Watching a horror film the other night about a young mother learning to live with the death of her husband, I was struck by an unsettling thought.
We spend life largely ignoring the only certainties in it.
Of course it’s easier, nicer, more bearable to focus on the superficial things. No one wants to be that person at the party.
But life’s great miseries come for us all sooner or later.
Before the pandemic, some of us were already eternally settled in the no-man’s land between the kingdom of the well and the kingdom of the sick, as Susan Sontag describes it. A place of constant discomfort.
Others, more burdened, had been forced to migrate to that darker domain where confinement and isolation are the standard. The days shorter, numbered.
The scars of sickness, of loss and grief may fade with time, but the damage is done. The lenses of our rose-tinted glasses smudged and cracked.
As the uncomfortable realities of our existence come into focus, something inside us softens.
We start making time to reassess what’s important. To appreciate the small things. To prepare for what may lie ahead. To be thankful for those around us, looking out for us.
We muster up strength and courage from a deep well of hope to face the unknown. To keep going.
And now, for a blink of an eye, a brief moment in history, we find ourselves on some form of one-dimensional, equal footing as a species. Confined to our homes. Restricted by the same rules. In need of the same essentials: food, connection, reassurance.
Those who are new to such precariousness are uncomfortable. The warm quilt has been pulled away, leaving nothing but cold discomfort and revelation.
The sudden understanding of our reliance on others, contrary to the illusion of independence we held so fiercely. The immense burden that small actions mean the difference between life and death.
‘Aware that there is no separate mode of existence,’ as Richard Powers puts it. ‘That our very lives are dependent upon the lives of others, over which we can have no control, and the renunciation of control is something that does not come easy to us.’
As the virus touches our lives in one way or another, we mourn what is lost.
‘The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively,’ says David Kessler, author and grief expert. ‘We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.’
Yet with this collective anticipatory grief comes great empathy. By being kind, thoughtful, helpful, there’s an opportunity to find comfort in our discomfort. Lend a hand or an ear. Turn our backs on the kaleidoscopic hallucination of our own importance.
Escape the life of commodity and replace it with the life of community, as Powers puts it.
Will these raw feelings stay with us beyond lock-down? Will we continue to help and look out for those who were confined before and remain so after? Celebrate and respect the key workers, the life-savers who provide us with food, medicine, care? Rediscover the connections, communities, compassion that have been there under the surface, sustaining us all along?
Will we see that things do not, cannot solely revolve around our selves?