For two years in my mid 20s I lived in an evangelical Christian hippie commune in a tiny dairy village in Switzerland.
That experience changed my life, and taught me a few important things that I think are pertinent to our current day.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
I’m currently a 35 year old white male married entrepreneur and father. We have a 100lb Labrador and a house in Denver that was built in 1895. That is who I am and the perspective I come at all of this from, recognizing that I do have immense privilege.
I’ve reintegrated three times back to “normal life” after periods of being away for over three months. Each time I came back with longer hair and much more relaxed, but was also ill-prepared for what I’d experience as I reintegrated into life in America.
These lessons I outline below are, I think, extremely pertinent to the world’s collective need right now as most of the world has been under some sort of stay-at-home order due to COVID-19, and now a lot of cities and countries are beginning a phased re-opening plan.
So let’s dig in.
I’d love to hear your comments at the bottom of the post. I’ll be responding actively!
We’re going to talk about the following points:
- The world you left is not the world you will encounter now
- Prepare for the overwhelm
- Track new habits so you can continue them into the future
- You’ve changed. That’s ok (and good!)
- Who you hang out with will change. That’s ok.
- It’s all going to be alright
I also want to recognize something off the bat – you might not like some of the things I am going to say below. But before you flame me in the comments or on social media, I’d encourage you to ask yourself why you don’t like it. Is it because you think I am wrong, or because it’s challenging your thinking? If the first, then kindly let’s engage in the comments. If it’s the second, try to have an open mind and ask why it’s challenging your thinking and if your thinking may be open to critique.
With all of that said, let’s get into the meat and potatoes.
The world you left is not the world you will encounter now
When I went to Switzerland for the first time in 2006, I was taking a break from my undergrad studies in Virginia. I completely changed my world purposefully so I could discover who I was, what I needed, and take a different view on the world and life because the way I was approaching it then was not working for me.
I wasn’t happy, I wasn’t consistent, I wasn’t the person I knew I wanted to be and needed to be to live the life I wanted to live. Also, to be clear, I didn’t know what life I wanted to live (and am still constantly figuring that out) but I could look far enough into the future to know that the direction I was heading wasn’t going to get me a life I wanted.
When I landed back in the United States to Dulles International, I was so happy to hug my parents. I was happy to see my friends back at college.
But what I hadn’t thought about was this – the buildings and people etc would all be/seem (basically) the same but my perspective on them (and I) had changed. So the world was in fact not the same because my perception of it was different.
As you head back out into the world to re-engage as you are safely able to, you need to go back out recognizing that things are going to feel different as much as they are actually different. Businesses you frequented might not be open, bars aren’t going to be nearly as busy, people are going to be wearing masks.
The world will have changed, even if you’ve gone out from time to time for groceries etc. You need to come to that reality.
And when you come up against that reality, it will be much easier to re-engage and become used to it by asking questions about it and simply observing the changes.
In recent years I’ve learned this practice from meditation (I use Headspace daily), and I think it’s an important skill you can also apply to reintegration back to places you used to go. It will be very easy to have a strong emotional reaction to it, as things are different and right now is a charged time, and I’d encourage you to pay attention to those and recognize them. They are completely valid.
But do not let yourself wallow in it. Observe what is different. Be curious about it. Maybe even say it out loud.
This doesn’t negate your emotions. Your emotions are important and can tell you a lot. But they won’t help you move through them, because they want you to stay there. By recognizing and learning to observe, you’ll move through those strong emotions and to a place of recognizing “the new reality”.
Next, let’s talk about how going back to places that were familiar overwhelmed me.
Prepare for the overwhelm
After a year-long stint in Switzerland from 2009-2010, I moved back to Philadelphia to begin a new life in the US.
While I ultimately moved to New York a year later and once again shook up life (left a relationship, got a new job, got my own apartment for the first time, new circle of friends/coworkers), I remember being completely overwhelmed by the number of options in the grocery store, how loud the cars and horns and sirens were (sirens in Europe are much quieter than the US), and how loud Americans seemed to be to me.
I was exhausted all the time (and a bit grumpy, if we’re honest) from simply dealing with the overwhelm all the time. I did get used to it over time, but for 3-4 months was simply exhausted all the time.
And that’s my advice for dealing with the overwhelm you may experience as you’re around humans again and driving again and visiting places again – your system will be shocked but it will get used to it.
Think about this – when you first started staying at home it was probably hard (and may still be). But you’ve also gotten used to it, right? You’re at least probably better at staying at home than you were at the start.
You’ve gotten used to it.
This too will happen as you continue to go out. I’ve personally found that wearing a mask when going into a store has become normal for me (and I basically go out once a week). I was recently at our local grocery store and noticed that it felt normal to me – and was normal to see everyone else wearing masks.
In fact, it was weird to see those who were not wearing masks. Whereas 8 weeks ago, it was weird to see someone wearing a mask.
The point is – the overwhelm will come. Just as you felt overwhelmed (and may still a bit) the first few weeks staying at home, you’ll feel that going back out.
Be ready for it, and give yourself both grace and time for things to feel “normal” again. It won’t be the same normal as before – it will be a new normal that eventually will just be, you guessed it, normal.
Track new habits so you can continue (or lose) them into the future
When life changes like it has in the last few months, a lot of us pick up new habits. Some of those habits are very good (working out more consistently because it’s online), while others are bad (not showering every day).
Now is a great time to take some time (30 minutes should be fine) to reflect back on the habits you’ve formed and put them into two columns/sections:
- Habits to continue
- Habits to lose
As an example, when I lived in Switzerland the first time, I had 3-5 hours per day to read. 3 of those hours were dedicated studying/reading time, and I had time/space in the evenings to read if I chose to.
When I came back to the States, I was instantly back into a busier life by default. Simply, I wasn’t living in a chalet in a quiet village on the side of the Swiss Alps.
But I didn’t realize it and I wasn’t prepared for this change. Reading was incredible for my brain and learning and the changes that happened, but without recognizing it I didn’t keep that habit going and subsequently lost it for a while. While I’ve reengaged it over time, this is a habit that was very good for me that I lost.
So take the time to write down habits you’ve formed that you want to keep, and habits you’ve formed that you need to leave behind.
You’ve changed. That’s ok (and good!)
I remember returning from traveling in April 2006 and returning to places I frequented beforehand (college houses, church, etc). It was fantastic to see my friends, but I could tell that my attitude towards it all was different.
I had a new lens through which I was viewing the world.
One Sunday I was at church and saw my mentor Scott and his wife Rebecca. Scott and Rebecca are two of my favorite people to this day (even though I barely speak with them), and both of them ran up to me and gave me a big hug. We talked for a while, hugged, and went our separate ways that day.
When Scott and I met up for coffee later that week to catch up and for me to download the last 4 months of my life to him, he told me “After we left church and were driving home, Rebecca said ‘You know, John seems different. He’s changed. He’s…settled and seems happier than I have ever seen him.'”
That was a transformational moment for me. I knew I had changed a lot in a relatively short time, but had no idea how it would be perceived back at home.
This then involved a learning time of who I had become (more patient, more thoughtful, more liberal in my thinking) and how that interacted with my old life. Some things changed in substantial ways before I returned to Switzerland 18 months later, while others stayed the same.
I’m not going to tell you that everyone will be happy with your change though.
I had some friends and mentors who definitely did not like how I had changed. Some were angry, others said they were disappointed, others tried to challenge me to walk back some strides I had made in my thinking and life. And while I still loved those people, I also recognized that they were not going to be good for me moving forward and so I purposefully distanced myself from some of them. That was hard, but also important because I knew I had changed in healthy ways because I had come back so much happier.
Let me also say that you should listen to their critique to an extent because it may be valid. If I had picked up an addiction (an actual addiction, not a “OMG I’m obsessed and addicted to (product” “addiction”), then their critique would have been valid. I’m not going to say that the critiques I did get were not out of love and this one was, because I have to believe that most are (critiques are different from criticism, in my mind).
But even if critiques are out of love, that doesn’t mean they’re right for you. That’s a hard reality that you need to accept to reintegrate well.
I think it is also important to recognize that with the pandemic everyone has also changed during this time. That’s a key thing to remember with these lessons – my time was time away in a completely different setting while everyone else kept their regular lives and routines going.
With COVID-19, everyone’s routine has changed to some extent (some completely, others not as much) so we’re all going to come back out differently.
And that leads me to the next point.
Who you hang out with will change. That’s ok.
So far we’ve talked about preparing yourself for the world not being the same, a strategy to deal with overwhelm, how to identify the new habits you should keep or leave behind, and that you have changed.
All of these will add up to who you hang out with will change as well.
Now I know there will be people that don’t want to hear this. Remember high school when you graduated and said “I’ll see you all the time when we’re home for summers!”
How often did that happen? Barely ever except for possibly with your very closest friends, and even then it wasn’t the same.
Those you saw all the time before out of habit will probably not be around much, because your habits and routines have changed and will change out of necessity.
And that is ok.
When I came back from Switzerland, as I said above, there were people who I was very tight with before who I experienced distance from because I had changed in a way they didn’t like/agree with. I had to spend less time with them.
But there were other friendships that became a lot deeper. Interestingly, those were also the people who kept in closest contact with me when I was abroad. There were a few people back at school who I emailed with consistently when I was there, and interestingly I am still pretty close friends with most of those even today (14 years later).
My crew changed a bit, and while it was a bit challenging I ultimately found my people for the journey of life.
It’s all going to be alright
We’ve talked about a lot. And to be honest, we’re all going through and have gone through a lot, and we’re not finished yet.
You’ll probably go back to a place you haven’t been to in a while, that was a usual haunt for you before, and be overwhelmed. You may even want to go back into quarantining yourself because of it (I’m not talking about a second/third/etc wave of COVID here). You may want to go back to #quarantinelife because it has become your normal.
And I think you should pay attention to that, because our emotions like that tell us a lot. I got back from Switzerland and pretty immediately wanted to go back. I did go back 18 months later for 8 months, and a year after that for another year. I spent two years there.
But I couldn’t stay there forever. It wouldn’t have been right or good for me (or others) for me to stay there forever. In fact, one of the best tough love experiences I’ve ever had was my mentor telling me I couldn’t stay, that I needed to go back to America and see about things there.
He was right.
I came back, I dealt with the re-integration stress, I learned who I was/am, and continued (re)building my life through the new lens I had gained from my time at the commune.
And I’d say the same to you.
It is going to be hard, but it’s going to be worth it. You can’t stay where you are. You can’t stay in quarantine. At some point you have to go back outside, you have to do things that are hard and scary. And yes, I am paranoid and scared as well about getting sick or getting those I care about sick.
But we can’t stay in, and we can’t hide away forever.
Give yourself grace and time. Talk it out with others.
But don’t stay shut in. You’re too valuable to stay shut away.
I’m rooting for you. I’m rooting for all of us.