George Orwell’s famous dystopian novel, 1984, begins, “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” What feels like an eternity ago, we woke up inside our own dystopia. It’s not exactly 1984 — at least those guys got to go outside — but you don’t need a totalitarian oligarchy to realize you’ve entered a painful new reality with no visible exit door. In movies and literature dystopian societies have a certain hopeless permanence. There’s a sense that the world was once good and full of freedom before a catastrophe ushered in a bleak age of restriction, and only the lucky ones can remember the green world of yesterday. Good thing is, we’re not in a fictionalized universe. It’s a cold day in April indeed, but our dystopia is just temporary. Getting through it isn’t about fondly remembering yesterday; it’s about looking forward to what we can expect once it’s over.
In a global pandemic, silver linings are a tricky business. Remaining optimistic is admirable, but harping on things like “perspective” and gushing about “the privileges we take for granted” during this crisis ignores the reality that people are seriously sick, and losing their lives and jobs on a daily basis. Even if you learned optimism from Ned Flanders himself, there’s very little about this moment in time that can be construed as positive.
Let’s instead imagine that we didn’t wake up one morning in a dystopian society, avoiding our friends and family and wondering when our lives will resume again. Imagine, instead, that the crisis is behind us. After a gradual easing of restrictions, the lockdowns are fully lifted. Quarantines are over. Self-isolators are emerging from their homes like they’re Cold War bunkers, rubbing their eyes in the sunlight. Costco’s shelves are overflowing with toilet paper, the lights in your favorite bar are back on, and social distancing — that new vocabulary word that hits you in the pit of your stomach — is no more. You might be looking forward to this day more than anything in the world, the day life gets “back to normal.” But when the pandemic is over, nothing about life will feel normal again — and that’s okay.
Turns out, the little things aren’t so little.
When the world finally reopens for business and the metaphorical shackles vanish, daily life won’t return to its pre-pandemic routine. For at least a few weeks, you might actually look forward to going to the gym. An in-person work meeting won’t feel like Coachella, but sitting around a table with your colleagues and a box of doughnuts isn’t going to seem quite so tedious. Going to a meaningless NBA game between two last place teams will feel like Game 7 of the finals, and the mere act of shaking hands will give you goosebumps. No, you probably won’t book a flight to Italy the minute travel is declared safe, but you might start getting excited about what that trip could look like.
According to CruiseCompete, a cruise booking website, bookings for 2021 are up by 40 percent compared to the same period in 2019. Of course, travel will look different. Most of us will have more reservations before boarding a plane and take greater care to avoid crowds. But we’ll still board the plane. We’ll remember when travel was completely out of the question, what it felt like to have our long-awaited trips canceled, and realize how important it is to seize our right to travel before that right disappears.
Reorganizing our social priorities
The most defining characteristic of our dystopia is the way social relationships have changed (or, in some cases, vanished). Like Black Mirror predicted, socialization now almost entirely revolves around technology. Zoom is our lifeline to the outside world, and in this new era of digital friendships, I’ve found myself chatting online with some of my most introverted friends — friends who normally require a forklift to leave their couch on a Saturday night. But when I signed onto Zoom this weekend, the first thing they asked was, “So, when do we think bars are opening?”
Maybe it’s all talk, and maybe it’s not. I have no doubt that these friends of mine will still maintain a solid 60 percent flake rate post coronavirus, but the fact that they’re even talking about venturing out of their houses with actual enthusiasm is remarkable. Some people will undoubtedly slip back into voluntary isolation after a few months of freedom, but until then, even the most introverted among us may eagerly anticipate a return to socialization.
Choosing to spend time alone will always be refreshing, and to varying degrees, we all need it. But choosing is the operative word. The choice to socialize, or not. Being deprived of that choice is like having your driver’s license revoked, and then being forced to sit in an idle car for weeks (or months).
The coronavirus didn’t introduce social distancing. It just made it a requirement. Humans have been socially distant with each other long before social distancing was state-mandated. Millennials are certified professionals at canceling plans. Every time we bail on a family BBQ because we’re too hungover, or don’t show up to a party because we’d rather binge The Crown, we’re practicing self-isolation. Now we know what it feels like to stay in when it’s not a choice. And that changes everything.
A temporary break from our humanity
The longer we live this Groundhog Day reality, the more we might wonder why lounging around the house feels so unnatural. On the face of it, it sounds like heaven. Catching up on TV shows (and sleep), Skyping with friends, reading, and realizing we have zero affinity for baking sourdough are all things we wish we had more time for in our normal lives. So why do we find ourselves Googling “Did we flatten the damn curve yet?” every morning?
Maybe because if we were lucky enough to escape with our jobs, health, and financial security, the virus still crippled us by taking away our relationships.
In this inhospitable dystopia, we’ve learned that our freedom to socialize can be revoked without warning. My friends who relish their alone time won’t suddenly change their personalities overnight, morphing into gregarious social creatures, but they might just emerge from this months-long Netflix marathon with an appreciation for their undervalued social relationships.
Because this lockdown isn’t about what we can or can’t do. It’s about who we are. Humanity isn’t a one-man show. Being human alone isn’t being human at all. More than trapping us in our houses, and taking away our bars and gyms and libraries, the virus took away the governing principle of our humanity — connection. When life is back in session, when the dystopia crumbles and our relationships are restored, our daily routine won’t feel normal. It’ll feel like an absolute privilege. And it’s up to us to keep it that way.