How long have we been in a pandemic now? Is this year one or two? I’d like to take the blue pill, please, and go back to sleep. Everything I look at – Instagram, Twitter, the news – seems to suggest that reality is glitching. Between stories of people posting their positive lateral flow tests, I wonder whether my TV has been hacked. They are talking about the prime minister, cheese, wine and coronavirus restrictions in the same news segment. The government says that no rules were broken. The sky isn’t blue anymore. Sure.
My phone is shuddering – will the memes spawned by this story finally crash it?
All this attention given to what victuals Downing Street staff may or may not have consumed is diverting our gaze from what’s going on at the Home Office. The Borders Bill, which would allow the home secretary to strip a naturalised British person of their citizenship without any notice at all. The Police Bill, which will criminalise protest. Isn't that a basic right? My eyes can’t quite focus, is everything moving too fast or am I tired?
Am I 32 or 33? I close my eyes and count back to 2019, before all of this. I can confirm, I am indeed 33. I used to be a hopeful person, I think. Not the toxic positivity, Instagram optimism variety; the practical kind. For hope is, as Rebecca Solnit writes, "an embrace of the unknown" because when things are uncertain, there’s the possibility that you can shape the future.
Maybe it’s just me but mustering hope is a struggle right now. Maybe that’s because shaping the future seems impossible. Forces beyond our control are in the driving seat yet again. We were just trying to get to the end of the year and, like frostbite, we didn’t realise how bad it was until it was too late.
Now Omicron has put paid to all plans. We aren't actually in lockdown but many pubs and restaurants are closed because people are staying away from one other. While it felt possible to be glass-half-full about restrictions in 2020 as I sat at home, alone, with COVID – "It's just one year" – now the slightest whisper of the words 'circuit breaker' catapults me back to people bulk-buying loo roll in Tesco, being unable to buy eggs anywhere in my neighbourhood and police patrolling my local park as I took what my best friend and I call "a bitchy Victorian socially distanced stroll". Regardless of what’s right, no wonder most adults in England are opposed to strict lockdown rules.
It’s all a bit weird right now. A bit bleak. How do you stay hopeful in the face of what feels like yet more darkness?
Dr Heather Sequeira is a consultant psychologist. She says everyone is "tired, depleted of energy and fractious" because "as humans, while we are actually pretty good at coping with short-term stress in a predictable time frame, the issue now is that the time frame is uncertain and the outcome is uncertain."
Voicing our experiences helps us understand that this is a shared experience, not one that is isolated only in us.
Dr Heather Sequeira
That might be why it feels like you’re living in a screensaver: there is at once a lot going on and nothing at all. All of this chopping and changing "results in a state of chronic exhaustion from being in a state of perpetual stress", Heather explains. There are very good reasons why one in five adults have had depressive symptoms during the pandemic.
"I personally think of it as like being in an ultra-marathon without a clear end point as opposed to a 100m sprint," says Heather. "Biologically as human beings we are built to manage 'sprints' – short-term, intense stresses – followed by a period of recuperation. Because of this we usually cope well with acute high stresses (e.g. deadlines at work, exams etc.) because these stresses are generally time-limited and we can decompress, recuperate and detach afterwards. But the demands placed on us by the pandemic have been very different."
Omicron is just the latest in a growing line of variants which have come along to railroad life as we know it. It is very difficult to make any sort of plans right now – some things may never be the same, others will be very different and, increasingly, we are realising that some aspects of life may never return. Office life, for instance, may be unworkable. And as many a meme has joked, it might make more sense to have Christmas at a time of year when the weather doesn’t embolden a killer virus.
Humans don't do terribly well with with change. "As humans we are hardwired to plan and take action, uncertainty is something that as humans we are not generally good at tolerating," Heather continues. "We may notice that we are experiencing more fallings out or disruptions in our relationships with people around us. Over time this can lead to feelings of energy drain or exhaustion, negative feelings about one’s self, a decreased sense of professional motivation and sometimes depression. We can think of dominoes and how one stress to one domino sets off a chain reaction, making the next domino in the line fall down."
"It's very hard to adapt or adjust quickly because things are constantly in a state of flux," she adds. "At the same time we are grieving the loss of our previous reality."
It would be a lot to contend with, for anyone, at any given time in history. That’s why hope is waning. Hope, by definition, is a feeling of expectation and a desire for a particular thing to happen. Lockdowns and restrictions, necessary as they have been, have impressed upon us that sometimes we don’t have agency. We are only able to do so much.
"To start with, voicing our experiences helps us understand that this is a shared experience, not one that is isolated only in us," Heather explains. "Naming the shared reality of these experiences helps us process them and adapt to new ways of being. We also often find that many of our friends and family are having pretty much the same responses."
Once we've done that, how do we hope again? How do we regain a sense of control over the future?
Crucially, hope and optimism are not the same. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, optimism is the belief that you will experience positive outcomes in your life. Hope, on the other hand, is more than a feeling. It is, as eminent hope researcher and author of The Psychology of Hope, Professor Charles Richard Snyder, defined it: "a positive motivational state that is based on an interactively derived sense of successful (a) agency (goal-directed energy) and (b) pathways (planning to meet goals)".
When we drop the struggle things feel lighter and we are better able to take actions that help us go forward.
DR HEATHER SEQUEIRA
Hope is not a Pollyanna-ish sense that everything will be okay when it quite clearly might not be. Hope is not inchoate or ethereal, it is practical and attainable. You can put plans in place – even if they might change – which engender hope.
Optimism and pessimism present binary thinking but hope is flexible. It is planning, it is forward-looking and it is being prepared to adapt when your plans change.
To regain a sense of hope, Heather says it’s important to look ahead – even if we don’t feel like it. It might sound easier said than done but we’ve come this far. In January it will be two years since coronavirus started to sweep across the globe.
"Focus on tiny 'achievements' today. No matter how small," Heather encourages. "Focus on planning something in the spring when chances are we'll be able to mix with less restraint and travel again." Hope is about anticipation and we need things to look forward to. Every year, my friends get together for 'framily' Christmas which, we all agree, is the main event before going home to our nuclear families. This year it has been postponed until February because of Omicron.
Who knows. February 'framily' celebrations might get pushed to March, the goalposts may keep moving and that’s why, above all, Heather says we have to stop struggling against the discomfort of all this uncertainty.
"Paradoxically, when we drop the struggle things feel lighter and we are better able to take actions that help us go forward," she concludes. The pandemic has reminded us that life is not under any obligation to unfold as we expect it to, but some things remain the same. As the end of 2021 approaches, the darkest day of the year – the winter solstice – is already behind us. The days will get longer, the future will be brighter – that much is certain. Nature sticks to the same schedule every year. Life goes on and you can’t move forwards until you are prepared to stop looking backwards. Christmas in March? I can think of worse things.