Why we may come out of this changed people, and why that’s ok.
It is not often that we appreciate people trying to drill “every cloud has a silver lining” into our minds, and the speed with which social media mavens have crafted new façades of “perfect” lives to inspire quarantine envy is borderline distasteful. But for the first time in a long time, we’re all being affected, albeit in different ways, and we will all have noticed the change in our lifestyles that this virus has demanded of us. And while it continues to be an arduous task to reconcile ourselves with this, we may begin to perceive that there are some benefits that come with the monumental shift in the way we approach identity and interaction, from the most abstract notions of ourselves down to everyday life.
The lockdown and/or social distancing measures implemented to varying extents around the world have forced us to change our behaviour, and in doing so made us rethink our priorities. For example, shopping trips and “retail therapy” that seemed vital until a few weeks ago are now a testament to the concerning materialism previously disguised in pretty bags or elaborately wrapped gift boxes. Now, especially when even online shopping sites offer no relief due to closed warehouses, we are made aware of our troubling dependence on expensive, ephemeral pursuits. The leather gloves are truly off, and the plastic ones (a powerful symbol of health and safety as the new luxury goods) are here to stay.
Not being able to go out has also changed how we interact with others on both personal and professional levels. Personally, I still find it odd that people purposely cross the street or move away when I approach; it is surprisingly easy to feel rejected in this fear-infused environment of impersonality. Conversely, however, physical distance can actually oblige us to explore different forms of closeness, which at times may seem intrusive. Video calls can often make for awkward exchanges, with overlapping dialogue and time lags replacing the normal quirks of face-to-face speech, just as our tenuous grip on privacy is manifested in the ever-present temptation to blur our backgrounds or even turn our video off where possible, bringing to the surface a whole host of questions about how we seek to present ourselves.
Our social interactions are seeing a similar change, as they too were previously diluted in other pastimes –shopping, eating, drinking etc. – that formerly kept us at a reassuring (social) distance even from those to whom we were closest. But where drinks with friends might once have felt compulsory, true quality time now takes the scaled-back, purer form of a video call or texted chat, bringing people closer together despite physical remoteness. What’s more, most conversations now revolve around health and happiness, perhaps less interesting – but certainly more wholesome – than the short-lived excitements of inconsequential gossip.
Equally, however, many of us will find ourselves missing those little things, even the most insignificant ones, because really, we know that the mundane joys sustain us from day to day. So maybe you miss complaining about the Hall menu or the whispered conversations with your friends in someone’s room. It is a lot harder to contrive experiences like these when we are far apart, but we can nevertheless find new “little things” to build our lives on.
For some of us, it will be meals that provide our days with structure, particularly if these are shared with people we are living with. As students who during the term have neither the time nor the energy for home-cooked meals or housekeeping, we may be discovering a newfound appreciation for the domestic realm, perhaps deriving satisfaction from household tasks we formerly dismissed as menial because they now give much-needed purpose to our day. It is no wonder that so many have taken to baking or cleaning the house when formerly we might have dismissed them as occupations unworthy of our precious time.
Indeed, what might be called the “silver lining” of the current situation is precisely the fact that it shatters the toxic “productivity” mindset, or at least proves it to be ineffective. As students driven by deadlines and the desire to achieve, many of us will look for ways in which we can be productive these days. But what we are slowly being forced to learn is that productive doesn’t necessarily imply generating a tangible form of output, least of all one that can be marked. We spend most of our lives running breathlessly towards maximised productivity, a shimmering oasis where we get everything done to the utmost and no time is ever wasted. And we never get there.
What we do end up doing is thinking that we always could have worked harder, done better, achieved more. And just like that we wind up pounding exhaustedly against the locked doors of “should’ve” and “could’ve”, turning life into a cycle of perpetual dissatisfaction. Now, when the only things you really should do are neatly summarised in three catchy verb phrases, we can evaluate what it really means to be productive. We can change our points of reference from numbers and marks to the personal gain we derive from experiences and learn to be satisfied with different types of validation, most importantly our own.
To that effect, some of us are now able to devote time to things we always wanted to do but previously had no time for, from online fitness classes, to learning a new language or finally getting around to sifting through non-academic reading lists. For those of us with more free time, personal development by means of meditation or prayer can be particularly conducive to bettering ourselves, helping to cultivate inner peace, patience and kindness.
After all, though we used to joke about people using parts of their life as a “substitute for a personality”, at a time when being a hack, a jock, or even a BNOC are largely off-limits, it seems we have no choice but to turn inwards.
Of course, some will be busier than ever, and may find they are getting even less of a holiday than they normally would. This will be especially hard when it comes to studying again, and in these cases the key aim will be to negotiate both physical and psychological balances within hectic home environments. But even so, such hardship can still enable us to evaluate our priorities differently and have a lasting positive impact on our values and how we organise our lives. Now more than ever do we come face-to-face with who we are, no longer inextricable from our former daily routines and interactions, and this offers valuable potential for self-improvement.
Nobody could have predicted just how great an impact on people all over the world the virus would have, from the sick and those who work tirelessly to help them, to the many who must stay at home. We have all in some way been limited, but it is to our collective credit that we have uncovered a capacity for hope and for unity as a result of this pandemic. It will be to our benefit if we can use this shock to the system, however uncomfortable at present, to reconsider things which we took for granted, and begin to change the world for the better in the only way we can – by starting with ourselves. And sure, we may come out a couple pounds heavier or with a work-life balance our former coffee-sustained jittering selves might be horrified at, but maybe we can also emerge from this crisis knowing ourselves, each other, and how to enjoy life, just that little bit more.
Photo credit: Oluremi Adebayo – ‘Woman meditating in the outdoors’
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