“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
So many of us are feeling that we are living in the worst of times right now. Every day more news piles in about infections, death, and the loss of a life that we once knew. This disease is creeping malevolently across borders, continents and the world. Medics and health workers are desperately trying to save lives. Scientists are racing to produce a vaccine. Children are missing their education, livelihoods are being lost and people are being buried without their loved ones.
I deliberated about writing this blog. I worried that this was not the time. People are inundated by messages of doom. My project interviewing 100 people going through career and life change seemed too parochial given our momentous upheavals. Wasn’t it just too small, too irrelevant? I put off writing it for days. Really, what was the point?
I spoke to my sister today and she said: “Well tell people that. But write the blog anyway. Even if it helps just one person, then it is of some use.” I thought about it. Perhaps it might help me, too. Just to write something, to do something. I have been feeling particularly useless in the eye of this storm.
Last week I spoke to Mark, one of my interviewees, who said: “This current crisis will change my life more dramatically than anything I have chosen to do.” And this from a man in his mid-Fifties who has had many twists and turns in his life, some designed and others out of his control; from launching a start-up which made millions, through to insolvency and losing his fortune.
Covid-19, SARS-CoV-2, Coronavirus, whatever we call it. This thing we are living through will have a bigger impact than anything we have experienced since World War Two.
The quote at the start of this blog was from Charles Dickens. He wrote a Tale of Two Cities in 1859 about a French doctor, Doctor Manette, imprisoned in the Bastille for 18 years, before he is set free to live in London. It’s just before the American and French revolutions — the Reign of Terror, or “la Terreur” in French.
Is Coronavirus our equivalent — it this our Reign of Terror? Will this lead to films, documentaries and thousands of pages of analysis? Will history judge us well? In one hundred and sixty one years how do we want our future selves to look back on our 2020 “Terreur”?
It made me think. Could we somehow, somewhere in the future turn this into a different type of reign? Could it be an opportunity to right the wrongs, balance things out? Is there a way to change the way we live, to make it more sustainable?
It’s not for now. Now we are on a war footing. We are fighting for our lives. We are focused on our health, our work and our loss of freedom. But, sometime in the future, will there be a way that we can turn back the clock a little? Could we find some way of keeping the good things, but maybe shifting the dial back on others? I have a particular issue about rampant consumerism. Do we really need to buy sushi 24 hours a day? How many types of toothpaste does a person need to choose from? Apparently 119, (according to my supermarket’s online shop). When did it become OK to demand that peaches are flown in from Peru in December? I used to be quite happy with apples most of the year round. It’s a strange thing this quixotic madness about choice. It doesn’t come from us. It’s just designed to make us buy more.
Back in 1987 the UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said: “They are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first.” To be fair she did then follow this up afterwards by saying, oh and we need to look after our neighbours. But I think the die was cast for the next 33 years. We have become too selfish, too focused on ourselves. I don’t want to make this political. I’m not saying the opposite is better. I’m advocating that we lift our gaze beyond ourselves and help those further afield.
On the BBC news website I read that the UK’s National Health Service was looking for 250,000 volunteers to help deliver food and medicines and drive patients to appointments. I’m an action-oriented person. I’m struggling with not being able to do anything. My husband’s cancer means we have been instructed to go into lock-down for 12 weeks. We can’t even leave our front door.
I read this article and thought: “I’m completely useless. I can’t do anything.” It felt like my husband and I were a burden. Not only were we not able to help others, but we’d need the help ourselves, delivering his chemotherapy and food! Despite this I clicked on the link to read what jobs people could volunteer for.
I was delighted to see there was in fact one role I could do from home: a “check-in and chat volunteer”, offering support over the phone to people who are self-isolating and alone. I signed up right then and there. It’s just a small thing but I feel better that I’ll be doing something. Two days later 750,000 people had volunteered. That’s 1.5% of the adult population!
If we can bear to look away from the car crash of the negative news and look at the other side, we’ll find there are many positive stories. From the smallest of acts, such as a friend of mine who took flowers round to an elderly neighbour who was alone on Mothering Sunday, to people offering their services for free on the internet; yoga lessons, online exercise classes for kids, free guitar lessons, coaching, group meditation, to name just a few. Organisations are doing their bit, too — from audiobooks that are being released for free, to theatres and opera houses broadcasting their shows on Facebook and YouTube, and Headspace (the mindfulness app) offering free sessions.
Another example of the longer-term benefits of this horrible, terrible disease is climate change. NASA’s satellite pictures of China show a marked reduction in pollution. If you look at the images side by side — January 2019 versus February 2020 — you’ll see the pollution has completely dissipated.
We fly too much, we buy too much, we work too much. Maybe one of the changes we’ll see once this dreadful time is over is that we will work less and have more time. We’ll have less money, but maybe we’ll have more time for cooking, or sitting, or listening.
We are all having to grapple with new ways of being — from working at home, to connecting with loved ones and making things work in this new reality. Dickens novel is about revolution and resurrection and one moral of his story is that love involves sacrifice. I believe we will all need to sacrifice something over the next few months and maybe years if we truly want our world to change.
This won’t be easy.
As a species we can be rather slow. It takes a real catastrophe to make changes to our lives. One of my interviewees, Shaun, talked about growing problems at work followed by his wife’s severe illness which culminated in a “perfect storm”. Another interviewee’s partner had to be diagnosed with a brain tumour before he stopped working such long hours. Another was left by her husband, moved out of the marital home and put all her belongings into storage. The storage facility then burnt down with all her clothes, photos and a lifetime’s worth of important possessions. She has now given up her high-flying law career and is training to be a yoga instructor. Sometimes it takes these momentous things for us to wake from our slumber.
My father-in-law died alone two days ago in a hospital bed in Ireland. It is tragic. His wife, my mother-in-law, couldn’t visit. She couldn’t say goodbye. My husband can do nothing to help. He can’t comfort his mother (except on the phone). He can’t go to the funeral. This virus will impact us all. I’m hoping at some point in the future we can look back on this dreadful time and see it as a fork in the road.
The philosopher Jean Paul Sartre said that we live in an absurd, meaningless universe, but we are free to create our own lives and our own meaning. It is too soon for most of us. But in the future perhaps we will find some sort of meaning from this worst of times. Could it become the making of us?
This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.
Photos copyright of Charlotte Sheridan