When the rush hour ends, what to do with the rest of the day?
Words & images © Paul Ransom
And so we find ourselves in 2020, a year once synonymous with sci-fi fable and futurist fantasy. Yet we are neither on the moon nor ruled by android overlords. Instead, laid bare before us is our true history, a reminder that the biosphere we have sought to reshape still entangles us in its dynamic, exquisitely networked evolution. We, the apex predator, in the thrall of a tiny RNA virus. If nothing else, the current pandemic is both revealing at a ‘whole of species’ level and, if we can set aside our dread and boredom, a marvellous opportunity – because the beauty of the pause button is that it creates a window to consider other options. Like stop. Or eject.
Here in the West, where busyness has become a form of status, and where cities that never sleep and 24/7 commerce have become the insomniac norm, the idea of stopping, slowing, feels like apostasy. Yet, before we entirely attribute this activity bias to either capitalism or elite conspiracy, let us remember that the human animal is a naturally busy creature. Long before we invented Protestant work ethics and shopping centres, we got up, flexed our opposable thumbs, and did stuff. Indeed, the entire biosphere – which we pretend we either control or are not part of – is a system of relentless motion. Even pathogens lead an active existence. Industry is indeed everywhere.
However, my intention here is not to dwell on the mechanics of evolution or the predilections of politics. Neither is it to pathologise activity or suggest that a strong goal oriented outlook is necessarily harmful. Rather, what I wish to suggest is that our current state of cocoon represents a rare opportunity for us to reflect, individually and collectively, on the values and objectives that underpin the way we organise our societies and the manner in which we live our personal lives. Because, when our habits are disrupted, new behaviours may emerge.
Though countless pundits are already pondering the post-pandemic world, I shall refrain from idle prediction and instead focus on life in the slow lane. Now that billions of us find ourselves in hibernation, we have been granted a temporary surplus of that most precious currency: time.
- I would argue that time is the most valuable asset any of us have. The finite and dwindling supply of days and nights that make up the rest of our lives is analogous to a form of currency. Time really is money. Imagine it as an existential expense account, from which only withdrawals are permitted. When we focus on time remaining as a limited and ever-decreasing commodity we are prompted to ask fundamental questions about how and on what (and whom) we would like to spend it. At one level this is banal. Yet, in the context of our usually hectic modern life – with its endless variety of socially sanctioned, future dated, status generating rewards and its numerous and ruinous failure narratives and levers of punishment – this simple idea can become the impetus for a profound realignment of what we consider valuable1.
For in the space vacated by the formerly time consuming routines of work and play we are left with each other. With ourselves. While distractions aplenty remain, notably on screens like this, we now have room for one of life’s oft overlooked pleasures. Quiet time. Repose. Stillness.
Yet, for many of us, this is a not-so-secretly terrifying prospect. One of the benefits of endless activity is that it diverts our attention and allows us to continue in patterns of comfort, rote and denial. All the while our gaze is fixed on the external, on ritual, we can continue to remain in the dark about the internal. Not merely about our various pains or unquestioned patterns of thought and behaviour but, crucially, about what might truly bring us joy. About what we really do value. Though it seems counter-intuitive to suggest that we could be afraid of discovering the source of our own happiness – or sense of meaning and purpose and so on – the unmuzzling of an authentic voice co-entails a potentially daunting challenge.
Now that I know the true language, will I dare to speak it out loud, and am I prepared to listen?
The first thing truth demands of us is that we either honour it or choose to remain in falsehood and denial. In a culture rife with populist memes of system blaming2 – with attendant excuses for self-righteous complaint and crushing inertia – it is easier for us to dismiss our ‘truths’ as unrealistic or impossible. Or as an inconvenience or luxury. Something for the ‘later’ pile. After all, we’re far too busy right now.
Except we’re not. Now we find ourselves in a rare, if not unique moment of cultural hiatus. The usual channels of striving are in suspended animation. Our routines of practise are on hold, and with them, our plans and careers and the often burdensome expectations we place on ourselves and others. While the relentless drama of competitive comparison continues unabated on Facebook – and there appears to be a simmering cold war of virtue over who and who does not isolate properly – most of our regular status games, especially those around ‘the getting of’, have been postponed (or at least muted). In other words, the pressure of visible achievement, of more more more, is off for a while. Now we get to see what less is like.
All the ‘musts’ of marketing, the upgrades and bucket lists, can be parked, if not cancelled altogether. Thus, with our addiction to the rituals and consumption patterns of yore now in enforced rehab – as if in communal cold turkey – we may soon come to realise that most of what we thought we couldn’t do without we don’t really miss. This may sound a little trite; but consider it thus:
What happens when we figure out that our apparent needs are really just wants?
Diffusing the narrative of need is, in my view, a massively liberating moment, if only because it allows us to look at our desires without the obscuring mantras of compulsion. And desire, once looked at, tends to wane. Not always, but often enough to be significant. Indeed, what usually follows ‘I don’t need’ is ‘I no longer want’ and this is an even more emancipating light bulb; because now we can practise making active (rather than passive or habituated) choices.
Of course, many of you are aware of this, it’s just that now you have more time at your disposal. Your attention is less cluttered. Things put off, or rarely considered – like what you truly want – can now come into sharper focus. Stillness permits alternative modes of movement. Quietness engenders a new manner of speaking.
The virus has opened a portal on a shared moment of slowed reflection. In recent times it is hard to think of similar examples. In fact, this pandemic may well be the first genuinely global event, by which I mean that for the first time in our species’ history we are not only in the same boat but, at long last, we know it. Because here it is in front of us. Our humanity.
For those of us privileged enough to observe physical distancing measures – and remember, many of us are not3 – being atomised in our various cocoons will give us pause to ask deeper questions and seek more nuanced answers, of ourselves and our societies4. Some of them may be disquieting.
- Do I really want to go back to the status quo?
- Is this relationship really working?
- What if I’m happier living with a little less?
- Is our fast-paced economic and cultural norm something we truly want, or simply what we are used to?
- How could/should we re-organise our economy post-virus?
- Could/should we consider re-negotiating the implicit contract between sovereign and citizen?4
Clearly, we could list a thousand such questions here, and doubtless the responses would span the spectrum of ideological cant and calm consideration, but regardless, in this moment of hibernation, the mere act of questioning is a fissure. In the stillness, we have time to take a deeper breath before rushing to conclusion. Put simply, it is the difference between reacting and responding. For if desires can pass, so too can anger and blame and the itch to scratch.
In light of this, our commonplace ‘slave narratives’5 – which typically posit mechanistic, dehumanising systems of control, inexorable historical momentums and all manner of fin du monde melodrama – are, for the moment, even less valid. Our other-blaming reflex, so often the easiest recourse, will not serve us now, because in 2020 the other has become us. Now, if we’re honest, even those nefarious, shadowy elites we tell ourselves it’s okay to hate are rendered human.
When we’re not all rushing around – head down, bum up in the pursuit of the baubles of aspiration – we begin to notice the deeper seams. The quieter, less spectacular aspects of our lives and, as a consequence, the intricate details of our long-standing enmeshment. The human web of mutuality pre-dates the net by millennia. Indeed, in spite of physical distancing, our networked humanity is perhaps more apparent than ever. Far from being New Age hokey, this ‘whole of species’ perspective asks important questions of us.
- How do we wish to live in relationship with one another and how can we best organise this?
- How do we, as a species, wish to live in relationship with the biosphere that sustains us?
Doubtless you have heard questions of this nature asked several times, most likely wrapped in ideology and narrow self-interest, or couched in the cotton wool clichés of so-called spirituality. Now however, with a little time on our hands, we can approach them with less drama. Less hubris.
Yet, perhaps the most revelatory gift of stillness is not social but personal. Usually, we conflate who we think we are with what we do or believe. I am an artist. I am a Hindu. In a way this is understandable. Life is an action, an event. The self is not fixed. Even the spectacle of consciousness is evidence of an ongoing flux. But now that we find ourselves in a time of relative stillness, we can begin to de-couple our story of self from the convenient reductions of stabilised form and tightly defined function.
- What if I am not merely what I do?
- Do I really need the external identity markers I cling to – gender, ethnic, professional, etc?
- Suppose my idea of who and what I am is just a story I’ve been repeating to myself from sheer habit. What then?
- When all this is over, who do I want to be, and how would I prefer to live out the rest of my days?
We rarely ask ourselves such questions with serious intent. They are most often the stuff of late night talk and holiday resolution. For now though, the ties of normality will be loosened a while longer, and we will find ourselves in a truly liminal space – neither what we once were, nor what we shall become. This is a rare opportunity, our chance to reap the benefits of uncertainty. Rather than reacting with our usual mechanisms of command and control, we are free, if only briefly, to dance with the unknown, to flirt with possibilities routinely dismissed. Perhaps everything will snap back into place, perhaps not. In the meantime, marvellous latitude.
As for the apparent strictures of cocooning – a term I prefer to isolation or social distancing – I must confess to loving it thus far. What a gift this is turning out to be. A massive, culture wide pause button has been hit and in that stillness what new forms and old gems may be unearthed? This, I feel, is a tremendous, historic opportunity for us as individuals, as nations, even as a species, to stop our mad rush and ponder again what it is we truly want.
Will our reappraised vision be 20/20, or will we choose to stick with the comforts of a received blindness? I guess now we have this timely intermission to work it out. Good luck folks.
1: For more on this theme – which I call Existential Economics – you can refer to my book The Pointless Revolution! The Economics Of Doing Whatever You Want (Everytime Press, 2019).
3: While most of us living in wealthy First World countries have the personal and social wherewithal to observe economy-wide shutdowns and practise physical distancing, billions living in countries with fragile health infrastructure (and where governments do not have easy access to bond markets) will be denied the luxury of mere inconvenience. Indeed, it may well be that the extent of social and economic inequality globally (even here in the West) will be laid bare. Perhaps the question, going forward, will be: is this truly sustainable?
4: As has been noted elsewhere, we are highly unlikely to return to the old status quo. Whatever awaits us post-plague it is probable that we will have organised and/or trialled alternative models of around work and retail in particular, and indeed some will have thought in more detail about the overall structure of economies, particularly with regard to circular and lateral scaling models and the ongoing viability – financial, social, environmental – of the broad scale market for goods & services. In addition to re-visiting issues in supply chains and investigating where we might further ‘de-materialise’ the economy, (thereby reducing baked-in costs associated with physical resourcing), we may also find time to tease out a new formulation for the relationship between ourselves and the state. Our understanding of social and private assets, of the balance between personalised benefit and communal cost, will perhaps be seriously examined in a way it has never been in our combined cultural memory. In addition, the role of data and its relation to power and privacy will likely become even more important as we continue to roll out new and networked technologies. Doubtless the pandemic will also infect the discourse with an amount of narrow, ideological assertion and simplistic conspiratorial fantasy. Doomsday droners and others of the bunker mentality will hoard guns and hand sanitiser and crow ‘I told you so’, whilst others will proselytise everything from golden ages to thinly disguised prescriptions for mob rule. Point is, having time to reflect does not guarantee agreement or overall wellbeing. After all, thinking comes with inherent risks, as do cocoons and self-reflecting silos.
5: The slave narrative – as I call it in The Pointless Revolution – is the story of our own powerlessness. We see it conspiracy, identity politics, karma & destiny tropes, and numerous fundamentalist ideologies. The holder of these beliefs lives in a world where opaque and compelling forces are lined up against them and/or sit in judgement. At a psycho-emotional level, they cast themselves in the child/victim role, ever supplicant, ever at the whim of external agency. As adults, this slave status allows them to play the righteous victim, locate all blame with the other, and take on the pose of the brave jihadi. The prevalence of this mindset says a lot about the current psychology of our societies.