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On Re-Expanding our Boundaries

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I have been thinking a lot recently about a post I wrote some years ago on expanding our boundaries. There I was reflecting that if we don’t stretch ourselves, in terms of where we go, what we do, and who we meet, our capacities have a tendency to shrink to fit the restricted range we’ve been operating in.

That was of course written at a time when we could choose to travel or to take up new pastimes as ways of meeting new people. These are choices that have been severely curtailed for a year now, and as we in the UK contemplate our various regional roadmaps back out of lockdown, we are all feeling the emotional and psychological effects of not having been able to stretch in many of these dimensions for so long.

I have had a number of conversations with choir leaders recently in which people report a real hesitancy amongst their singers about resuming live rehearsals. This is quite different from back in the summer when the ban on amateur music groups was first lifted in England – at that point many people were champing at the bit to be allowed to sing together. Now, people are feeling much more anxious about it, even where the demographic of a choir means that a majority will be likely to have had at least one vaccine dose by the time resumption is going to be possible.

It’s not just singing together people are feeling nervous about of course. This is part of a wider social anxiety about resuming life as we once knew, and we already seeing articles about how to navigate those anxieties. When your world has shrunk so much that driving 3 miles for a click-and-collect at Screwfix is your first, wildly over-stimulating, trip beyond walking distance from home in two months, you discover quite how much your overwhelm threshold has lowered.

And this of course has been very adaptive in our circumstances. We have learned to notice and appreciate the incremental changes in the trees we can see from our windows day by day as we obeyed the Stay-at-Home orders, the perception of detail taking up the mental space that used to look outwards for adventures. We’ve packed ourselves in cognitive and emotional cotton wool as a way to make it through without going too stir crazy.

But the big wide world looks awfully big and wide from the circumscribed spaces we have got used to inhabiting, and we will need to find ways to ease ourselves back into wider social life as it becomes safe to do so. Our rational knowledge of physical/medical safety is only partially persuasive for our sense of psychological safety, which needs to deal with sensory and emotional overload on top of this. As our boundaries as a whole have contracted, the distance between the outer edge of our comfort zones and the start of our panic zones has contracted with them.

What we can we do, then, either as individuals coping for ourselves, or as choir leaders needing to nurture our choirs to a place where they will be happy to meet again?

The first thing to note is that we will perforce be approaching this through a staged process. If we sit here in lockdown and contemplate the time when all restrictions are lifted, that looks like a huge leap. But in real life, we will be living through a number of steps, each of which will only be taken when the data for the state of the pandemic in the country suggests it is appropriate. So we will have time to adapt at each stage.

This is true in general, and also for the specifics of choirs. In England, small groups will be able to meet outdoors from the end of this month, and then larger groups from Step 2, subject to formal risk assessment. We will have the chance to get used to being together outdoors for at least 5 weeks before the earliest we could possibly meet indoors, and when we get to that bit, we will still be highly regulated.

So, whilst we need to plan in general for the longer process, it is probably most useful at each stage to focus our attention on the immediate steps. What will we do, and how will we do it safely? We can figure that out with a good degree of clarity and certainty for the immediate future, and clarity and certainty are what we need to manage anxiety.

Alongside the specific planning for returning to live rehearsals, we might also usefully think about how we can gradually push our boundaries out again, and rediscover how to enjoy the feeling of stepping out into areas we find slightly daunting. A year ago, everything we did in remote rehearsing was challenging and we put a lot of effort into making it into a safe space. Now we have got fluent at it, and comfortable in the medium, we may need to rediscover our sense of stretch.

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