IF WE TAKE ANYTHING AWAY FROM THIS EXPERIENCE, HOPEFULLY IT’S KINDNESS
When life begins to have a semblance of normality, will we continue to look out for those who are vulnerable, keep in contact with loved ones, treasure the small things?
What do you think it’s going to be like, once it’s over? Will it ever really be over? We’ve been living in suspended animation during the pandemic. Even if you still went out to work, things weren’t the same. Queuing outside shops, relying more on home delivery, approaching people and places with caution, two metres (or six feet if you want to get imperial) the only measurement we can think of, avoiding public transport, staying largely within the confines of our own neighbourhoods.
While the global crisis played out on the news and in hospitals, for everyone at home, the world got smaller; we became villagers again, downsizing our lives for the greater good.
Lockdown has been about the things we miss. It wasn’t just postponed weddings, lost holidays or, in my case, , but the silly little things. I longed to go to a bar, order a Diet Coke and hear the dreaded “It’s Pepsi. Is that OK?” in return. Oh, to sit in a chain restaurant and have a mediocre meal. Outrageous fantasies were replaced by day trips into the mundane: being stuck in traffic on a bus; wandering round a department store looking at crockery; McDonald’s breakfast.
One thing that’s kept us going, made us feel less alone, is a stronger sense of community. The weekly applause for the NHS and key workers, where neighbours gather at gates, doorways or balconies – or hang out of windows – are not without controversy, but they are also a bonding experience, going much deeper than their origin as a thank you to hardworking staff. I’ve stood and watched every week to make sure the little old lady in the house a bit further down the street makes it to her garden gate on her walking frame – last week she wasn’t out as usual at 8pm on the dot and my heart ricocheted round my mouth until she finally emerged and gave her next-door neighbours a wave.
When we cannot blame misunderstandings on a lousy internet connection, might we continue to give chances, search for wider context, breathe a second before rushing in?
Umpteen corporate slogans might tell us we’re “all in this together”, but actions have always spoken louder than cheap mottos dreamed up in strategy meetings. Look at the various community groups rustling up meals for NHS staff or raising funds for NHS charities and the unifying content that’s sprung up on social media to keep us connected. From Joe Wicks’ daily PE sessions on YouTube or Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s indispensable Friday-evening Kitchen Discos on Instagram to the plethora of telethons, charity performances and free entertainment uploaded online, we’ve found belonging through a screen – surely this means a rethink of the internet’s outdated reputation for killing off conversation and being damaging to society. Acts of kindness have abounded in person too, be they practical stuff, such as people picking up bits of shopping for elderly neighbours or keeping local restaurants afloat by supporting their pivot toward takeaway. Shut inside our homes, away from loved ones in some cases, acts of kindness to strangers became a surrogate for our close ties, a distraction maybe from the worry someone we loved might not make it.
The personal connections we missed became digital ones. Virtual weddings, family arguments given a 2020 zhuzh in the form of weekly Zoom quizzes, making faces at colleagues in the daily FaceTime stand-up – even funerals moved online, allowing us that important step in the grieving process of saying goodbye. Conducting relationships over the internet made us more patient, perhaps, conscious of time lags, connectivity issues or a friend’s inability to cut a long story short, but still grateful for the human contact. “How are you?” became more meaningful, with the coronavirus giving us permission to respond to that question honestly, rather than tossing out, “Oh, fine!” and pressing on. We’re more open about how we’ve struggled and, I hope, more sympathetic to those having a harder time of it.
In isolation, we’ve lost the nuance and atmosphere that comes from being together, yes, but maybe it’s encouraged us to look on one another more kindly, to take calls we’d normally swerve, and to regret the cancelling of plans. While it’s not like being in the same room, and the digital world has its problems, it’s been a lifeline, proof if you needed it that a good internet connection is an essential utility like any other.
It makes you wonder how we’ll adjust post-lockdown. People with existing mental heath conditions, such as anxiety, may have felt they’ve been preparing their whole lives for this scenario. According to award-winning psychologist and executive coach Natasha Tiwari, “Those with anxiety who have found their calm, because the overwhelmingness of daily life has been removed and in a new, slower rhythm, their nervous systems are less overloaded.” Those previously unbothered have struggled more with these exceptional circumstances, perhaps suffering from anxiety without being able to pinpoint it, masking it by being busy. “Now they’re at home, potentially with their families, who can often trigger challenging emotions better than anyone else, it’s harder to avoid the feelings of anxiety that have been buried for so long,” says Tiwari. “For both sets of people, this time offers an opportunity to address mental wellness without the bombardment of daily life stresses.”
As with most things, leading by example and hoping it becomes the norm is probably our only course of action. If a sense of humanity and kindness can’t convince them, perhaps shame will.
So what happens next? Once lockdown is over, will we emerge, Bambi-eyed, into a brave new world where the most valuable currency is the kindness we embraced behind closed doors? Once kindness is no longer forced upon us by circumstance, what form will it take? Will we sink back into routine with a hurried call to the parents as we rush to our next social engagement or will we carry on staging the quizzes, let the Zoom calls continue? Will the increase in physical get-togethers come at the expense of virtual catch-ups; I’d say they’re just as important. Will we still let friends down at the last minute and duck out of plans for no good reason? (Cancelling plans is not a personality, by the way; just don’t say yes to stuff you might not want to do to or give plenty of notice if you’re going to no-show. God!)
When back to our regular schedule, will we still make time for our neighbours? We might feel like we’re back to normal, but this is not the same normal and adjusting to it may be difficult for some. When we cannot blame misunderstandings on a lousy internet connection, might we continue to give chances, search for wider context, breathe a second before rushing in? Embrace the time lag – a moment for pause can do you good. People might still need you. If you’re OK, help somebody who isn’t.
But what does this mean for our interactions with each other? “People have had the opportunity to realise how much interaction with others means to them and how much they miss it when it’s taken away,” says Tiwari. “This new cognisance will make people more aware of how they treat others and a new awareness of how we treat each other. The interconnectedness we have as a society is now impossible to overlook.”
‘The interconnectedness we have as a society is now impossible to overlook’
I hope Tiwari is right, but I’ll confess: the odds don’t look good. Even in the throes of a pandemic, Twitter has remained an arduous scroll, packed with anger, resentment and defensiveness coming from binary extremes. Kindness and caution have been mistaken – or wilfully misinterpreted – as weakness and laziness. The burden remains on the oppressed to go high when detractors go low and it is still exhausting. We can never persuade these people to act differently, perhaps, and we shouldn’t really die trying. As with most things, leading by example and hoping it becomes the norm is probably our only course of action. If a sense of humanity and kindness can’t convince them, perhaps shame will. Thankfully, social media is not the real world.
What the coronavirus has taken from us can never be replaced, but we have lost far too much not to transform our eventual survival, and our strength, into something valuable. Kindness: it’s time to make a comeback.