Around 6:57 PM every evening since early April, hundreds of people begin to emerge from their perches hanging on the steel and glass towers where I live, on the banks of the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon, to express their gratitude and empathy in novel ways.
They mimic the ritual of making physical distance emotionally shorter. It’s a ritual happening all over the world. People bang pots and pans, blow conch shells, ring bells, wave hands, and just plain applaud front-line workers for sure, but also to express novel forms of connection. Emotional energy craved, bursting at the seams as a distraction to uncertainty and boredom.
I love the noise amidst the uncommon silence. My wife and I play African drums and sometimes blow bubbles. For the moment, whatever anxiety exists dissipates into joy, human connection, compassion, creativity and relief, which last only five minutes until I yell, “HAVE A NICE EVENING!” And then we all cruise back into our cocoons, with just a bit more of a glow.
As novel as this virus is, our society is matching it by creating novel forms of empathy to compensate for the physical distance, for the absence of hugging or holding hands or even worshipping together in times of need. Our eye contact is more expressive. Waving matters more. Even though we avoid humans, we seek new forms of connection.
We are in the midst of experiencing Novel Forms of Empathy, A Peak of Urgency and Novel Learning—emerging waves that will likely change beliefs and behaviours as we shift into new forms of normal.
Novel Forms of Empathy
Our craving to connect physically is sprouting new ways for humans to share love and faith. We saw novel virtual gatherings of worship during Passover and Easter, and we continue to share screens of collective faith during our days of rest and renewal. We cling to the screen as if to touch and be touched. We find new ways to convey that we care—through films, through humour, through asking for family recipes.
Our homes and neighbourhoods are bubbles. We notice and relate to adjacent bubbles in ways that foster relationships. Some are anxious to pierce the bubble and show guns at rallies in the effort to pop for freedom despite the risk. But according to a Pew Research report, more than a third of all Americans have had a virtual party of social gathering, meaning a lot of us are learning to connect without having to burst the bubbles that are keeping us apart.
We have a heightened craving for empathy, which requires a paradigm shift in order to receive and give in current circumstances. So now we attempt to experience that in new ways. We are generally being asked to avoid humans, and turn our heads. To not engage in any way. to “flatten the curve”—a new meme in our vocabulary.
But, we also identify humans from afar as bandits. Masks are inherently a negative symbol, one of deception, but we parse together protection however we can, and we are perplexed at the mutual inconvenience of it all. We wonder who resides behind the mask, what they are feeling, and how we wish we could reach out and comfort them, but instead, we’ve learned to share gestures of kindness—sometimes merely from eye contact.
We are likely to see more devoted attention to empathy in business practices as well. While the idea of walking in someone else’s shoes has been a primary element in the human-centred design movement that emerged in the early 1990s, brands and businesses need to step up their understanding of the new human that’s emerging from COVID in order to stay relevant.
Peak of Urgency
The concept of urgency has come into the forefront. In our “normal” lives, technology at breakneck speed allures us and delivers a promise of progress. We message instantly and pack our calendars with pre-determined 30- and 60-minute meetings. We meet more than think, and we create less than we meet. Being too busy is a merit badge. We drink more coffee and lose more sleep in the maelstrom of speed.
But this is all pre-COVID. We’re now reckoning with this way of life because it’s been turned on its head. When we re-enter the semblance of society we remember, everything is going to be moving more slowly and will be more sparse. We will be evolving behaviour as a species, as we always do when new-normals are thrust upon us. For so many years, we’ve been on a roller coaster, craving speed. Getting everything we want when we want it, with the assumption that speed matters most, without reflecting on the value and consequences. According to a 2019 research study of 1,000 consumers by Bringg, LTD, five day delivery of products was deemed unacceptable by 76% of shoppers. Have we become addicted to speed and is it really making us happier?
Our new normal will happen at a more measured pace, literally. We will measure the distance between each other in restaurants, schools, places of worship and places of work. Retailers and operators now need to think about transforming the inconvenience of six-foot interactions with the accompanying awkward dance of restrictions, and turning that into more enriching and worthwhile flows in concert with the slower pace.
There is a new urgency in attending to the practicalities of our existence, in attending to the beneficial existence of others. But, there is also a strange suspension of reality. The panic and anxiety so many of us are feeling is buffered only by the boredom, loneliness and sarcasm of this bizarre lifestyle that’s been thrust upon us.
Perhaps we have reached a peak of urgency, resulting in a healthier pace when we emerge. It is possible that this pandemic essentially has shocked our clocks, changing rituals, dividing our portfolios of time in more balanced ways, illuminating the difference in sweat beads between “small stuff” and what really matters.
Novel Forms of Learning
We are in the midst of creating new ways of learning, exploring and transforming information into wisdom. We have become accustomed to specific norms of learning—being presented with hour-long class segments of knowledge on platters with the end result of preparing us or our children for subscribed advancement in our lives. Now, the absence of having knowledge served up in convenient portions could lead to an explosion of curiosity, new pathways to search for information, new ways to coalesce the brilliance that has been created in the world, and a more elegant merging of human intelligence with the miraculously bizarre advent of artificial intelligence.
But first, we may struggle with the side effects of down-shifting from full-scale human interaction and spontaneous sharing of ideas and collective consciousness that emerges from group events at school and work. We will grow tired of Zoom calls and that will lead to innovation in digital interfaces, better bandwidth, and better ways to share and build on ideas, better ways to sense body language that enable our most perceptive selves to adjust. We need novel ways to get back into the groove of collaborative thinking.
COVID forced more than a billion students to move from classroom to online learning—and all relatively suddenly. Parents struggle with juggling homeschooling and distance learning with work and other obligations. Distance learning often saps the joy out of education and the meaningful experiences of spontaneity, friendship and learning about life. Additionally, parents often do not have access to the right resources; space, time, technology or teaching skills they typically pay for through taxes or tuition. For families with special-needs children, the stress is even greater. These challenges may shine a brighter light on the inequitable value placed on teachers who have been traditionally underpaid and under-honoured.
At the same time, there are magical moments to relish. My friend Lindsay is homeschooling two six-year-old twins in Milwaukee, each tuning into different digital classes, which are often interrupted by the three chickens that roam the living room, and the baby chicks that recently hatched from their little rotating incubator. All of this happening while Lindsay and I crafted our podcast on the Future of Sustainability in time for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, which went from a live movement of a billion people in 200 countries to a purely virtual event. It’s been a joy to see new forms of learning explode in Lindsay’s home. A lack of the traditional educational system has thrown us into these novel forms of learning.
When learners of all ages finally return to schools with buildings and lawns and spaces for snacks and friendship, they will return in increments, spaced apart, with less interaction. For a while, we will see delivery of required learning, more than creative learning that turns information into wisdom. Then we will crave novel ways to learn about life and relationships, which go hand-in-hand with learning core skills and fulfilling cravings for enriching our minds.
Adults are also craving a return to reliable facts, the trusted truth and leaders who don’t lie. Our digital freedom has allowed a bruising wave of misinformation, from people leading our government now, from the narcissistic lair of pathological liars.
The wave of misinformation has been sponsored by billions of dollars of advertising revenue on our social media channels. Companies like Facebook seem to be fine with any information flowing to their billions, regardless of its truth. We crave a world that makes sense again.
As a result of this bruising wave, we will likely see the emergence of the Sage archetype, the seeker of truth that lives by the principle “the truth will set you free.” Wishful thinking, perhaps. Yet we are in a new era of introspection—reflecting on our values, re-aligning priorities and gaining insight about what’s next.
We each experience this moment in unique ways. Extraordinary panic. Baffling confusion. Stifling boredom. Over-boiled anger. Many of us experience a combination of multiple or all of these feelings. Each of these modes makes us think in novel ways, generating new neural pathways, and bringing us closer to the divine flow of accord and peace.
Novel Empathy, the Peak of Urgency, and Novel Learning represent three related emerging waves that may change behaviours, illuminating new opportunities for experiences that are both palliative and progressive and enabling us to emerge from the shit-storm we’ve been through.
Music guides us through the churning rapids. One of my favourite songs guiding me through this mess is “Hotter Brighter Sun” by Peter Himmelman, CEO of the innovation firm BIG MUSE. His lyrics guide us to what we can manifest, mustering up positive energy from the slog.
“Over the edge of what’s expected,
Off the side of what’s been done,
Beyond what’s already been detected,
Lies a hotter, brighter sun.”