As I trudge through these pandemic days I wonder: why does life feel so heavy now? Why is each step like wading through a strong undertow? What does it mean, ontologically, to exist in pandemic times? The answers are varied and complex.
COVID has stripped away many of the fine-grained details and multilayered complexity that usually accompany our lives. It has pared us down to a simpler core. In the midst of this less complicated existence, there is an opportunity to better understand what makes up a good life for each of us. For centuries philosophers have puzzled over and debated the question of what is a good life, a decent life, a satisfactory life. Ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle were so consumed by this conundrum that they had a term—‘eudaimonia’—for the life that one would like to live. Existentialists such as Satre and Camus worried that perhaps at the core of our existence is a sense of dread, of nausea, of emptiness. When we take away the fillers, the busyness, the minutiae, what is left? And is it enough?
Time itself has been transformed. We usually experience time in cycles and patterns to which we attach meaning and emotions. The weekend as the reward and rejuvenation that follow the working week. School holidays that break up and shape school terms. Holidays as recompense for hard slog. But the pandemic has altered life into one long Groundhog Day. We are trudging through sameness with very little in the way of novelty or contrast. Even the seasons have turned against us: I could swear it has been winter since mid-March. I feel I have aged ten years in these six months.
Long-vanquished demons have returned. For me, insomnia and migraines have increased, in vicious lockstep. Sleeplessness brings a sensation of jet lag: my body is shaken free of its innate awareness of diurnal rhythms. Migraines confer a sense of time interrupted. Each episode creates a rift in the fabric of time, disrupting my sense of connection between different days of the week or weeks of the month. I jerk between temporal moments with only jagged edges, no smooth transitions. We are all of us loosened from our normal rhythms, and free-falling through limitless galaxies.
COVID has stolen our ability to plan for the future: to forward-project our selves through time and space. As Buddhist philosophy teaches, this sense of security about a future that can be anticipated was always illusory. Everything is impermanent. And yet future-planning was a comfort and a consolation: a necessary illusion for many of us. We plan things to look forward to, like camping holidays or birthday celebrations. When we cannot see people we care about because they live at a remove from us, we plan for when we can next see them. This fantasising is a solace for the periods of separation. But now that our knowledge of when we will see loved ones again is removed, the distances between us feel greater, almost untraversable. We are stuck in a never-ending present.
There is much that I appreciate about these pandemic times. Life stripped back to simplicity starkly reveals how much of our consumption is completely discretionary. We patently don’t need all those new clothes and new gadgets. Our busy lives have been unencumbered of many of the time-eating activities that breed mania, not satisfaction. Freed of endless afterschool training and lessons, children can enjoy unstructured, unjustified time. One friend told me that COVID has forced her to focus on the people who really matter to her, with whom phone conversations are healing and reviving. For parents scrambling to squeeze home school and paid work into each day, being time poor forces savage decision-making: when time is drastically limited, what do you choose to prioritise and what do you let go of?
While I try to hold on to these blessings in my mind, what scares me most is the not knowing when this will end. During our first wave of restrictions in Victoria, the sense of novelty fuelled my innocent optimism that life would return to normal. But now, as when I had my first child, I am slowly realising that things will not return to the way they were. Too much has changed for us to find our way back to those selves, those times. This dawning realisation carries some sadness with it—I didn’t even have time to say goodbye to the old days. And yet, just like becoming a parent, there is profound potentiality in the metamorphosis the coronavirus is forcing upon us. I faintly perceive that there is radical possibility in the question we are called to answer: what will we build in place of our old lives?
Those of us raised in Australia in the seventy years since the end of the Second World War have never known the bitterness of severe depression and widespread joblessness; the poverty of being unable to buy frivolous, discretionary items and travel freely and thoughtlessly; or the desolation of being denied the pleasure of being able to see your family and friends whenever you wish. But many others have, in many times and many places. I have often tried to practise gratitude for these simple things, but with limited success. Now I feel I will never take these gifts for granted again.
Beyond these introspective realisations, COVID is shining a painfully dazzling light on the inequities and imbalances in our society. The shared cost of neoliberalism’s brutal dismantling of workers’ rights. The ludicrousness of imagining that the free market could be trusted to take care of the most vulnerable members of our society. The essential role that a well-resourced public health system plays in a time of crisis. And the terrifying, multilayered ramifications of our domineering and destructive relationship with the natural environment.
My hope is that when we can begin to rebuild our individual and collective modes of existence, we remember these hard-learnt lessons. And that when we once again have the luxury of a spontaneous hug with someone we love, or a casual, mask-free walk in nature, we recognise these small things as the privileges they are. And we come to know what it is to inhabit a good life.