Written by Ilana Reimer

Last winter, in between Ottawa lockdowns, my husband and I hosted a couple of friends on our freshly shovelled patio. We set up camping chairs and huddled under beach towels, our hands wrapped around coffee mugs. Snow fell thickly, collecting in small drifts on our heads and shoulders.

Hospitality looked a little different during Covid-19. I’m out of practice. Slowly, the world is unfurling itself and stretching its stiff social limbs. Unlearning a year’s worth of isolation habits will be a slow, awkward process.

There are many questions and unknowns. How will our relationships be different post-pandemic? How will our work or school routines change? Will some of those changes be permanent? What will church look like?

Roughly half of Canadians and Americans are anxious about going back to how things were before the pandemic, according to a May 2021 report by Leger and the Association for Canadian Studies. Canadians between the ages of 18 and 34 showed the highest level of anxiety.

Some of this anxiety is normal. Letting go of established habits isn’t easy. We’ve been told not to be physically close to others for a long time now. Naturally, starting to do so again will cause stress. For example, people with social anxiety may find group settings even more challenging after an extended period of isolation.

So, how has Covid-19 impacted our brains? And how should we emerge and adjust in healthy, God-honouring ways?

The psychology of disaster

The constant adapting and readapting to new health measures made it difficult to feel stable. We lost social structures like hospitality and entertainment that anchor us to events, celebrations, and each other. We also had to stay home more—and many of us with consistent living spaces have turned them into havens of refuge. This may contribute to some people’s reluctance to enter the world again as restrictions ease.

A sense of loss can also impact our mental health. Some of us have faced tangible losses: loved ones, jobs, opportunities, or separations. Others of us anticipate that the future won’t look like the past and mourn this ambiguous loss and how it might impact us.

Growth forged in suffering

Fortunately, our brains are resilient. A study published in June 2021 by the Journal of Anxiety Disorders examined post-traumatic growth during the pandemic. Enduring pain and suffering can lead to growth and prompt individuals to come out emotionally stronger.

The study surveyed Canadians and Americans who had high levels of stress related to Covid-19. About 77 per cent reported moderate to high growth in gaining a greater appreciation of their life’s value, their appreciation for friends and family, greater self-reliance, and/or a shift in priorities about what’s important.

The Christian tradition has plenty to add to the conversation on suffering. Time and again throughout the Bible, great need has prompted people to turn to God. Through the power of the Holy Spirit within us, we’re capable of enduring hardships, sustained by the cosmic perspective of what God is doing across human history. We have the hope that one day we’ll get to live forever in a place where there is perfect justice, peace, mercy, and joy.

The God who sees our pain

God turns toward humans who are suffering, no matter how obscure or marginalized they are. Here are two of my favourite examples from Scripture.

The first is in Genesis 16 when the slave Hagar fled to escape Sarai’s mistreatment. Hagar had limited or no rights and freedoms and no autonomy over her body, including being required to have sex with her master. I cannot imagine her pain and loneliness as she fled pregnant into the desert.

Then Scripture says, “The angel of the Lord found Hagar.” This act of finding reminds me of the parable Jesus tells of the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to look for the lost one.

Through the angel, the Lord told Hagar He had a place for her and her unborn child in His story. “You are the God who sees me,” Hagar replies. “I have now seen the One who sees me.” At the angel’s direction, she named her child Ishmael, which means “God hears”—a lifelong reminder.

The second story is in Mark 5—the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years. She had endured much at the hands of doctors, yet her illness grew worse. She would have been ceremonially unclean for all that time, adding isolation to her pain. Jesus saw her and loved her. He told her, “Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”

The Bible is blatantly honest about suffering. It doesn’t sugarcoat it. And often, like God’s response at the end of the book of Job, we aren’t given a tidy answer that can explain the pain away. The same is true as we inch toward the end of this cruel pandemic. Covid-19 has been harsh and vastly unfair. And we don’t have answers.

The stories above don’t take away that hurt. But meditating on them has brought me some comfort even in the tension of injustice. Jesus says we do not have to be afraid. If we are brave enough, we can believe Him.

Adjusting well to post-pandemic life

As we move forward, it’s easy to want to shake off this time and forget about it. But I think that does us a disservice.

The pandemic cracked open many existing flaws—individually and societally. Now, we can re-evaluate what’s important. Let’s be asking questions in our families and churches. What matters most, really? How should we look after each other? What needs to change?

It could be tempting to skim over this stage, eager to stuff our lives full again. But in some ways, this transition is the best time to intentionally have those conversations and shift our actions and lifestyles to be more Christ-centred, just, and loving.

Importantly, loosening restrictions means we have more opportunities to care for the needs of our households, friends, and communities. Not only is this a crucial part of our calling as Jesus-followers, but doing good for others also supports our individual well-being.

A 2018 study published by the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found acts of kindness contribute to greater happiness on the part of the actor, comparable to the effect of other positive psychology interventions such as positive thinking and thankfulness. What a gift that kindness to others is also a kindness to ourselves. So, as we emerge, doing good for others will be part of our healing and restoration.

Finally, it’s okay to rejoin society at your own pace. Pick the areas you value most (such as seeing groups of friends or attending church) and start there. Everyone is going through a similar adjustment of creating new patterns, so be patient with yourself and others. Don’t create division; try to listen respectfully if others have different fears or opinions on what’s safe or unsafe.

Consider praying through these questions

  • Think back to your life before Covid-19. What do you want to reinstate? What do you want to let go of for good?
  • What habits did you develop during the pandemic that are good and God-honouring? How can you protect these routines when Covid-19 is over?
  • What habits have you begun during this time that are unhealthy and don’t point you toward Jesus? How can you weed them out and what should you replace them with?
  • Do you have any fear or anxiety as you consider the future? Ask God to help you release these thoughts to Him.