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The Year of Living Distantly: We Were Boxed In Before Lockdown

Byline Times’ Editor Hardeep Matharu reflects on some of the profound questions raised by the Coronavirus pandemic and how we have been living our lives.

Photo: Hardeep Matharu
We Were Boxed In Before Lockdown

Byline Times’ Editor Hardeep Matharu reflects on some of the profound questions raised by the Coronavirus pandemic and how we have been living our lives.

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How do we measure distance? Is it something in our heads, a geographical fact, an unwelcome ache in the gut? And what is it to ‘live’? These questions have come closer with COVID-19.

When the virus took hold in the UK, Byline Times wanted our readers to find the space and time within our publication with our Year of Living Distantly essays to reflect on this odd, profound experience we are in. The world has come to a halt, but we have more time to think about the scary and the mundane, the simple and the complicated, the ‘what am I doing with my life?’ and the ‘what are we doing to the world?’.

We don’t offer solutions, but hope our writers can help you to make sense of it. And there is much to get our heads around.

As Otto English writes, “it’s a bit like those Bruegel paintings, in which great events are unfolding; crucifixions and holy births – but life is continuing regardless”.

For Chris Keulemans, “boredom doesn’t equal patience and concentration” and “this nerve-wracking 2020 boredom certainly doesn’t”, while Christina Patterson is spot on with her observation that “this is the stuff we think happens to other people, in other countries”. I remember seeing the photos of Chinese doctors in white suits, of women queuing for groceries standing within marked boxes at a market in Italy in early February. It is strange to think this still seemed like something elsewhere; an interesting but irrelevant side matter. How humans can deceive themselves so deeply and easily.

Meanwhile, Kamin Mohammadi has recounted her life in lockdown in Italy, lamenting why the world hasn’t seemed to learn from its anguish. She hopes though that “this enforced exercise in empathy makes us feel determined to eventually build a society that is fairer and more equal”.

What of my experience, alone in London?

Like many, shock, dread, fascination, anxiety, relief, hope, restlessness, anger, sadness have all shown up – often in the small things that never mattered much before.  

I never relished the early wake-up call from the builders, with their drills tut-tut-tutting. But they keep me company now as I watch on from my box in the sky. I notice how they move and what they do, how mindful – not mindless – their work is. How present it requires them to be. I wonder how they can keep two metres apart while digging two metres deep. Do they really want to be there, the comforting source of my new weird normality? Is that what they ever imagined they would be?

The tracks below lie emptier for longer than usual, apart from the occasional train that plods past. One declared “not all humans are selfish” as it went by the other day. Had the letters been sprayed on before or after the Coronavirus descended? Men in masks wait for a bus in front of scrawls on more scaffolding nearby proclaiming “pandemic to class war” and “don’t trust Boris”. The city skyline stands taller, more silent and stiller somehow – eight minutes by train, now a lifetime ago. The sunset is glorious, I keep time by the sun. I haven’t looked at the sky properly for years.

It’s not that it doesn’t mean anything, it just doesn’t mean everything – the striving and the stresses, the need to be ‘someone’, doing something. Everything, gone in a flash. And as the dust settles, you see how conditioned it all is; how we may be in lockdown, but we long ago boxed ourselves in. 

Everything seems inevitable, until it isn’t. Then what do we have? Just ourselves, really. Moments of inner freedom, glimpses of dark shadows. We have to become the authors of ourselves. Where will this take us?

The illusion that we are in control has been shattered by this virus. We control nothing, except how we feel towards this ultimate of uncertainties. The Coronavirus has got inside and changed us. Will we change the world? Or will we carry on as before and return to our boxes once the lockdown lifts?

Ideas, thoughts, philosophy don’t change the world. Reality does. Our response to it does. Mankind, it’s your move.

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