What comes next?
What comes next is a question we impatiently ask ourselves throughout our lives. It assists planning. It is the bedrock of ambition. It builds futures. But, right now, what comes next is tinged with more uncertainty and fear than we are used to. In our cosseted, modern lives, those of us who live in stable, Westernised societies, have become lazy in our thinking - we've too often narrowed the focus of what comes next to our own small patch of the planet - ourselves, our families, and our friends and colleagues. Now the focus of what comes next has exploded to encompass the entire planet and all its peoples and ecosystems and political situations. And contemplating this near-incomprehensible what comes next is exhausting. I've been struggling with it for at least two months. Let's face it, I'm not alone - you have too; along with the rest of the population. Of the entire world. I say two months ... but in reality, we have probably been contemplating this since February, when most of us first became aware of Covid-19.
2020 has been a hiatus in our global history. Like all the plagues that came before, it has been an interruption to the expected course of events. Which pretty much defines hiatus -
Hiatus: definition - from the Latin 'hiare' which means a gaping yawn. A hiatus is a gap or a pause in time during which the normal course of events fails to happen - all those cancelled weddings, and sports, and concerts, and festivals, and graduation ceremonies, and birthday parties, and holidays, and scheduled surgical operations, and courses of chemotherapy, and routine health checks.
Picture for a moment, a cartoon coronavirus yawning widely - the cheek of it: yawning! Widely! Thinking to itself - 'Well, this is going well. Bit of a breeze. All these silly humans clamouring together just waiting for me to catch up with them. Making my job easy peasy.' That round, cartoonish blob we all now recognise as the coronavirus, with spiky bits protruding from it, sometimes depicted as horns like someone has skewered it with trumpets. Intriguingly, it is the RNA within those horns - and the vaccines manufactured from it - that might yet save us. Might even stopper its yawning.
Physically, a hiatus is defined as a fissure where something is missing. When we get to 2021, I suspect we may look back and feel that 2020 was largely missing.
I last posted on May 14th, which seems like a decade ago. Then in the UK, we were still in our first full lockdown. A lockdown that felt alien, and disconcerting, and terribly isolating. But in retrospect, however, it also felt safe. Yes - incredibly, it felt safe.
That is perhaps a paradox - how can you be safe in the middle of a pandemic? Of course, we weren't - not absolutely - but our homes felt inviolable. They were like cocoons of gentle cotton wool protecting us from the outside. From others. From an invisible and infinitesimally small and therefore horribly frightening enemy. Yes, we had to service that cocoon - wash our shopping; view post with distant suspicion; launder our clothes after a shift at work; and wash our hands regularly - an alien watching might have wondered at the fortunate happenstance of sinks and taps and soaps and bathroom mirrors all having so many birthdays! Yes, we were suspicious that others had constructed for themselves only a loosely imagined veneer of a cocoon; and there were some too, who had peppered theirs with holes and appeared to think themselves either above the law or immune to the virus. We all know those others and those some. And we worried, during that first lockdown, if their recklessness might send ripples out from their leaking cocoons and if we'd see those ripples coming, in time to jump. Then, in the summer, we worried if the race towards economic recovery was making reckless individuals of us all. And if the ripples that we were all creating would gather up into the tsunami of a second wave, which of course they did.
Life has been utterly interrupted by Covid-19. But what comes next? What comes after the hiatus created by the pandemic? Do we get to choose what comes next?
There are very few quotes with 'hiatus' in them and most refer to a personal hiatus in an individual's life, such as this from American guitarist Trey Anastasio -
"If there's one thing I discovered since I came back from hiatus, it's that you can't go backwards."
He's right - though we can learn from it - the past is something we can't change; we can't go backwards. The present, however, makes us uncomfortable: as a species, we are particularly bad at living in the now. Our minds are always so focused on the future - the endless tomorrows and the promises they might hold - that we find the now we are living boring. This boredom of now-ness is not new: fidgety children annoy their parents by endlessly asking 'Are we nearly there yet?' thus inadvertently making any journey seem longer; adults too, wait impatiently for the next thing - the exam results; the job interview; the holiday; the house sale; the purchases; the wished-for things - forgetting often to pause and enjoy the present. Covid-19, by forcing us into lockdowns, has suspended this self-based future-gazing for a while. We have been forced to look at ourselves anew. To re-assess, re-calibrate and re-set everything about our lives. For some, we looked at the now we were trapped in and didn't like what we saw. Home-improvements; fitness training; gardening; learning new hairdressing skills; social readjustments, all sky-rocketed. During the summer, relaxation of lockdown allowed us briefly to return to thinking outside the home box, to reconsider how we answer the question: what comes next?
We should, we tell ourselves, get to decide what comes next. But as with anything future-related ... it depends.
Right now with covid still present, what comes next depends on how well we socially distance. How well we observe advice to wash our hands. How well we follow guidance during this second lockdown. How well we care for ourselves and our loved ones. It depends on our collective involvement in following the rules. And our sense of being in this together. And of pulling together to secure a future together. It depends on people not being idiots. It depends on economics and politics and science. It depends on how well we do these things. But with the orange blob across the pond talking about bombing raids, and playing golf while Americans die and his non-mask-wearing, covid-denying followers continue to gather in super-spreading events, life doesn't feel terribly safe anymore. We have a winter to get through. But we also have vaccines tantalisingly close. We do have hope.
We are still learning how to answer the question what comes next. We need a continuation of this learning to properly see and to understand that we really are in this together. And that this pandemic, this hiatus, will not last but will also not be the last. Global warming is sitting, waiting, a more formidable threat to all of our futures. It will only be a hiatus rather than the never-ending fissure that breaks us, if we act to stop it now. What comes next is what we make come next.
What comes next depends utterly on us.