Last week, I went into the office for the first time in eight months. I woke up early with anxiety. The night before, anticipating my nervous energy, I set out everything in cadence to my old routine: coffee, bathroom, dress, makeup, food for the cats, etc. But the morning went with many glitches. I forgot my laptop at my house. I couldn’t get myself to leave; I kept finding pointless things to do, like clean the litter box and shake out rugs. I was forty-five minutes late to the office. I remained eerily calm throughout the whole internal fiasco, a far cry from my pre-pandemic self. That someone would have road-raged herself into self-inflicted chaos before 9:00 a.m. Despite my budding tornado energy, a bubbling feeling of excitement and the anticipation of face-to-face connection sizzled within me.
I couldn’t wait and I was scared to death.
Once at work, I met colleagues I’d only met via Teams. They were shorter than I imagined and yet looked extraordinarily large. Outside of computer screens, humans have flushed faces and tangerine lipstick. Their noses are bigger and their hazel eyes glimmer and wrinkles tell stories Webex can’t. They react deeper reactions to things and orchestrate boisterous hand movements. The past year has been stock full of rational changes of norms, like handshakes and in-person meetings. But, when you go back to them, step back into the shallow end of their thickness, it’s like seeing emotions in color. Everything is big.
Key example: in the past year, virtual meetings and the mute button have shortened guttural laughs. There’s something about a screen that puts a barrier on reactionary moments. Sometimes, when you have the mute button on, you avoid laughing or reacting at all. However, in our first in-person meeting, I noticed we laughed at someone’s joke longer than we ever had together. And we all laughed. We laughed ourselves into silence and the shared action felt superabundant. We were finally allowed to enjoy each other. Life was finally a 3D movie.
We laughed ourselves into silence and the shared action felt superabundant. We were finally allowed to enjoy each other. Life was finally a 3D movie.
True to my anticipation, I was exhausted when I got home. The tops of my feet were itchy from my heels. The connection I’d felt throughout the day felt elastic, as if I could shape it in my hands long afterward. The world had felt so lackluster and saccharine for so long. Now I’m figuratively shoving the richest pasta into my mouth after a fast, butter pouring out of every corner.
Returning to the richness of gathering, whether it’s in a conference room with colleagues or at a dining room table with your family and friends is, as assumed, epic and buttery. And sometimes it can feel too rich.
I’m not used to making a certain set of decisions: navigating traffic and drive time, coordinating who will feed the cats, planning outfits, buying makeup, eye contact and eager reactions, and navigating a detailed schedule of happy hours and traveling. Priya Parker, the author of The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, calls this sensory overload dilemma “decision fatigue.” Before the pandemic, the world felt like a giant, shifty tremor on autopilot. We were robotic, a package full of “yeses” and navigating how and why we wanted to go to certain things and piecing together logistics like shattered vases.
We are in a moment of deep transition. As we slowly step out into the obsessive hustle of the world, I feel as if I’m wearing emotionally loose clothing. I’m disconnected from the panting *GIRL BOSS* hubbub culture but crave togetherness in a complicated way. So, what does close proximity to humans and busyness mean for us now? Are we different? Well, of course. Although the Wit & Delight June theme is about finding stillness in the everyday, the epic shift we’re feeling is a good, startling reminder that experiencing quiet (finally) together is a beautiful nod to our new world. This is our opportunity to reset, keep what serves us, and let go of what doesn’t. And it’s going to take creativity and courage.
Beneficially, I’ve learned how to put a maternal spin on how and when I work. I no longer find service in getting wound up about being the perfect professional package. I’m less impatient. I don’t try to inflate my schedule and hold everything. So, I’ve become better at saying “no” to gatherings that can’t serve my soul or risk popping my own hot emotions balloon, figuratively speaking. Per a wonderful Dare to Lead podcast episode with Brené Brown and Priya Parker on the elements of gathering, I’ve learned to become more explicit about how I feel experiencing the abundance of many humans in one room. I told my colleagues, rather happily, that I’m really awkward lately, learning how to come back into my punchy routine. I want to think it broke down some kind of uncomfortable barrier, since everyone laughed and (hopefully) felt capable of making mistakes openly.
On the podcast, Parker explains how to be explicit about how you’re feeling: “Gathering again, including returning to work, is going to be complicated and possibly uncomfortable,” she says. “Naming the elephant in the room is the most powerful tool we have. We need to make the implicit explicit. Even if the elephant is just awkwardness, naming what’s happening and making it explicit allows everybody to take a breath.”
Naming real feelings is one of the things we can do to return, semi-comfortably, to gathering. Additionally, we have to pause and ask, What have we learned about who we need to be in a professional space? What have we learned about ourselves? How do we want to **do this** now and what can we allow?
For me, I have to place an actual value point on why and how I’m gathering. The people I see must matter. I don’t want to go back to how I was before the pandemic, a tightly wound, worried cluster of atoms convinced I couldn’t perform at the level I was expected. I was hard on myself and frightened by my own high-performing personality with friends and coworkers, worried if I didn’t come through, no one would in return. Choosing things can and should be liberating. But, I spent years feeling strapped down to choices I couldn’t control.
Gathering is rich like a creamy pasta dish. The first bite in a year is launching us into a swirl of sensory goodness.
Beyond the nervousness, the good stuff is so prominently there. Gathering has been a human desire for centuries and there’s a reason we search for it. In fact, according to Fortune and a study conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “The human body hungers for companionship in much the way we hunger for food.” According to the study, ten hours without any contact with humans can lead to a kind of psychological and physical craving with the same level of intensity we experience without food for ten waking hours. Gathering is a basic human need.
So, as we go back into a world filled with clusters of public companionship, hugs, sharing food, and swelling up a room with humans it’s going to feel like we’re eating a big meal after being hungry for so long. Gathering is rich like a creamy pasta dish. The first bite in a year is launching us into a swirl of sensory goodness. And yet, too much can place us in the hole we were stuck in a year ago (with a bad stomach ache). Returning to gathering and the richness of its lost pleasure has been so beautiful, I could cry. I want to keep it that way.
Brittany Chaffee is an avid storyteller, professional empath, and author. On the daily, she gets paid to strategize and create content for brands. Off work hours, it’s all about a well-lit place, warm bread, and good company. She lives in St.Paul with her baby brother cats, Rami and Monkey. Follow her on Instagram, read more about her latest book, Borderline, and (most importantly) go hug your mother.