By Jenni Rusell in THE TIMES, 23 April 2020
In the giant psychological experiment that is the national lockdown we’re acutely aware that the penalties aren’t equally shared. Everyone is confined, everyone is cut off, everyone is fearful about whether the economy is silently collapsing beneath us, everyone lives with a simmering unease about whether we or those we love are likely to die.
Beyond that rough equality are the familiar divisions of money, living space, expectations and psychological security, all exacerbated by this crisis. Anyone who has to juggle the care or schooling of young children with home working, anyone living in cramped homes, anyone who has lost their job and doesn’t get enough state support to pay bills and rents, anyone living with a violent man, anyone working six days a week to keep their business afloat, anyone who suspects that they may not have a job to return to is under extreme stress.
And yet, for those who aren’t bearing so many strains, the constraints of lockdown and the awareness of mortality are also an opportunity. People who have been furloughed, or put on a three-day week, or no longer need to commute or participate in as many dreary office meetings, suddenly have the chance to review their lives from a different perspective. Shaken out of the familiar routines that give us meaning and structure, and forcibly separated from most of those we are closest to, lockdown is pushing many people into a new awareness of what really matters to them.
These are not always the clichés one might expect. A sparky professional woman, widowed with a much-loved and married son, has feared loneliness and always assumed she would be delighted to live with him when needed. Offered a home last month, after two weeks of self-isolation, she realised to her amazement that she had created such a rewarding, structured, writing, walking and zooming life that independence and achievement felt more valuable than company and obligation. She’s proud and relieved she can generate such contentment.
In the reverse of that, a widowed father in his seventies who has spent his professional life consumed by its demands, leaving him little time for his children, has gone in to lockdown just as his only daughter is due to give birth as a single mother. He was preparing to be at his daughter’s side throughout the early months; it was to be his redemption. Now, as he’s at high risk, he cannot even see her. Worse, when she has the baby, she won’t be permitted visitors, and will be taking the child back to her empty home. She will be isolated in every way. He is distraught. This moment won’t come again.
The intensity of lockdown has exposed chasms in relationships, or bonded them in unexpected ways. A yoga teacher was looking forward to her husband’s early retirement next year; after a month together she finds him so intrusive she’s desperate to keep him at work until 2025. A couple in a happy five-year relationship where they stayed together twice a month have split up after three weeks’ confinement. However, a married man who separated acrimoniously from his wife three years ago after 25 years together asked if he could come back for lockdown, and they have been living harmoniously for the past few weeks.
Time is the greatest wonder and revelation among those I talk to. Nearly everybody, it turns out, from teachers to civil servants, architects to writers, has been feeling privately overwhelmed rather than fulfilled by the sheer number of commitments that they have been squashing into every day. The liberating freedom of the world pressing pause on most of its activities has been extraordinary.
A social work student and charity volunteer who is the driving force of her friendship group is thrilled not to have to go out, is declining all zooms and hangouts, and is reading instead. A concert pianist burst into tears of relief when his summer tour was cancelled. An energetic 80-year-old garden designer and indefatigable partygoer says she has been increasingly shattered by her days working and entertaining in London yet felt she had to keep going because everybody around her was living at this pace. An international businessman who’s been at home for a whole month for the first time in 40 years says that, freed from so many of his usual mental distractions, he’s seeing the spring flowers, or the beauty of an old stone wall, with a pleasure and intensity he’s never felt before.
Even those still working full-time at home are finding freedom around the edges. No time is wasted on dressing up or travelling. As one manager says, a long day on emails and video calls still lets him play the piano in a 15-minute gap, cook with his children, lie in the sun. The days are richer for it.
For many people the gradual realisation is not that they didn’t enjoy or at least accept the necessity of what they did in their lives BC, it’s that they were doing too much of it. Instead of savouring their experiences they have too frequently been bolting them, ticking them off mentally as if they were chores not choices. It’s the space around commitments and the energy for them that makes what we do enjoyable, vivid and memorable.
For the length of this pandemic people’s priorities will be, and have to be, their physical and economic survival. Nobody can afford to take their longevity or their work for granted. But in the shadow of our mortality this brief respite lets us glimpse what makes our existence meaningful or miserable, and what we might fight to retain.