By Karly Stilling
Under lockdown the scope of our lives has changed dramatically, and as many parts of the world begin to ease back towards something resembling normal, I’m thinking a lot about what ‘normal’ really means.
Life coach Tony Robbins says something about life that I tend to agree with: the secret to happiness comes down to one thing—progress. It’s important to be clear about how we define progress; it doesn’t necessarily mean getting promoted at work, making some new discovery or launching a new business. It can mean those things, of course, but if we’re thinking about it in terms of what makes us happy then what progress really means is personal growth.
A lot of us struggle with that, caught up in patterns of behaviour that we’ve manufactured in an attempt to keep us safe from the things that have hurt us. It’s hard to let those patterns go, hard to be vulnerable and humble enough to see ourselves for who we really are.
And it’s not all our fault: the world we live in does not want us to be truly introspective. It’s bad for business, bad for consumerism. The whole schtick of unending capitalism is to use our shitty feelings to sell us something with the promise that it will make us feel better.
Before corona, even when we couldn’t manufacture progress and achievement by buying things or making money, it was all too easy to fall into a kind of contained numbness. We went about our daily lives, the routines of modern life mimicking progress as they moved us forward through the days: to work, to the shops, to home, to the television.
But now the cracks in the system are starting to show. Lockdown has stripped all our pretty distractions away. Some of us have developed new routines to replace the ones we’ve lost: we bake, we craft, we take online courses. Some of us are WFH with our pets, some of us are still going to work every day despite the risk. But for all of us, with the churning bustle of modern life taken away, there is the opportunity to discover what’s left when the buzz dies down.
We are getting a glimpse of what anyone who has had to face their own mortality head-on already knows: that in the end, all we have is ourselves.
Us writers are used to looking inside. We have been better equipped to deal with this lockdown than most; we’re used to sequestering ourselves in a quiet corner and spending hours looking long and hard at the outputs of our own brains.
And yet this pandemic has stymied me. Writing about anything that came before seems pointless and absurd, and writing about the future we’re heading towards is to fall into an abyss of unknowns.
So instead I’m thinking about what comes next, about what kind of world we’re going to recreate when we begin to emerge from our cocoons.
We’ll go back to our lives, but they won’t be the same, not now that our priorities have shifted. We’ll know something fundamental has changed and yet we’ll all have to pretend we don’t. We won’t be able to do anything about it. We’ll have to go back—to get the economy moving, to keep the machinery of commerce going, to mitigate global economic disaster. But it won’t be as easy as before to distract ourselves. We’ll know better; we’ve seen what happens when the fancy casings fall away and the overworked cogs of the machine are laid bare. We’ve discovered, with horror, that the cogs and wheels and nuts and bolts are people just like us.
We don’t know what to do with that information now. We won’t know a year from now either.
In an article published on Medium last month, Julian Vincent Gambuto calls the process of what we are about to undergo the ultimate gaslighting.
We’ve been given a gift, he argues: “What the crisis has given us is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see ourselves…. in the plainest of views.”
“At no other time, ever in our lives, have we gotten the opportunity to see what would happen if the world simply stopped,” he says. “Here it is. We’re in it.”
But he shares my worries about what comes next, when our governments and our media tell us to get back to normal.
“What is about to be unleashed on American society will be the greatest campaign ever created to get you to feel normal again. It will come from brands, it will come from government, it will even come from each other…. We will do anything, spend anything, believe anything, just so we can take away how horribly uncomfortable all of this feels.”
I read his words and I recognise them deep in my soul. I see it starting already, in the protestors gathering in America and elsewhere to demand an end to the lockdown. I see it in the memes and Facebook posts urging people to buy local when the shops reopen (which we all absolutely should). I see it in the airlines already booking vacations for next summer on miniscule deposits (no money now? no problem!). It’s the wheels of commerce picking up speed, firing up the meaning-making machine.
I don’t know if you feel the way I do, but if you do—if there’s a seed of something inside of you that says, really? is buying and shopping and working really what gives our lives meaning?—then we need to hold on to what these past few months have shown us. Without ‘modern life’ to distract us, we have started to learn what else matters.
What has given your life meaning these past few months? Has it been progress—accomplishing a home workout, finishing an online course, successfully negotiating government assistance? Has it been connection—weekly Zoom chats with mates, virtual meals with family, holding close to the few people we get to see and talk to every day?
Odds are, it’s been a bit of both with a few other things thrown in besides. For me, those extras include gratitude, an intense appreciation for the natural world, and cuddling with my cat. Simple things that don’t take much money. Things that are for no one else but me.
Julian Vincent Gambuto is right: this pause is a gift. It’s a chance to learn from our mistakes, to shake off the systems we have inherited, to create a new way of living.
Sometimes, it seems impossible to me that we could really change. The governments won’t; Trump has already reversed a whole lot of environmental regulations, and some experts believe that when economies across the globe pick back up, it will be with massive investments in fossil fuels.
Consumerism is also ready to bounce back. Companies are good at giving us what we want, and they’ll find a way to do it in this new reality too. Life continues; that’s the message they’ve been giving us during lockdown and they’ll make it as easy as possible for us to step right back into the lives and values we had before.
But now we know better. And one amazing thing the pandemic has shown us is that our individual actions do matter. We can make a difference, each and every one of us. We’ve done it by staying home, by adopting new ways of living, and by reaching out to help one another in this time of need.
We can do it again.
Cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
She was right. You can do it, I can do it. We can change the world—if we bother to try.