We have all had a hunger to change our lives during this pandemic. From one person’s desire to time travel to the dance floor, to another’s need for affordable housing, change is compelling. It’s all we can seem to talk about — how we will try to rebuild our lives once coronavirus has run its course. The actions we will prioritise, the hedonism we will enjoy, the shift in pace that so many of us crave (or dread).
But for all our cries of life feeling derailed, time stops for no one. In relationships, locations, economic situations, there have been shifts that undeniably declare that life persists. It’s change, but not as we know it; it’s change in the static. I want to explore how our understanding of change and celebration has altered thanks to the unsettling backdrop to life in 2021.
Life persists through change
Let’s start with the tricky old topic of time. Change is inherently linked to the passage of time, as our lived experiences continuously reshape our outlook and interactions with the world. Given that right now many of us are stuck in monotonous routines, that feel far from enriching, it can be too easy to assume that we simply aren’t changing. Week in week out we log on to Skype at 9am, go for our lunchtime walks, and tune into Netflix with a regularity that is ritualistic. But the passage of time stops for no one, meaning neither does change. I mean, the birthdays keep on coming. As a twenty three year old, who is prone to pity parties about “the best years of my life being taken away from me”, I’m acutely aware that I’m getting older. Sometimes it feels that this is happening in a vacuum, as I navigate these changes isolated from the usual customs and celebrations, but regardless, it’s happening.
For the friends and family we usually involve in our social rituals, the separation has been undeniably blunt, no matter the number of Zoom calls you organise. The lockdown birthdays, the newborn babies only held by their parents, the grieving behind closed doors, in these moments of great significance we are apart. We are unable to authentically access the change happening in our loved one’s lives, just as they are unable to do the same for us. It is a collective loss that feels cruelly like an individual burden — demonstrated no more starkly than in the countless households where there are empty chairs that should be full.
Think about where you are in your life right now — your hopes, fears and deepest desires. Before you know it, it’s been six months, a year, two years, you get the gist. What feels so utterly consuming at the present seeps and ebbs away into the near and distant past. It becomes a recollection, a twinge of feeling, a different version of yourself. It becomes, in essence, a marker of change. Perhaps that is why I predict my university graduation (currently scheduled for 14 months after the original date), will be such an odd affair. Life hasn’t been on pause, I’ve kept on floating, accelerating and crashing forward, up and down. To backtrack to a different time, when I have already found my own kind of closure, will just be a bit odd.
The Uncanny Nature of Change
For those of you familiar with psychoanalysis, you’ll have heard of Freud’s theory of the uncanny. This is the belief that an object or experience can be at once known and unknown. For Freud, the purest example of the uncanny is the mother’s vulva, a place that is at once familiar before birth and yet unfulfilled in sexual pleasure. A location of safety, but potential engulfment.
Now Freud’s phallocentrism limits our perception of the uncanny to an inherently masculine experience. However, his theory is still a fascinating one. It tells us that we are unsettled by something when it is both known — obvious and tangible — and yet unknown –unrecognisable and out of our grasp. Moreover it tells us that when our understanding of something shifts — or rather, when we are forced to recognise that something we once thought we knew is not as we once thought it was — we are deeply unsettled. I believe that our experience of ‘change’ in the pandemic can be helpfully analysed along these lines.
Think about it. We thought we knew the experience of change, and how to signify it through collective celebration and commiseration. We have now been denied the physical connection we so need — the parties, funerals and intimate liaisons. We have been forced to re-evaluate the experience of change, and recognise that parts of our lives have indeed altered, but have also slipped through the net, without the usual markers and attention that arguably make them so meaningful. Change as we know it is both present and eerily absent. It is uncanny and unsettling.
Change as a current rather than a wave
For all my pondering on change, and how we have had to grapple with its very nature, I have found this adjustment oddly more peaceful. The shifting ripples and waves within my life have been processed more introspectively, examined and then laid to rest. Change has become a current, rather than a series of violent waves.
While our social rituals create the space we need for escapism, joy and celebration, they also stifle our sensitivity. Having the time to sit with the exciting and heartbreaking has allowed us to examine the significance of where we are in a new light. It’s provided us with the opportunity to explore ourselves more deeply, and accept change at our own pace without the pressure of social interaction.
But, not all of us live in a bubble. This isolation is a double-edged sword, pushing us to our limits as we grapple with change — or a lack of it — on our own. Removed from our support networks, and the material conditions needed to facilitate big shifts, we easily get lost in the dangerous worlds of our own introspection. And so change as we now know it dances a fine line between enlightenment and existential crises. It has become a collective fixation, and yet the very thing that feels cruelly denied.
Building back better
My perceptions of change in this pandemic are undeniably shaped by my life experience as an able-bodied person.
Because of the social model of disability, for many years disabled people have already been isolated and excluded from social rituals. This perspective argues that it is not disability itself that limits a person’s life, but society’s unwillingness to adapt and accommodate difference, deliberately shutting people with disabilities out.
This has been disgustingly and acutely demonstrated by recent reports that ‘do not resuscitate’ signs are being placed at the beds of coronavirus patients with learning disabilities, which is particularly alarming given that 65% of deaths in the UK from coronavirus are linked to people with disabilities.
Disabled people have also expressed their frustration that it has taken a global pandemic, or to put it more bluntly, significant changes in able-bodied people’s lives, to develop more digital resources and inclusive online events.
We all know that as the world opens up, physical in-person events will start again. I myself am desperate to get back to an art gallery or bar with my mates. But, wouldn’t it be great if those art galleries and bars could be enjoyed by everyone?
It is vital that in our post-pandemic world, we push past ableist attitudes and guarantee that resources are accessible for all — in person or not. From prioritising inclusive toilets and facilities, to ensuring that events are live-streamed and meaningfully interactive online, it is key we put the needs identified by marginalised communities first and dismantle the interconnected barriers that serve to limit access.
This isn’t simply an option, an added bonus or extra. Rounding back to the theme of change, rethinking our social rituals is key to realising a future that works towards collective liberation. Pushing for this change pushes for a better future for everyone — a future with way more exciting possibilities and ways of existing.
If change in the last few months has reinforced anything, it’s that community, solidarity and making meaningful connections define what it means to be human. As we welcome physical touch, love and celebration back into our lives, let’s ensure we don’t get lost in the infatuation, and instead welcome everyone into the fold.
Life persists, what a wanker
This third lockdown has been the hardest, felt the most hopeless, and really challenged our individual and collective resilience.
I am at once utterly fed up with, and so very desperate for, change. It’s what makes it hard to get out of the bed in the mornings, and the thing that keeps me working late at night in the hope that it might just happen.
Finishing articles often means finding a small silver lining, or ray of hope to end on a positive light. A convenient way to round off a complex topic and provide a pithy sentence. I don’t want to end on one of those, I don’t want to invalidate the immeasurable pain that people have unnecessarily endured. Pain does not have to be about lessons learned.
But, I will finish with assertion again that life persists. Not always in an all singing all dancing let’s-watch-the-sunset-and-drink-prosecco way (see second photo), but more often in an utter stubbornness that defies defeat. It persists regardless, in spite of, against all odds. And there is something both painful and reassuring in that statement. Life persists, and, because of it, so will we.
If you’re further looking to reflect on the pandemic, I’d really recommend you check out Reflections: Representing Experiences of COVID-19, an exhibition curated by students on the University of Manchester’s Art Gallery and Museum Studies MA (including my lovely friend, Amie). The virtual exhibition does a great job of amplifying a multiplicity of (often ignored) voices from across Manchester — broken down into the themes of self-care, resilience and protest. The project decentres the curators as much as possible by platforming communities in their own words and through their own objects. The exhibition is free to engage with online, so do take a look.