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  • Writer's pictureOlga Lehmann, PhD

Existential optimism in the COVID-19 times,Take 2. Wait, do we actually have the luxury to forget?

Updated: Dec 9, 2021

The exhaustion I feel, swaying from verge to verge for days, months, and now almost two years cannot be faithfully expressed in words. I am counting down the hours to see my family in Colombia again - yearning to hug my parents and sip a cup of tea from the comfort of a cotton hammock as I contemplate the Andes from their garden. Tasting that homecoming image has become a motivation to survive the gloomy transition into a once and again icy and dark winter in Norway.

I am writing this blog entry, not only as a clinical psychologist with a background in cultural and community psychology, but as an expat who has been calling Norway a"home" for about 8 years. I write this as a human being who also struggles with (luckily somehow minor) health issues, which raise my concerns about the extent in which I have as much freedom to play it naive in my everyday life, as we navigate with uncertainty the waves of the COVID19 pandemic. My personality is also a rather worrisome one, and I am aware that this makes me less adventurous when coping with what is happening globally and locally.

With all the love, respect and gratitude that I have towards Norway and Norwegians, I have a confession to make: the ways in which the pandemic has been addressed has made me feel excluded - and at times even discriminated. As an expat, I always considered myself on the "lucky side": I came here for work and have had plenty of job opportunities to choose from. My economy and residence papers have bee in order, which gives me a sense of independency I am grateful for. Before the pandemic I actually had such an active social life in Trondheim.

Bergen is another chapter of my life which I am still editing and making sense of. For it does not matter how much my colleagues want me to feel a part of their group, it does not matter how many other Colombians in town I befriend, and it does not matter how many other connections grow at slow pace... I still feel at times lost, and alone, and I have not felt safe enough. I wonder if other expats, or people with health challenges feel in similar ways. So, in this open letter, dear, beloved and respected local and central authorities in Norway, this is what I would like you to know.

The answers might be somewhere else. Have you considered to include social/cultural/community psychologists as part of your advisory teams? Other than knowledge from the biomedical and economic sciences, the main challenge in this pandemic after all is related to social behaviours:  the complex bundle of beliefs, feelings, emotions, attitudes and intentions that guide/misguide decision-making. If you want a concrete example of how this can be done effectively, please check what Antanas Mokus did when he was a mayor of Bogotá (e.g., see Harvard University report "Academic turns city into social experiment)" For the record NRK has even a documentary about him, in case you need to get familiar to who he was. Compared with the complexities of Colombia's "magic realism", Norway can be seen as a country that has little and naive experience with adversity. Then perhaps, looking deeper into some of the (very few) things that have actually worked in Colombian politics, could be of inspiration. 

In praise of the shades of grey. No wonder most of us are exhausted, confused and yearning for a sense of normalcy that perhaps will not return, or at least not as we want it to be. To be honest, I feel like swaying around in the black and white extreme of a pendulum is no longer functional and we should already know this by now, had we studied carefully the trajectory of this and previous pandemics. Vaccination might be one of the most potent weapons we have, if just relying on biomedical sciences. If we rely on psychological sciences we might also consider the promotion of meaning/purpose, psychological flexibility, and compassion as very effective ones. Let me explain this further. What if rather than having periods of consciously denying  and doing things "as before", and then feeling perplex for severe rules and the threatens of even more severe rules to come... what if we could craft frames that help us adapt to peaks and valleys of the infection rates? What if we would volunteer to have some consistent measures in peak periods, and relax a little more (but not too much!) during its valleys while the biomedical sciences secure the most of us? Once again, my heartfelt confession then is: Dear Norway, I have felt like swimming like a "(Colombian) salmon" against the current of denial of the masses, wishing some of your measures would have arrived weeks before. I have had long crying sessions at home, after hearing comments such as "you look so funny with that mask", "why don't you come closer", "as a psychologist you should treat your stupid fears cos COVID is over" (I am sorry, but wtf was this very comment?).  RELAX, is the whisper in most of these clumsy communications... I know it, and I empathise a little bit despite my pain. I would so much like to relax, if only I would feel safe. If we would have had more shades of grey in the local and central measures, with more clarity and specificity... then maybe the transitions and adaptations would have been smoother. 

Can we really trust as much personal responsibility and free will? Before the 7th of December communication has been ambiguous and I am sorry but "hug less" is not enough. Leaving it up to "the people" to read social cues is a strategy that will keep backfiring at us. I mean, this was a real issue even before the pandemic... the awkward dance of implicit social norms of behaviours. 

To my eyes, we could have benefited way earlier from more specificity by context... what is expected at work, what is expected at home, what is expected at school. And now, what I have found as the most problematic is this delegation of decision-making: The ping pong ball flies all around: FHI says one thing, the government says another, then the municipalities are relegated responsibilities, and then the municipalities leave a lot up to business owners and organisations, and these businesses and organizations leave much up to clients and employees. Well... history has taught us that free will is a beautiful ideal, one that we conquer with the practice of virtues... which is hard as F$%&/ck . The delegation of so CRUCIAL aspects to mere personal responsibility creates, denial, fear, overwhelm, and not the least resentment... Oh my holly holly guacamole... resentment and groupthink are no good to go... if only we would have an antidote to this? Wait, actually we have it... It is laying in history and psychology books. 

If navigating in the dark, search for a lighthouse. As the Austrian history of psychology suggests, there are, generally speaking, 3 major drivers of human behaviour: the will to pleasure (i.e., Freud), the will to power (i.e., Adler's theories), and the will to meaning (i.e., Frankl). To my understanding of the situation, a great degree of the resistance to change and compliance with the measures lies in people prioritising their will to pleasure (e.g., masks are uncomfortable, not parting is boring) and their will to power (e.g., I need to exercise my freedom, I can do this or that because the government has not officially forbidden me to do so... or I can do this or that as a rebellion to what someone else thinks I should do). The lighthouse, however, could be to look at the will to meaning here. That is, to think of virtues to practice, values to be embraced, even if things are not pleasant or feel dispowering. This can either be to prioritise online meetings at work over not meeting at all, so that a sense of cohesion and teamwork can be promoted despite this not being ideal. Another example could be to use the masks or keep the distance in order to be able to keep meeting in person, even if it is not as fun as partying like there was no tomorrow. If only, I emphasise, if only, the communication and campaigns could remind us of a sense of purpose, motivation, perhaps we would endure the measures with resilience, patience, and compassion. As Nietzsche has already said "He who has a how to live can bear almost any how".

Can compassion be our "why" and our "how"? As the British leadership advisor and public speaker Simon Sinek said once in regards to the pandemic: "If we all suffer a little, we avoid that few suffer a lot".  As the situation has been for now it seems  we are having periods of "the most suffer little while few suffer a lot" and "all suffer a lot - even if the tonalities and intensities of such suffering could be discussed". 
This is not easy and we are all tired, confused and in need to make the make the most out of the lives we have. We, human beings, have this strange ability to forget history, deny history, and repeat history so then we blame history. Perhaps some ecological and multi systemic models of analysis of why your suggestions and rules have been failing could provide a better insight to the resistance to change, the rebellion towards new habits, or the wishful thinking/naiveness, which is characterising our everyday lives. As a matter of fact please remember that there are different minorities which are suffering a lot: health care professionals, immigrants (not only refugees but other groups of expats), as well as people within a wide spectrum of mental and physical health challenges. Remember, it is not A vs B. It is all of us vs. the virus. "We're in it together" is LinkedIn's motto to promote his compassionate leadership philosophy... if we could craft this sense of cohesion we would already score a goal in this hard match against the virus. As my colleague and mentor, Svend Brinkmann, would say... it does not matter whether you are against vaxers or antivaxers, mask users or mask avoiders, politicians, those who worry and those who want to live as if there was no issue whatsoever... what matters is that if you stand against one or another. This should be already a massive red flag: when things escalate to polarisation in social contexts... we should already know that polarisation does not serve cooperation, integration, learning, adaptation.... polarisation has been the mother of most of our human conflicts and wars. Is this what we want, or deserve?

For knowledge to become our daily bread we need to make it available for a diversity of publics, digestible, and more appealing. We need something more than plain "brodskiver" in order to thrive in this pandemic. Give us pålegg, give us syltetøy, and please mind that not everyone likes brunost... at times tacos and arepas could be good. If only, if only dear Norwegian Government you would remind us - all of us, your "poppulus"-, what we are genuinely hungry for: human connection, belonging... and if only you would give us this in our daily bread, adapted to the dietary requirements that suit diversity. How could you possibly do that? Remind us, seduce us with purpose and direction. Do not just tell us vaguely about it: evoke it in us like a good piece of artwork does. Hire artists, hire designers, get the people together to think together, to create, and to be listened... this is as important to guarantee that us, health care professionals, will also have more chances to relax, rest, be with our loved ones... and be able to serve as much as you as a government need us to. Until the press conference the 7th of December 2021 when the new measures were suggested, I have felt suffocated by the extreme ambiguity portrayed in the news and in the websites of the municipality, the health authorities and the public health institute. Will I be able to see my family this Christmas or not? Has been the question spinning around my head 24/7. If not this Christmas, when? And the thought of one more Christmas holiday in Norway feels like a nightmare, as I feel for a matter of emotional survival I NEED to have a pause and reunite with my beloved ones, eat the food that I have been raised with, sing "villancicos" from the 16th of December all the way to the 24th, and practice the Spanish I am forgetting now that my life occurs in Norwenglish.

As a clinical psychologist I have worked on a daily basis - at times even during weekends and overtime loads, in order to support Norwegian citizens and expats in Norway with their mental health and well-being. I meditate most mornings, meet my meditation mentor in California on a weekly basis online, and pay a private Norwegian psychotherapist to help me adapt to the "Norwegian way" of living, specially during the pandemic. In all these self-care practices of mine, it feels as a relief to hear that my fears and needs are not as hypochondriac as I fear, but rather human. It is soothing to remember that I come from a way more collectivistic culture than the Norwegian one. It is a relief to receive validation to my struggle to understand why here, in this Scandinavian country I want to thrive, to wear a mask is almost experienced as a violation of human rights... whereas in the country I grew up the constrains to human freedom that we have gone through as a nation provide me with a perspective that I cannot force many locals in Norway to have.

As I write this, I have a flashback to the conversations with some of my students in social psychology when I used to teach at NTNU, who once stopped me in the staircase at the auditorium. They wanted to tell me the as I shared with them the ups and the downs of being Colombian, they realised how their privilege of being born and raised in Norway becomes a bias for them... a bias that perhaps gives them a lower threshold to suffering. Whether or not my students were right or not, I remain the bittersweet taste in my soul: that some of the suffering and exhaustion I have felt during the past two years in Bergen could have been eased sooner... that some of it could have been prevented.


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