I saw the light – hovering above my balcony late one night last November – and now I can’t unsee it. It was the first autumn lockdown. The one that provided an all-too-pithy prelude to The Big One which spanned Christmas through spring.
A friend had just texted: "I don’t feel like myself. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I just want to be me again."
But what if we weren’t the people we used to be? What if we had changed or, perhaps, been changed by the pandemic? And what if we were grieving for the people we used to be while trying to understand who we had become?
With the imposition of each lockdown, I have felt the most counterintuitive, bleak, creeping sense of relief. Relief that people would be protected. Relief that something was being done. Relief that I would be spared, at least temporarily, the tyranny of decision fatigue: is it safe to go for dinner? Is it ethical? If I don’t, will the hospitality industry survive? Do I actually want to go out at all?
Last weekend I woke up with a serious hangover for the first time in I don’t-even-know-how-long. My head was pounding, my hunger insatiable. My ears were ringing because wow, it is loud in restaurants and you end up shouting in conversations involving more than one other person. Has that gotten worse? Was it always like this? Was everything out there always so loud? How is it possible to see so many people, to talk so much and yet end up saying so little?
God, I sound like a fun sponge. I used to love drinking. I used to love parties. Or did I?
There has, for 18 months now, been so much focus on 'going back to normal'. As soon as the pandemic hit, the recent past – a sped-up world in which a rising cost of living had created hustle porn and girlboss culture which saw young women in particular running around like headless chickens because being 'busy' had been carefully turned into a status symbol for middle-class millennials labouring under the illusion that they existed in a meritocracy – was suddenly venerated. We were quickly nostalgic for things we didn’t even like but couldn’t reject: warm prosecco, exhaustion, not having any free time.
That’s how nostalgia works. It’s a trick our mind plays on us. Reimagining the past is a trap. It no longer exists; we can never go back. Nostalgia, says Dr Tim Wildschut, an associate professor within psychology at the University of Southampton, where there is a group dedicated to the study of nostalgia, "has often been confounded with homesickness. The word’s roots are Greek: nostos means ‘to return home’ and algos, meaning ‘pain’. It is the fact that we cannot recover the past, that we cannot ‘go home’ which makes it such a powerful place and fuels our longing to return. Of course, this is particularly true because the version of past we yearn for is never the past as it was but idealised and edited by memory."
You may not feel like the same person but what this pandemic has done is to give us greater clarity on who we are. On the things that matter. On the things that serve us best. On the things that we will value in the time to come.
Dr Heather Sequeira
Crucially, Tim notes, "people who spend time away from home often experience loneliness and sadness and so there has been a generally accepted notion that this is what triggers nostalgia. But now, we think it is the other way around. That is, that nostalgia is not the cause of loneliness or sadness but an adaptive response to it."
We can’t go back. We can’t be the people we used to be. They are gone. And in longing for a fictitious past as a salve for the chaos and isolation of this polarised present, we risk cutting ourselves off from its potential to help our personal evolutions.
Dr Heather Sequeira is a consultant psychologist. She says that many of her clients are finding that they cannot 'go back to normal'. There is, she explains, "one hell of a lot of pressure to say 'yes' to everything social at the moment and to go back to all the heavy-duty socialising we did before, including heavy drinking. Many people are pressured and conflicted about that."
But if the pandemic is, as the Indian novelist Arundhati Roy has put it, "a portal" then, perhaps, we have an opportunity here? "After any upheaval and change there is a chance to take stock and reflect on what is important," Heather advises. "You must seriously think – who or what for me worked well during the pandemic, who or what did I take value from and conversely who or what did I miss most, what would I continue to miss if the world had to stay in lockdown?"
We cannot go back to a past that no longer exists. Equally, we can’t grab hold of a future that is, by definition, not yet in existence. But we can engage with the present and interrogate the feelings we have about it. Asking these questions, Heather says, is a means of bringing you back to yourself. "You may not feel like the same person," she continues, "but what this pandemic has done is to give us greater clarity on who we are. On the things that matter. On the things that serve us best. On the things that we will value in the time to come."
Coronavirus has taught us a lot, hasn’t it? About ourselves. About our friends. About (the failings of) modern politics. About the fragility of our shared capitalist ecosystem. We’ve seen too much and now we can’t not see it all.
Lockdown may be lifting. The number of vaccinations might be rising. But don’t give into FOMO. Don’t fall into the trap of 'going back'. Look at what’s right in front of you. Lean into the things that actually fulfil you right now. Maybe all that gardening was about more than surviving lockdown? Perhaps baking gets you off more than sitting in the pub tapping your Monzo until you’ve got no money left. "When you nurture what fulfils you," Heather adds, "you will see a greater legitimacy in what serves you and therefore protect yourself from the tat and distraction that takes you away from that."