Emails beget emails.
In her essay ‘Suffering Like Mel Gibson’, Zadie Smith more eloquently argues what I was hacking at in ‘What we’ve lost’. In short, she suggests that the acknowledgement of suffering can be seen as an act of self-care. She writes, ‘suffering has an absolute relation to the suffering individual’ and therefore no-one has the right to judge the severity of another’s discomfort. Extracts pieced together here as a summary.
The misery is very precisely designed, and different for each person, and if you didn’t know better you’d say the gods of comedy and tragedy had a hand in it. The single human, in the city apartment thinks: I have never known such loneliness. The married human, in the country place, with partner and children, dreams of isolation within isolation … The widower enters a second widowhood. The pensioner an early twilight. Everybody learns the irrelevance of these matters next to ‘real suffering’…
Early on in the crisis, I read a news story concerning a young woman of only seventeen, who had killed herself three weeks into lockdown, because she couldn’t ‘go out and see her friends’. She was not a nurse, with inadequate PPE and a long commute, arriving at a ward of terrified people, bracing herself for a long day of death. But her suffering, like all suffering, was an absolute in her own mind, and applied itself to her body and mind as if uniquely shaped for her, and she could not overcome it and so she died…
…when the bad day in your week finally arrives – and it comes to all – by which I mean that particular moment when your sufferings, as puny as they may be in the wider scheme of things, direct themselves absolutely and only to you, as if precisely designed to destroy you and only you, at that point it might be worth allowing yourself the admission of the reality of suffering.Zadie Smith in Intimations, pg 29
2020 has been an odd year to celebrate momentous occasions. And, ironically, there seems to be more momentous occasions in my immediate realm this year than years past. Thirtieth and sixtieth birthdays, a birth, two weddings, a ten year wedding anniversary, thankfully no funerals…
Major crises like pandemics, wars and environmental disasters demand resilience of individuals and communities: they require adjustment, reconfiguration, compromise and loss, on a massive scale.
Changes made by very ordinary citizens have the capacity to facilitate the preservation of life. In this pandemic, change has meant mask-wearing, social distancing, working from home and limited travel. In wars it has meant curfews, blackouts, food rationing. In my experience, the required modifications have been uncomfortable but entirely doable because the situation is so critical.
Having never previously lived through a global event of this kind – one which completely disrupts ‘normality’ for an extended period of time – I’d never really thought about the continuation of life on these terms. In the context of a pandemic, the civic duty to preserve life significantly suppresses the continuation of life. They are in opposition to each other.
In a post from early August I marvelled at how adaptable humans are, and indeed it is true. But three months further along, the reality of this long-term game is more tangible. It has become more necessary to acknowledge anxiety, disappointment and frustration to safe-guard my endurance – also known as the reliable human need to vent, the need to have ones grievances heard before getting on with things. Reconfiguring birthdays, weddings, anniversaries… a spring, a summer, an autumn… indefinitely postponing a visit to see my mum on the other side of the world… It has all been doable but, like every other crisis bystander in the history of time, we won’t ever get back what we’ve lost during this period of partially suspended liberty. At the same time, we are extremely fortunate to be bystanders and not victims. A pandemic is an extraordinary thing to have lived through.
The other day I started to wonder what shape life will take as the pandemic eases (returning to ‘normal’ is not desirable). I suspect that change will happen slowly. As a consequence, it may be harder to register our increasing freedoms and be grateful for them. An idea: it seems pedantic to log every pandemic policy change as it arises, but I will try it as a way of making myself more aware of the current status and what I have to be grateful for, when it finally arrives.
No single word can accurately capture the strangeness of 2020. MR and I have been extremely fortunate that we have, in the scheme of things, been relatively unaffected by the Coronavirus Pandemic. Our jobs – and income – have remained unchanged, and we have a dedicated workspace at home each with a comfortable desk and chair. We have no children that require entertaining or educating, nor any elderly family living locally in need of care. We have had the privilege of access to food, physical space, face masks, hand sanitiser and soap, unlike a large proportion of the developing world.
Despite our privilege, I am weary. In January, scaffolding went up around the Victorian terrace next to ours, ahead of a major reconstruction which gutted the property and added a floor. Aside from two weeks in early April, due to government restrictions on non-essential work, the renovation has charged forward. Hammering, drilling, sanding, sawing, has been the soundtrack of the last six months meaning that almost all of my work video calls have required me muting and briefly unmuting my microphone to contribute to the conversation.Read more