Before the situation with Covid-19 had touched all of our lives so closely, and in so many strange ways, we all had plans. Despite the widespread feeling that things are in a heavy period of change, crucially with regards to the global ecosystem, most of us were by and large continuing as normal. I think none of us really thought anything would really happen that would restrict our freedom to shape our lives, or at least, if we did, we often didn’t take drastic action, instead keeping the fear of environmental collapse at arm’s length.
But now something has happened that has drastically restricted our freedom to shape our lives. More accurately, it has diverted us into new channels: we still have the agency to evolve but whereas before the limits on the directions we can choose in the UK are comparatively non-existent as well as highly varied both in kind and degree, they now are uniform and ubiquitous. This is a collective predicament, not just in the UK but throughout the world, and regardless of economic or socio-political advantages: Boris Johnson in the ICU, for example.
An interesting feature of the timeline of this pandemic has been the successive abrogations made to our external freedoms, and the episodic nature of our acceptance. As each restriction came in, we progressively relinquished our ability to move around and continue as normal until there was nothing left. By nothing, I mean in terms of plans for the future. Shock, loneliness, inertia, boredom, adjustment, self-discipline, solitude: all these were left to us and more.
Now we have had to turn inwards, to surrender our projects and projections, to come back to our homes and to solitude. This has brought a range of challenges for everyone, and those of us who have found an amenable situation, for whom the lockdown has provided quiet and space, should be grateful, and hold the predicaments of the less fortunate in their consciousness. The balance here, however, I find, is not to let that consciousness deny the beauty of what I have.
Here at Benmore, there are 120 acres of botanic garden literally on my doorstep, and at the moment it is the first emergence of spring. Chaffinches and blue tits squabble noisomely outside the window, leaping in and out of the gaps in the mossy dry stone wall. Red squirrels are industriously patrolling the rhododendron glades, which have tentatively offered their first blossom, almost just to test the air. The midges are back, and the ticks too, and the air is warm and damp with the transformation that is taking place. Everything is made anew.
But as strange as it sounds, it took a little while to see it this way. When lockdown began, my feeling was one of incarceration and the frustratingly arbitrary denial of the forward motion of my individual schemes. But at some point, you have to wake up and smell the roses. What good am I doing anyone fretting about the relative good fortune of my situation? None. In fact it would be better for someone else to be here instead of me if the pristine beauty of the forest does nothing but make me feel guilty.
A man was being chased by a tiger, and in his attempt to escape, he fell off a cliff. Catching himself on some hanging vines, he took stock of his situation. The tiger, growling menacingly above him; a long fall and sharp rocks below; mice. Mice?! Mice, scurrying over to gnaw through the man’s lifeline. As the vine grew thin and started to strain, the man looked over and saw a small strawberry plant, bearing one large, ripe fruit. He reached out and plucked it, placing it in his mouth. How sweet it tasted..
It is my task, therefore, since I find myself here with no commitments, space, beauty, peace, to make something of it. It is an opportunity that must be taken, precisely because there are people stuck in tiny flats in the city, in abusive relationships, financial straits, vulnerable co-habitants. As such, I have taken it upon myself to construct a routine in which I can make good on this gift. I will not bore you with its intricacies, they are inconsequential. The experience of getting into this routine, however, is worth some discussion.
Having spoken to a few friends and family who have felt deeply unmotivated and sometimes depressed, I realised it was only after a period of the same difficulty that I was able to emerge into a more productive, positive routine. Adjusting to the new regime took me the best part of the week following the first day of lockdown (23rd March), and I was certainly not in a good place for several days. I would sleep until one, two in the afternoon, and then shuffle about the house, perhaps not even leaving, until bed time. But I would not sleep. Twisting and turning, trying to grapple with the dead weight feeling, as if someone had placed a heavy stone on my chest. I felt impotent and miserable, and even resentful towards the activities that I knew would pull me upward. My feinting attempts to start a routine would span a couple of days and then collapse into bed surfing, where I would lie in mental conflict with the stone, trying so hard to get up and do something. But somehow not quite managing it, I instead surrendered to the thrill of having absolutely no commitments to keep.
Before the lockdown, everyone had contracts to fulfil, places to be and responsibilities to undertake. Now, many of these have disappeared and there is no one to please, no threat of disapproval or retribution if absolutely nothing is done. But as we are prone to forget, we have ourselves to answer to as well as everybody else, and I eventually reached a point where I recognised how completely I was doing this all to myself. The question, then, is, why? Do I deserve this type of treatment from myself?
Of course, the answer is no, but the first step is fighting back in a real way, just once. Ignore all the thoughts that keep you where you are, that question the purpose and even the value of doing something you think would be productive. Push against the force of inertia with just an incrementally greater force, one extra thought of ‘I’m going to do this, whether you like it or not’, and you will break through. Grit your teeth and get it done, whatever it is.
For me, it is going to lie down, fully submerged in the river outside the cottage. From the warmth, the safety and the comfort of the bed this is at first a horrendous prospect, but the whether you like it not part was instrumental for me in breaking through, as was breaking it down into its component tasks. ‘Getting in the river’ seems a Herculean task, I know, but if you have focussed all your attention on all the successive stages leading up to this final moment, that is all it is, the final moment in a process.
And afterwards, the feeling of achievement and euphoria are your reward. Both the eagerness and resistance within you have now seen the benefit. This meant that the second time I went to go in, the resistance was a little less, because I could no longer question its purpose and value. The third time, as before, I faltered, but already I was getting used to doing it anyway, so again I went. After this, things get a whole lot easier. The initial laziness of your own uncooperative attitude is les convincing, as the knowledge of the benefits becomes greater. You notice your increased ability to push back, to achieve the task, and you want to add to it, in the same way that you wanted to add to your time in bed.
So if you want to do more but find you are not, be tough on yourself to begin with. Recognise that the biggest barrier to doing something that is hard and worthwhile is your own thoughts about what it entails. Inevitably you will find you were wrong about how bad you thought it was going to be.
But also recognise your fragility, and be kind about where your head is at. There’s no need to punish yourself if you fail, just try again, and laugh affectionately at your own stubbornness.