Before coronavirus, and even in the first few weeks of social isolation, we all had visions of the way we would tackle the coming apocalypse. We would be brave and strong, spreading a kindness pandemic, delivering groceries to the sick and elderly, and using old floral skirts to make face masks for frontline workers.
Six weeks later, we’re whinging about how long it’s been since we’ve enjoyed smashed avocado at the local café and arguing about unpacking the dishwasher for the 13th time that day.
Memes have followed the journey; initially, the earnest and enthusiastic proclaimed, ‘We’re in this together’ and waxed lyrical about the acts of kindness they had witnessed (or preferably, enacted) in the self-service line at Woolworths.
A few weeks down the track and my Facebook feed is full of memes predominately show pictures of home-schooling mums necking a bottle of wine at midday. We’re no longer striving to get through this with a Nobel Prize, but with some semblance of sanity and self-respect.
The truth is that whatever our illusions about our capacity for selflessness and heroism, in a crisis we’re still ourselves, agitated by the same petty irritations as in normal times. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, these irritations are increased tenfold while we’re stuck inside with our partners and children, toilet paper shortages and the absence of an escape route.
While we were initially bolstered by the sense of living through a historical moment – isn’t catastrophe meant to bring out the best in people? – we did not consider the beds that still had to be made, the dinners cooked at home (followed by yet another dishwasher to stack afterwards) and toys to tidy up, all without the meals out, coffee dates and visits to the cinema/footy/pub that counteract this mundane domesticity in normal times.
And so, on social media, along with those despairing memes, we’ve started to pick fights, to be mortally offended by a single Twitter post and pledge our allegiance to certain political approaches to the crisis – whether they relate to the date children return to school or the when the AFL season should start.
The situation reminds me of the philosophy of Alain de Botton in The Art of Travel, in which he wrote about the harsh reality of holidays, where we are not in the constant state of blissful happiness that we had hoped for. De Botton blames the disappointment of long-awaited and expensive holidays on the fact that we still had to bring ourselves with us when we go away, just like remain ourselves during self-isolation brought on by a pandemic.
At an exotic holiday destination, the sand might be golden and the ocean turquoise, yet it even in paradise it is possible to have a bad night’s sleep or to be impatient with dawdling children. Then there are the mosquitos, the sunburn and the jetlag to contend with. The air conditioners might not always reliable, the water pressure in the waterfall shower head is weak and the traffic jams are just as frustrating as at home. Our children are likely to be even fussier about their food.
De Botton wrote:
“Of course, the reality of travel seldom matches the daydreams. The tragi-comic disappointments are well-known: the sense of disorientation, the mid-afternoon despair, the arguments, the lethargy before ancient ruins.
“…What, then, are some of the reasons our travels go awry? One of them stems from the perplexing fact that when we look at pictures of places we want to visit, and imagine how happy we would be if only we were there, we are prone to forget one crucial thing: that we will have to take ourselves along on the journey. We won’t just be in India / South Africa / Australia/ Prague / Peru in a direct, unmediated way, we’ll be there with ourselves, still imprisoned in our own bodies and minds — with all the problems that entails.”
And so it is with pandemics (but without the anticipation or buffet breakfasts). Our true personalities get in the way of the picture we created of ourselves, basking in the sun during a holiday, or behaving with generosity, stoicism and a touch of heroism during a crisis.
There are plenty of real heroes out there during COVID-19 – all the workers who put themselves at risk, working long days and weeks to protect the community. They man emergency rooms and stack shelves, speak with honesty and openness at podiums and make decisions that protect us all.
Unfortunately, I am not one of them. Six weeks down, I’m not sure where my imagined best self is, but she is probably not the one wearing pyjamas all day and complaining about being the one left to replace yet another toilet roll. I’m just grateful there’s not a long flight home at the end of it all.
How are you coping?