What Naomi Osaka Is Teaching Me About Reentering Life After the Pandemic

Reentry is hard. For some of us, it has been more difficult to reenter life after the pandemic than it was to retreat into the lockdown that was forced by the pandemic’s early days. While we might be eager to schedule time with friends and extended family on the 2021 calendar, our bodies feel sluggish and slow from running the marathon titled, Global Crisis: Our Fight to Stay Alive.

Most of us would agree that a healthy response to recognizing exhaustion is to request rest. Pause. Some time to be alone. Maybe even time to process what our tired minds and bodies have endured.

Which leads me to Naomi Osaka. Even if you don’t follow tennis, you probably have heard Ms. Osaka’s name in recent news. Last week, she pulled out of the French Open and this week the WTA tournament in Berlin.  She announced these decisions after making a difficult choice, a choice never made by another female tennis player in this history of the game. Before playing the Open, she announced she would skip the mandatory press conferences. Her reason? Social anxiety.

As a woman who leads girls in conversations about healthy body image, I am hearing young women in their late teens and early twenties talk about how angst-ridden it is to reenter social settings. After living behind their phone and laptop screens for more than a year, they lack confidence in maneuvering about in the wild.

Some feel shame because they look different, bearing masks and a few extra pounds.

Some feel nervous because they aren’t well-practiced in small talk and casual conversation that comes with meeting new people and rekindling friendships. And some feel just plain confused. They wonder, How do I navigate life from here on out, especially now that I’ve had time to reevaluate some things that I want to change?

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Stress is swelling and, if not processed in safe places, stress produces anxiety. Among our young adults today, anxiety weighs heavy.

And Naomi Osaka isn’t any different in this regard. As she reenters her own social and professional spheres, she also feels the weight. At twenty three years old, she wields incredible talent that comes with responsibility and influence.

She is the winner of four Grand Slams and is the first Japanese player to win a Grand Slam Singles title. She is currently the highest paid female athlete in the world, earning 34 million dollars in endorsements alone. Today, she headlines almost every major media outlet for her unprecedented decision to attend to her mental health over attending to media interviews.

In response to her decision, several professional athletes are weighing in on the question, “Should athletes be required to speak to the media after his/her sporting event?”

This question fascinates me because I think it reflects our discomfort with reentry.  What if we don’t yet know what parts of our pre-pandemic lives we want to return to and what parts of our lives we want to be different? What if waiting to respond to people who demand to hear from us is better (for everyone in the room) than responding immediately? What if there are healthier ways to honor one another’s humanity than requiring our athletes to speak to a cluster of media correspondents as soon as their competition concludes?

Although reentry is hard, we can also view reentry as a gift – a time to readjust. A time to learn. A time to wait. A time for gently helping one another reconnect and recommune. In her book, An Invitation to Silence and Solitude, Ruth Haley Barton describes the beauty of waiting.

“This is part of what the waiting is about. It is about becoming safe enough with God that we are no longer defending ourselves or hiding ourselves in his presence. It is about waiting for the ego to finally give up trying to control everything and make it look presentable. It is about accepting the emptiness that comes when we let go of our attempts at image management because we are finally ready to deal in truth, at least to the extent that we are able to bear it.  All of this just takes time.”

In this season of reentry, we need great patience as we work and wait.

While many criticized Ms. Osaka for taking to her Twitter feed rather than speaking directly with the French media about her post-game interviews, I supported her. I found her communication style endearing. Instead of going through a team of communication specialists who would have helped her “craft her message,” she chose to tell the truth about how she has struggled with anxiety.  She used her time and energy to write her own story rather than sit in front of microphones and cameras, answering questions meant to disarm and disparage

If ever there was a time to invite waiting into the conversation about our collective reentry, might now be the time? We cannot process reentry and figure out how we want to live anew unless we ask for what we need. Naomi Osaka told the world what she needed, and she was slapped on the hand with fines and threats. Essentially, she was told, “We don’t have time to help you figure out something that works for all of us. Do what we say, or you’re out.”

Whether it’s with our family, or friends, or even the powers that be with whom we have a signed contracts, we must give ourselves permission to ask for a little more time to walk away from decisions that have harmed us and walk toward decisions that will help us.

Let’s wait with one another as we reenter. We have time.

Bri Lamm
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Bri is an outgoing introvert with a heart that beats for adventure. She lives to serve the Lord, experience the world, and eat macaroni and cheese in between capturing life’s greatest moments on one of her favorite cameras.