Will Lockdown Make Us Better People?
Illustration by Mr Kouzou Sakai
Of all the strange and intense experiences of the past two months – amid the anxiety, the awfulness, the isolation and cabin fever – one aspect has been especially odd, because it’s the kind of thought that makes you feel like a terrible person merely for thinking it. Could there be something about the lockdown we’ve endured, in the face of a lethal and economy-destroying pandemic, that’s actually been… sort of good?
Allow me to explain. I’m no psychopath, and maybe “good” isn’t quite the right word here. True, a few lucky introverted souls might have discovered that zero social contact suits them just fine. Or perhaps you belong to that quasi-mythical (and deeply irritating) tribe who really did manage to use quarantine to launch a business, renovate the flat, or learn Portuguese. For most of us, though, it’s more accurate to say that we’ve learned something important about what really matters, often in a bittersweet way. Now that they’re absent, we’ve come to understand how much specific friends or relatives mean to us. Or we’ve realised, as we applaud healthcare workers, that we’ve much to be grateful for – it’s just that we were previously too busy to notice. Or it dawns on us that our frenetic social lives, now placed on pause, were functioning to distract us from certain essential but uncomfortable questions about our career or relationship, which can no longer be avoided.
In this sense, there’s a parallel between the pandemic and how some people react to receiving a cancer diagnosis. You’d never choose it, of course. But it’s a profoundly meaningful chance to reassess how you’re spending your life – to ask, in the words of the psychotherapist Dr James Hollis, whether you’re pursuing a path that enlarges rather than diminishes you. Which leads to the next obvious question: as we begin, slowly, to recover something resembling normality, can we do anything to hold on to any of these lessons – to build a life that’s better as a result of what we learned under lockdown?
The challenge is both a collective one and a personal one – about the kind of society we want to create, and the kind of individual life we intend leading. “When the crisis subsides,” the radical economist Mr Charles Eisenstein points out, “we might have occasion to ask whether we want to return to normal, or whether there might be something we’ve seen during this break in the routines that we want to bring into the future.” Or as the New York-based writer and director Mr Julio Vincent Gambuto put it: “We get to Marie Kondo the shit out of it all.” We get to inspect each aspect of our lives – each friendship, each expenditure, what we do with our free time – and ask if we really want to keep it, or if it’s time to chuck it out.
“We get to inspect each aspect of our lives – each friendship, each expenditure, what we do with our free time – and ask if we really want to keep it, or if it’s time to chuck it out”
It’s notoriously difficult to turn this sort of epiphany into long-term action. (Once they recover from cancer, people who swore they’d live a different life frequently fail to do so.) But one technique that’s useful is keeping a journal: recording your ideas in writing gives them a life of their own, beyond the fleeting emotions that generated them, making it likelier you’ll integrate them into your life. Memorable rules of thumb can help, too. It’s one thing to resolve, in some vague way, to do better at reaching out to friends in need of support after lockdown; but it’s another to follow the recommendation of Movember, the men’s health charity, and memorise the acronym “Alec”: ask (how someone’s doing); listen (with no judgment); encourage action (suggest simple things that might help) and check in (suggest having another conversation soon).
And yet the most enduring legacy of these times may simply be having made it through them. Younger adults today are often accused of being emotionally fragile, and it’s been argued that the pandemic might make matters worse – that we’ll become a society of people who panic every time someone coughs on the bus, or a jogger passes closer than two metres. Yet research into “post-traumatic growth” suggests the opposite could happen. Millions of people, rather than going through life dimly fearing some calamity, will have experienced a very real one – and survived. To realise you can weather such a storm is to learn something new, and encouraging, about your capacities for resilience. It neutralises fear. If you can deal with that, you’ve much less reason to keep avoiding whatever scary-but-fulfilling career or relationship choices you’d been procrastinating on before.
That’s the true sense in which the surreal events of 2020 may prove, in the end, to have contained the seeds of opportunity. Not because you were supposed to use your time at home to launch a side hustle, or learn an impressive new skill, but because you’ll emerge from the experience with a clearer sense of what matters in life – and more of the confidence you’ll need in order to pursue it.