NOTE: this is based on personal experience only and in no way seeks to presume that this was a common experience, nor diminish the (likely worse) experiences of many others. Neither I, nor any of my loved ones has been put into hospital or died due to the virus, so I write from the perspective of someone impacted most intensely by the lockdowns imposed by in response to COVID-19, rather than someone impacted by the virus itself.
We probably all remember what we were doing when the first lockdowns were announced. I was driving along the Puget Sound, on my way back from my office job in Seattle, Washington. That’s when I heard that I would not be returning to work the next day, nor any day for the foreseeable future. Soon after (a little too soon for my liking) I came to the realisation that all the gap year travel plans I had meticulously worked out for the next 4 months were up in smoke: I had no idea what I would do or when I would be able to get home to the UK. Everyone has similar stories, and many worse: people falling gravely ill, people forced out of school, university, and work, plans destroyed, people scared to go outside or see their families, and over all of it was this crushing uncertainty. How bad is it? What will the government do? What will we do? How long will this be? How long until things go back to “normal”?
As lockdowns lifted and were placed again, month after month, year after year, our desperation for answers grew, and now, nearly two years into this pandemic, the uncertainty continues. Sure, we have significantly more knowledge about the virus than we did two years ago: we have vaccines, vaccine passports, normalised rules, regulations and codes of social practice that we (to a greater or lesser extent) all live by. But if you ask me what I’m doing this summer, even a month from now, I probably won’t be able to tell you with any real level of certainty. I know what I’d like to be doing, sure (Greece this summer would be lovely), I may even have some relatively well-made plans (I’ve already booked tickets to go to Manchester in February). But there’s still the sneaking possibility that those grand plans might be completely upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, or any other event outside of my control (an unexploded WWII bomb evacuated me from my building last year, so, you never know!).
For a long time I resisted and resented this feeling of unknowing. My mum used to always say (lovingly, I think) that the most infuriating thing about me as a child was how I always had to know exactly what our plans were for that day, down to the minute. I needed to know with whom, when and what we would be doing at least five working days in advance (I know, what a barrel of joy I was); and I’m ashamed to say that constant need for control and expectation has persisted as I grew up. So, when I was told I wouldn’t know what I would be doing tomorrow, let alone in a week or a month or a year, and that this not-knowing would persist for years… let’s just say my acceptance of this unwanted new reality was not exactly graceful.
I found myself caught between trying to plan things to daydream myself out of the perpetual hell of living in lockdown, and trying to stop myself from getting my hopes up about planning things because I knew that they would almost certainly be destroyed. But, I (slowly, in a tooth-and-nail sort of way) learnt that I could either have high expectations and constantly be disappointed in reality, or I could just try to enjoy things for what they were. Ground-breaking, I know: religions and philosophers have trying to teach this philosophy for centuries, and yet I, 15 months into a global pandemic, finally stumbled upon this well-trodden teaching.
Nonetheless, it may not be new to the world, but just being without constant control and expectation was certainly new to me, though I now try to live by it. I’m not saying I don’t plan anything or look forward at all, I simply realised that my endless planning and desire to control every moment of my life is actually no way to live. It is hard to live in the moment (there it is, the inevitable cliché) but trying to do so is, it seems, the way forward. Enjoying things for what they are, these small, momentary constants that make us happy, is an equally (if not more) important pursuit than attempting to control or even expect what joys we may encounter in the future. So, I think despite the many negatives of the pandemic, it has, at least in this sense, changed me for the better.