As of early June, a little over half of all U.S. adults are fully vaccinated and infection rates have dropped to the lowest levels since March 2020. This does not mean that COVID-19 is on the run for good, whatever the photos of your high school bestie’s maskless indoor birthday rager might suggest. But it does seem like a new era is dawning, as restaurants, gyms and churches start taking tentative steps towards getting back to normal. Or, at least, creating a new normal that doesn’t involve hyper vigilance that dominated 2020. Bars are hiring. Movies are playing in theaters. Flights are cheap. Stadiums have actual humans in the seats. Local businesses are ready to start turning a profit again.
But what about you? America’s grand re-opening isn’t necessarily an “if you build it, they will come” situation. You spend the last year WFH, wearing lots of masks, very few pants, talking to your pets way too much, seeing your friends not much at all and trying to explain Zoom’s mute function to your mom two or three times a week. Not many people are going to miss that era, but we’re all carrying different unspoken rules into this new one. What exactly are parties supposed to look like now? How do you make small talk with an acquaintance on the street? Is ordering a basket of fries for the whole table to share, like, legal?
Never fear. Being a functioning human being this summer isn’t as hard as it sounds. And with a little work and compassion, you can help usher your friends into the bright, pandemic-free future we’ve all been dreaming about since last March. Just remember a few things and your new normal might just be better than the old one.
#1: Get a Counselor
Yeah, we’re gonna start with something many of us are already doing but it bears repeating here just in case, kind of like the flight attendants have to tell you how to buckle a seatbelt. You just endured a historic pandemic that reshaped the global economy and took an enormous human toll. It did something to us all at a psychological level, whether or not we’re aware of it, and you need some help navigating that toll. Don’t wait for an emergency like a panic attack or a depressive episode. You — yes, you, reading this — need a counselor.
Easier said than done, for sure. Finding a good counselor feels a lot like online dating, and the endless sea of options can be paralyzing. Not every counselor is going to be a good fit for your personal needs, but your mental health is worth putting the hard work in to find Mr. or Mrs. Right. Many counselors will be more than happy to chat with you over the phone before your first session, just so you can get a feel for their personality. Some offer the first session free, so you’re not on the hook for a bill for someone who doesn’t click with you. Be patient. Ask friends about their own counseling experiences.
And use all the resources at your disposal. Companies like Betterhelp and Talkspace are revolutionizing online counseling, and can be enormously helpful for people who don’t have many counseling options in their area or are dealing with anxiety about going into a counselor’s office.
And if you’re understandably worried about the cost, there are some avenues worth exploring. Call your insurer and see what mental health services are covered. Reach out to your employer and see if your company will help cover some of the costs. You might be surprised. And in any case, your mental health is among the most valuable things you have. Might as well invest in it.
#2: Start Small
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about hanging out with friends again. A lot of us had grand plans of kicking off our post-pandemic lives with a banger for the ages but, in retrospect, that was probably a little unrealistic. We’re reorienting ourselves here and dealing with a lot of anxieties both small and large. We want to see our friends again, but we want it to feel safe. The key here is to start small.
A dinner party is the way to go here. Make dinner for a few friends (less than ten) in your home or apartment. Make sure these are all friends who know each other so that you can be reasonably sure of everyone’s vaccination status. Cook up something fun and communal, like tacos — something that invites a lot of passing plates and cozy vibes. Ask everyone to pitch in, potluck style. You’ll want to have a good playlist ready to go too.
The balance you’ll want to strike here is creating an atmosphere that’s festive enough to feel celebratory but not so fancy that people feel uncomfortable. Remember that everyone’s at a different comfort level right now in terms of how many people they want to be around and for how long, so go all in on graciousness. Try to have empathy for people who had a different quarantine than you did, whether it was harder or easier. Try not to be too judgmental of people who are taking different precautions than you are, and think of creative ways you can accommodate them. The important thing is that everyone feels welcome and wanted.
#3: Make it a Game Night
If cooking isn’t your thing, you may want to make it a game night. Alternatively, you might just want to add a game to your dinner party. Games are a great way to break the ice if your small talk skills are a little rusty. They give you and your guests something to focus on beyond just chopping it up about how tough the year was or what you’ve been up to on lockdown.
So whether you go all in on poker night, or a Mario Kart bracket or Apples to Apples, your post-COVID friendaisaance is almost guaranteed to go a little more smoothly if there’s an external force everyone can pour their energy into. You’ll probably want to go for a relatively well-known game instead of some new, novelty card game you bought one particularly late night while on lockdown. You don’t want to spend the entirety of your first actual party in over a year explaining the rules. The goal here is good conversation and lots of fun — two things that have been in short supply over the last 14 months.
Again, remember that people are feeling a lot of different ways right now. Don’t assume your own emotional state is the normal one. Be generous and understanding with people’s comfort levels with hanging out in groups like this and be as accommodating as possible.
#4: Get Back to Church
You’ve probably spent the last year attending church via Zoom, YouTube or maybe just as a podcast at some point during the week. It’s definitely better than nothing, but as churches start opening back up, there are a few reasons for you to start going again — even though Zoom Church is quite a bit more convenient.
For one thing, there is something valuable about being in a community that you just can’t get from the Facebook Live comment section. Being around friends is great. But there’s something important about being around the acquaintances and even strangers that make up your local congregation — a reminder that your spiritual life is bigger than just you. Your church might still be asking you to wear a mask or keep your distance and as annoying as such precautions are, it’s also a great way of putting the needs of others ahead of your own.
But as you go back to indoor services, keep the emotional trauma of your church leaders in mind. It has been an extraordinarily difficult year for pastors, who’ve had to manage an unprecedented health emergency that robbed them of beloved church members and forced many of them into difficult financial hardships. Many pastors have also had to navigate sharp divisions in their churches around how they’ve handled COVID-19 restrictions and some of the conspiracy theories that have come from it. Pastoral burnout is soaring.
Your church leaders may not know how to express this or ask for it, but they do need you to be extra sensitive to the year they’ve endured. Remember that seminary didn’t exactly prepare them for best practices in pandemic management, everything looks more obvious in hindsight and we all did the best we could with the information we had at the time in 2020. The promise of the future will largely depend on how kind we can be to each other right now.
#5: Be Generous in Every Way
Finally, cultivate an attitude of generosity with everyone you meet right now. This doesn’t necessarily have to mean financially generous — although if you’ve got extra resources to give, there are plenty of people in need. But think a little bigger and more creatively about what generosity can look like. At a time when everyone is feeling a little fragile, you can practice being emotionally, spiritually and relationally generous in ways that invite people into this new era.
Consider being generous with your time, for example. If you’ve got friends with kids, they’re probably downright desperate for a couple hours to themselves. Offer to babysit for free so that the two of them can enjoy a nice evening out. Remember, most parents are probably still feeling a little shy about asking someone to watch their kids right now, so if you’re vaccinated and feeling up to it, making the offer will go a long way.
Also think about the people in your life who’ve spent the last year dealing with an extra amount of loneliness — elderly people, friends with autoimmune diseases and those living with disabilities. That sort of isolation isn’t going to just go away with the vaccine rollout. Knock on their doors or call them up. See if any of your local elderly care facilities are accepting volunteers. Sign up to exchange letters with inmates at prisons in your area. COVID-19 was tough on everyone, but it was extra tough on people who were already on the edges of society. Your emotional and relational generosity can change and literally save lives in such spaces.
And financial generosity is, of course, great too. Remember that people in the service industry have had a tough year, scraping by on less than usual. Tipping an extra dollar or two may not seem like a lot, but you never know just how much it might turn someone’s day around — particularly after the year we’ve had.
All this is a long way of saying, find ways to give from the resources you’ve got. This involves some outside the box thinking, and that’s what can make it so much fun. The new normal is coming, whether we like it or not. It’s up to us to decide what that new normal will look like, and if it’s better than the old one. And in this case, the best way to become a socially functioning human again is to help other people feel a little more human themselves.