I sometimes wear a mask

March 21, 2021

As the sun shines and daffodils appear, with all the talk of vaccines and our current lockdown lifting, I think I am allowed to blink into the Spring light with a little more hope in my heart. I feel like (and increasingly resemble) an ungroomed, dusty old pit pony about to breathe above ground for the first time in months. However, as hopes build, I have noticed that the mask I wear when I go to the supermarket, is not the only mask I put on these days.

The expected cheeriness of Spring flowers and lighter evenings is very welcome, but this also becomes a kind of mask that I can loop around my ears to cover up the sheer exhaustion of coping day to day with the waves of anxiety that lap around my optimism and good fortune. I notice it in myself, and I see it clearly in my conversations with others.

Nearly every call starts with a checklist of blessings.

“Yes, thank you, not too bad really. The schools reopening helps. The fact I may see mum in a few weeks helps too. Work has been brilliant really. We have all had hard days. I know others have had a far worse time than me. It’s not easy but…”

…And so the litany of recited blessings continues, until I ask, “That’s good, but how do you feel?”

At this point there is often a pause as my caller will take a few seconds to find a misplaced and neglected vocabulary about their own true feelings. Then, when they are nearly ready to speak again, I can feel a new hesitancy as their words never quite find a way to be heard, and instead a few soft tears roll from their eyes, each one carrying a drop of sadness to speak for them.

Inevitably, we then spend a few seconds apologising to each other. It is however a moment of truth; a moment when we see how just a glimpse of hope and care will find a way to pinpoint our vulnerability far more quickly than another whole day of pain ever will. I think we have learned to cope brilliantly, but when this is over, we must relearn how to be.

I see more exhausted faces now than I have ever seen before. It is a numbing emotion, and it slows us down and takes our confidence away. Small things become big things, mundane tasks stack up and noisy thoughts swirl around so we cannot rest.

We need to notice that our survivor guilt, our hard-wired wish not to complain, and our acceptance of the need for our businesses to march back to normal, is potentially the trip that might make us fall.

When I hear a phrase like “build back better”, although I know it is well intended and important too, my visceral reaction is to want to run away from it and from the people who want to embrace it. In my head I don’t want to build back better, I just want a rest. I want a break from feeling helpless. I just want to be with people I love and who love me; strategy can wait.

The first lesson of this pandemic should not be sought in new operating models, or clever technology, or the aspiration of business school theory. These lessons will be real, but they can wait. The first lesson of this pandemic is that we need each other more than we ever knew.

My sincere hope is that leaders will not make their first priority to launch another game-changing idea. This is not the time, just yet, for hiring consultants, splurging strategy decks, or appointing a PR firm to announce an ambitious infrastructure investment. This is a time, right now, for leaders to sit quietly with each and every colleague, to hold their hand, to ask them how they feel and to allow them to be.

I sometimes wear a mask; and I cannot wait for a time when I do not have to wear either of them ever again.

Take care. Paul xx

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