One day you’re going to be back at work the way you used to be at work. In an office, in a building, with co-workers. The office will look the same, except for the socially distanced desks, a few dead plants and the masks everyone is wearing. Chalk it up to the half-normal existence we’re all going to be living in for a while.
There will be a strong tendency to just get on with it. Your familiar office persona will beckon like a comfortable old sweater. Don’t put it on. Though your team around you will look the same for the most part, they’re not the same. None of us are. A pandemic like COVID-19 leaves a mark, even on those who haven’t been touched directly by the virus.
Studies of people quarantined during the 2003 SARS outbreak found that nearly one-third of respondents reported depression or post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. Now the psychological effects of COVID-19 may not be as severe since it’s something we are all going through together, but it has been an ordeal. How do we make peace with everything that has happened in our world and in our lives so that we can get on with it? If you’re a leader, that’s your job. You need to acknowledge what has happened in a way that honors your team’s humanity and brings them together. How do you wade into such uncharted waters without drowning? Fortunately, we have rituals.
The road of trials
We’re not the first humans to face such trials. Stories and myth can give us a map of the territory and point to what’s needed now. Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey is one such map. In stories like this, our hero is thrown from everyday life into a liminal world where everything is different. He or she must face trials and tribulations, transcend them and return to their community to share what they’ve learned from the experience. Each of us has something unique to bring back. Campbell calls this the hero’s boon—“a symbol of life force energy, geared to the needs and requirements of the one on whom it is bestowed.” A key and often overlooked part of the hero’s journey is this element of return and re-entry into the everyday world. Without it, the journey is incomplete, and the hero’s world is not restored.
The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has set each of us on a hero’s journey. Like heroes past, we too have been thrown into a world where nothing is familiar, struggled with the loss of familiar routines and faced life-or-death risks. We’ve experienced things and learned from them. We need to share that wisdom to feel that we’ve fully returned.
A ritual for return
Here’s something you might do either as a Zoom share at the end of the quarantine or in person on that first day when everyone’s back in the office. Gather your team in a circle. If you have a big team, break into smaller groups of eight or 10. Have a few questions in mind that you’d like everyone to respond to about their experience. Questions like:
What was most challenging to you during this time?
What did you find most inspiring?
What practices helped you get yourself through?
What question are you carrying forward from the experience?
Ask each person to speak into the circle. Allow that some people will be happy to be back, and some may be grieving a return to the rat race. Some may want everything to be the same, and others may want everything to be different. That’s OK. You’re after sharing, not agreement.
Author William Ayot describes ritual as a way of “messaging the soul” through a symbolic action, in this case the simple act of convening a circle to listen to each other. Don’t look for action items. You don’t need to act on what happens unless that becomes part of what’s emerging. The important thing is to gather in a circle and give everyone a chance to speak about their experience and be heard by the group.
Then you can get back to work.
The goal is to bring the jewel back to the world,
to join the two things together. …
We are not there until we
can say “yea” to it all.