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Corona Diaries: the future is postponed

April 7, 2020

A few months ago, if I had got into a discussion with my neighbours about an imminent financial collapse culminating in a worldwide depression, they probably wouldn’t have believed me. But if they had taken my prediction seriously, they would have been terrified at the prospect of losing their jobs, their savings and their pensions.

Yet now that all these possibilities are looming, we seem to be in another frame of thinking. It’s as if someone comes up to you and tells you that there’s a good chance you’re going to die. Deeply worried, you go off and do what’s necessary to make sure you give yourself the best chance of living. At the same time you probably think about death all the time, how you will handle it, and what you need to put in place before you die – making a will, fixing broken relationships, telling your loved ones that you love them, planning for your funeral.

Then someone else comes along and says “the good news is that you’re going to live. The bad news is that your life will never be the same. You will be financially ruined, and so will everyone else you know”. How do you react? I suspect that most of us would think “thank God I’m going to live. What comes next? Less important than being alive”.

We might also think “the worst is happening now. What follows can’t be so bad”.

So compared with the mountain of staying alive, dealing with what happens after the pandemic might seem a hill to climb, not a cliff to fall over. We’ve already fallen off the cliff, and we’re bobbing around in the rapids below, clutching at branches of overhanging trees.

What do we care about right now? We want to go to the park. We want our football back. We want to party, to go out to eat, to go to church, to go to the pub, to go listen to some music. Yes, we’re worried about the future, but we’re living in the present.

And actually, despite the circumstances, many of us might one day look back at this moment and reflect that the present wasn’t a bad place to be in. Our culture encourages us to worry about the future. We’re conditioned – by the media, by the fears of our peer groups, by our politicians and rulers – to be afraid of illness, financial ruin, crime, terrorism, destitution in old age, climate change and what might happen if the other party gets in.

But right now, because we have to, we accept the things we cannot change. Those of us who sit in isolation think about stuff we don’t normally have time consider. We observe things – goats in the high street, squirrels in the park, empty beaches, leaves sprouting on the trees, blaring ambulances and mortuaries in car parks. Things that surprise, delight and appal us, but which in normal times – barring the bad stuff – wouldn’t merit a second glance.

I’m not about to promote mindfulness and all the other psycho-fetishes that people try and sell us. But even those who don’t have the time to look at the world anew, who might be driving our buses, delivering our letters and desperately trying to keep the sick alive, are living almost entirely in the present.

Yet who would have thought that governments around the world are lashing out extraordinary sums of money to keep our economies afloat, ward off deprivation and ultimately keep us from starving? And who, right now, apart from a handful of economists, is concerned about the mountains of debt being incurred on our behalf? And how it is that these governments can go from austerity, prudence and sound financial management to magic money trees? And if every government in the world is borrowing money, from whom are they borrowing it? How will it be repaid?

At any other time, these questions would be front-page news, everywhere and every day. Today, as defined by Stephen Covey in his Four Quadrants, they come under the heading of important, but not urgent.

For the first and possibly the only time in our conscious lives, most of us  – even if we have much to be worried about – are living almost entirely in the present. We are concerned only with a tiny sliver of the future – what we can see in the next twenty-four hours.

A hundred years ago, according to Laura Spinney in her book Pale Rider (see my review), the indigenous population around Bristol Bay in Alaska was reduced by 40% in the 1918 flu pandemic. The descendants of the traumatised survivors refer to that event as nallunguaq, which means something you pretend didn’t happen. Will we and our descendants prefer to forget what we’re living through now?

I very much doubt it. But by then we’ll be back to the future.

From → Books, History, Sport, UK, USA

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