an abundance of activity and its absence are equal parts blessing and curse. As I dip my toes back into the current of “normal life”, I’m trying to avoid flinging myself face first into a hectic way of living. At the same time, though, I’m trying to avoid the equally damaging extreme: that of holding back from any amount of commitment at all.
I’m adjusting my attitude toward re-entry, and that means I’m adjusting my expectations of what a healthy pace of life looks like. Instead of defining “restful” as a predominantly empty calendar, I’m making plans intentionally, allowing my schedule to take its shape from the things that matter most.
This means I have plans most weekends in December—plans to connect with people we care about, people who are part of our community, some of whom we haven’t seen in months.
This also means I’m committed to teaching Sunday School at church—even though that means committing time to study and prepare in advance. It means I say yes to spontaneous invitations—even though part of me, accustomed to spending most of the last year-and-a-half at home, still wants to hibernate alone. My calendar is not empty, but it’s filled with things that matter, appointments and events that reflect what I value most of all.
An intentionally filled schedule means I don’t necessarily have an abundance of “free time”—but as I look over the upcoming month, I see my time being allotted to family and friends and church and all the things that matter the most, things I wasn’t able to spend my time on during the long months of staying at home.
Does it require more effort on my part to plan, prepare, and attend these events?
But effort does not need to mean stress. And leisure is not always what matters most.
How are you feeling about a busier December this year? Have you struggled at all with your schedule going “back to normal”?