I remember talking to a Buddhist once about my despair at the way we humans are treating the planet - plastic waste, endless short journeys by car and the like – and she consoled me with a perspective from Buddhism that we must allow nature to run its course: if the earth needs to destroy itself in order to start again and rejuvenate, then so be it. The universe as we know it stands as just a speck in time against backdrop of forever. In the grand scheme of things, it is nothing. All will be well.
Indeed, all it takes is a perusal of the opening chapter of Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything to discover how tiny and insignificant the size and lifespan of our planet (let alone ourselves) is when stacked up against infinity and eternity. And indeed I found a certain comfort in adopting the perspective that, however messed up the world becomes during my lifetime, it won’t always be that way.
However, I’ve continued to experience increasing dismay at the state of affairs: extortionate prices to travel sustainably on public transport; having to visit 2-3 stores for the weekly shop to get both value and minimal packaging; an ongoing obsession and preoccupation with (sole-occupncy) car use… Whilst heartened by conscious living (tackling plastic waste in particular) becoming ever more present in the public psyche, I can’t help but feel it’s too little too late.
Enter global pandemic. For all the chaos and heartache caused by the current state of affairs, a common theme in our collective coping mechanisms seems to be 'finding the positives'. From the appearance of Facebook pages dedicated to acts of kindness, to reports of wildlife returning to previously-too-polluted places, the world really is embracing the happy by-products of a challenging situation. On a more individual level, I think we’re all counting our blessings and finding heightened appreciation of life’s small pleasures.
As the pandemic unfolds and its more favourable consequences transpire, I become increasingly convinced that nature really does know what it’s doing with this one. Yes, it will be hideous. Lots of people will die; everyone will suffer in some way or another; some countries, areas & groups will be hit particularly hard. But inevitably, we will come out of the other side changed. By ‘we’ I mean as individuals, societies and as a whole world. Perhaps this was just the catalyst to accelerate some cultural changes that were sorely needed. I like to use the term “societal recalibration” to describe this. To explain further, allow me to present some examples of things that deeply trouble me about modern (British) life and how the present situation contributes to putting them right.
Travel & environment:
I’ve already hinted at my level of dismay about the tendency to get in our cars and drive everywhere, often with only one person per vehicle (I use ‘our’ in the widest sense to reflect the nation as opposed to a group that specifically includes me!). Added to that, the financial and practical ease with which we can hop on and off planes like there’s no tomorrow is deeply disturbing when you consider the environmental consequences of this. I heard that one person flying from London to New York is the equivalent, in carbon emission terms, of the average individual’s car use for a whole year. A WHOLE YEAR! Multiply that by the number of people on that flight and the number of flights taking off daily, and the scale of the problem becomes incomputable to the human brain.
The good news is that this tragic circumstance is being partially reversed by the current lockdown on movement & travel. Stories of swans returning to the canals in Venice, for instance, illustrates the substantial impact that just a few weeks of changed behaviour can have. Now of course, the current limitation on transport can’t be maintained, but if each one of us were more thoughtful in our choices in the long-term – a short journey by bike here, a local weekend away instead of jet-setting to wherever is cheapest there – imagine the impact we could have on saving the planet. Immense.
Health & lifestyle:
90% of people in the UK are putting their health at risk by either smoking, having a poor diet, not being active enough or drinking too much. Some 70% have at least 2 of those risk factors, and over two-thirds of the population is overweight. Alcohol consumption is glamorised to the extent that even the most reserved of ‘normal’ social drinkers are often well-over the threshold of the increased-risk-to-health category. The advent of processed foods, motor vehicles, cheap booze, ‘smart’ technology that enables us to do anything & everything without leaving our sofas, and a whole host of other cultural and technological changes, are essentially slowly killing us. Usually the easy thing to do is the unhealthy one, and we’re in a terrible state because of it.
Enter a semi-lockdown state though and all of a sudden the population of joggers and walkers has quadrupled in my local area. As an aside, I’m proud of the UK Government (and I don’t think I’ve ever said that before!) for taking such a balanced public health approach to all this and continuing to encourage people to get out and exercise whilst maintaining social distancing and sheltering in place the rest of the time. Since this is one of the very few legitimate reasons for leaving the house, it seems that people who you couldn’t usually get to exercise if you paid them have realised that getting out and moving isn’t so bad after all. Others still are adopting home-workout routines they’d never normally have thought to do, in a bid to not go stir-crazy with all that time in the house. It seems that this phase has enabled many people to discover all the wellbeing benefits of exercise, and I hope this will help instil some long-term healthy changes and improved population wellbeing.
Sense of community:
It breaks my heart to think that we have almost no sense of community these days. People don’t know their neighbours; we rush around cities refusing to make eye contact with each other; many of us don’t know who we’d turn to in our local area if we needed help. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that social isolation (and its direct & indirect effects) is a bigger killer than any of the lifestyle factors mentioned above, with the scale and severity of the situation described in detail by an excellent report by the Eden Project.
I’m sure you’ll agree that the way people have pulled together during this time has been astounding. The NHS made a call for volunteers this week hoping to get 250 thousand sign-ups over the course of a few days. In less than 24 hours, 405 thousand people had registered their interest. Similarly in my local area, I’ve signed up to be part of a co-ordinated ‘community response’ to the crisis; I’ve not been offered any work yet as they’ve been so inundated with volunteers that it’s taking days & days to simply collate the details and work out who can do what. On a smaller scale, I went for a run this morning and was amazed how every single person I passed – from a distance of course! – offered a smile, wave, nod or ‘hello’. (It’s not rare for this to happen normally, but you don’t usually find that every person you cross will interact with you!) I am hopeful that whenever we return to some kind of normal, an enhanced sense of community will remain as a legacy to these times.
Pace of life:
Perhaps the thing I struggle most with in daily life is time pressure: what with work, socialising, fitness, maintaining a healthy lifestyle and general life-admin (lifemin!), there never seems enough time to get everything done (and this is coming from someone who in ‘normal’ life is largely absent from social media and rarely works more than her allotted 37 hours per week!). British life seems to have become something of a competition about who can be busiest all the time. Our diaries are so crammed you have to do things like plan dinner with a friend several months in advance, or block out time specifically to do nothing. My best friend, a Brit who lives in Italy where people simply take life as it comes, finds this particularly baffling. And she’s right; it’s stressful and encroaches on our ability to live spontaneously and simply enjoy the moment or see where the wind takes us. I often find myself grappling with the desire to ‘make the most of life’ versus a hankering for a simpler way of being, and wish I could find the ideal balance between the two.
As my mum said of our current situation, “I think it’s nature’s way of getting us all to slow down”. Having time to reflect, take stock, reconnect with ourselves and simply relax could do us all the world of good. We’ll find more time for things that usually go on the backburner, like reading, crafts and catching up with loved ones. We’ll realise we don’t need to be rushing around like headless chickens all the time, and that joy can be found in the simplest of pursuits. We may even find that a simpler life has healing qualities beyond that any type of therapy or medication could ever bring. I saw a quote on social media this weekend that nicely summed it up: Before rushing back to normal life, take time to consider which parts of it are worth rushing back to.
So there you have it, the bright side of what is in many ways a very dark period. If the world needs to dismantle itself temporarily in order to repair, our sacrifices will be worth making.
Note: if you’re curious about the title of this post, I committed when I started this blog that the vast majority of posts would be named from a song title or lyric. Dismantle.Repair is a song by a favourite band of mine and my brothers, Anberlin. Whilst the song itself isn’t particularly pertinent to the theme of the piece, I felt the title was rather apt and summed up the overarching point I was making rather nicely.