I had a shower yesterday and the water was still hot. I stood there and let the stream run for a while against the knot of tension between my shoulders where anxiety gathers and turns to pain.
I stood there for a while and felt my muscles relax and I thought to myself: I’m having a shower and the water is still hot.
It was a soothing thought in a time when it feels like we can’t take anything for granted: tinned foods, sanitary items, tomorrow.
It feels like this, in part, because of a virus—an unliving, self-replicating killer. It also feels like this because the existence of said virus has expedited the breakdown of many systems that help maintain the status quo.
But there is another, more fundamental reason that we feel like we can’t take anything for granted: because we can’t.
If we are actors on a stage than those institutions that keep everything feeling normal are like the stage sets—the fake trees, the picturesque skyline. But the set is falling apart. The background has vanished and now, alone on a stage with the stage lights beating down on us like hideous suns, the illusion has crumbled. The words of the script elude us and the narrative structure of the play has gone all to pieces.
Our routine falls apart and we scramble. We fight like animals over rolls of toilet paper. We scrub our hands until the top layer of skin is gone. We scrub our hands until they are the hands of skeletons clutching soap. With our skeletal hands we keep scrubbing until the soap itself wastes away and with it all our hopes and dreams, circling the drain like soap bubbles.
We have never been able to take anything for granted. And yet society spoon-feeds us the notion that everything’s fine. Television commercials broadcast smiling faces of people way too excited to be doing their grocery shopping. They show perfect family picnics where not a single person is missing.
Unless you follow the news, you could easily be fooled into thinking that this world they show in TV commercials is real. That there is no civil unrest, or war, or starvation. No illness or murder. It’s almost like that John Lennon song.
Many people are simply incapable of comprehending a world that exists beyond their daily lives—it is merely beyond the scope of their comprehension. Others must train themselves to not be affected by it daily, less they quicken that soapy, spiralling decline into the darkness of the drain.
One way, or another; we all find a way to get by.
Until, inevitably: something happens.
It can just as easily be a personal tragedy as a global pandemic. Sometimes, nothing specific triggers it at all. But the moment is easily recognised by that sudden sense of free-fall. We are Dumbo trying to fly without his magic feather.
There are books about it—The Plague.
There are TV shows about it—The Leftovers.
These events, whether personal or collective, make us realise that everything has changed. And yet, if we go outside, or even stand beside a window and even just look outside, we realise that nothing has changed. It’s the exact same world that we lived in before. There’s still sun and trees and the sky is blue and the clouds still drift lazily across it.
It can be maddening. If someone was not wholly in control of their faculties they might want to throw themselves upon the ground and beat it with their fists and scream, over and over: “Why do you mock me, sunshine, with your saccharine glow? Why do you tease me trees with your rustle of uncaring leaves?”
It is the heart of absurdity. That irreconcilable paradox that exists every day and yet we turn away from it. We drown it out with the act of living: a sort of beautiful, tragic illusion that humanity has created for ourselves. But a white picket fence makes for a poorly defence.
Once you’ve witnessed the absurdity for what it is—it cannot be unseen.
It will change you; perhaps it already has.
When the world goes through a collective experience like we are now: a pandemic or a war or, say the hypothetical disappearance of 2% of the Earth’s population (please watch The Leftovers); that sense of free-fall, that existential moment of crisis when Dumbo realises that he doesn’t have his magic feather becomes collective.
Such is the dilemma we now face. Not only a virus (although in Italy, military trucks have been assigned the job of transporting coffins), not simply an economic downturn (although the stock market has crashed to levels unseen since the 80s), not simply a cancellation of sporting events and the closing of pubs and the supermarket shortages.
The true crisis is yet looming—how we make it through the next bit.
People are going to be hurt by this in ways that they haven’t even realised. An empty roll of toilet paper becomes a pathetic metaphor; there’s nothing left for us to wipe the shit away with. And so coated with the excremental truths of reality, we become like soldiers returning from war.
We stare into nothingness, because we realise now—that’s all there is. The supermarket shelves are empty. A meal for a day becomes a unit of currency. A day becomes a unit of currency. Our lives stream by us as though rushing towards the next great tragedy and like foam we break against the rocks.
This is an important time to look out for the people around us and not only out of fear that they are developing a cough. Now is the time for us to realise, in this collective moment of incomprehension, that the world does not make sense.
The world is not fair. Everything we stockpile today may be taken from us tomorrow. That our very breath—each individual one—is the thing: for that breath is the singular moment from which your next breath stems and your next and your next.
No matter how scared we are of contracting a virus: we all still need to keep breathing.