The Age Of The New Awkward

New rules for living in the hybrid life of post-lockdown world.

Good Morning. Someone shook my hand this week. It was awkward.

It happened so quickly — I was too late to turn it into a fist bump or nimbly pirhouette and brush them with an elbow instead.

We were both a bit embarrassed when we realised what we’d done.

But things are about to get more awkward.

‘Hugging to be allowed in England’ as the headline puts it.

Several of my friends are taking comfort that it is not yet to be compulsory.

So nuanced is our new social etiquette that a government adviser adds, ‘Don’t hug too frequently, keep it short and keep your faces apart.’

Many of us will pass.

As lockdown eases, we are entering the age of the new awkward. Celebrating the miracle of vaccination while wondering about new variants and hoping nobody breathes on us in the pub.

This hybrid life where we’re all improvising a new normal.

Some of us love rules — their certainty brings us freedom. Some of us hate rules. They lock us up.

But emerging from a pandemic invites us to interrogate how we live — was lockdown pressing pause or was it pressing reset?

Perhaps we’ve adopted practices we know are keepers — working from home, online meetings, the end of cash in favour of tapping a card.

Other practices are less sticky. Paying attention to nature for instance, the birdsong no longer being louder than the traffic.

Or tuning in to the economic and social dissonance all around. My own lockdown epiphany came as a volunteer delivering food parcels. In the foodbank queue, I bumped into a friend and neighbour — she was collecting food for her own family.

If the new normal is not simply going to be a vaccinated version of the old normal, we might need some new rules of living.

Not just for how we meet and greet each other in the local neighbourhood — but in the global one.

No one in history has had such a clear view of how the health of one country is caught up with that of every other.

Putting our feet in the shoes of others — practicing empathy — is the surest way to find rewarding rules to live by.

The early Christian teacher Paul put it like this: ‘Let each of you look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.’

Even after we no longer have to wear them, perhaps we’ll remember the Pandemic Mask as a parable of empathy — worn not to protect ourselves from others but to protect others from ourselves.

It may be awkward to change how we live — but through the rhythmic repetition of good habits we slowly become a new edition of ourselves.

‘We don’t think our way into a new kind of living,’ said the Catholic priest Henri Nouwen. ‘We live our way into a new kind of thinking.’

(The text of ‘Thought For The Day’ delivered on BBC Radio 4 on May 15th)

— — — —

Previously On Thought For The Day. On Becoming Good Ancestors — and how our descendants are willing us to do the right thing.

Previously still on Thought For The Day: On ‘missing home’ and the ‘bright sadness’ of lockdown life.

And even more previously, on greeting our nearest neighbours, ‘I Can’t Speak For The Tree.’

‘Trying to get to heaven before they close the door.’