It’s Hard not to Despair at Everything

The comforting practice of shining words upon the unknown

Photo by nrd on Unsplash

Perhaps none of the things you’ve done to date matter, none of the words you’ve written, only what they’ve come to symbolize: A past that’s never coming back. And it’s an unsettling thought, that sudden irrelevance that makes us grasp for meaning wherever we can find it.

Everything is askew, aberrant, absurd. We spend our harried lives into a frenzy, hyped up on productivity, success, and achievement longing for a break. And when we suddenly get one, it may be the one we need, i.e. a rest, but it’s definitely not the one we want because hardly any of us can afford it. Precarious livelihoods already hanging by a thread disappear, projects are put on indefinite hold, we panic.

It took a pandemic to erase the line between private and public pain. It will take new ways of being a human in the world to process mass trauma. Our lives will never be the same but no one has much of a clue what they might look like yet and we wonder how much longer we might be able to keep going.

On every single front, we’re fighting a war.

We do not know yet what the changes will be, only that they are happening, messing with our minds, our moods, our emotions. We’re not quite sure how to handle any of them. Our grip on language tightens and relaxes, we’re assertive one day, tentative the next, adrift. Out of habit, we still tell ourselves the stories we need to survive.

But no one knows how this chapter ends, or when.

If articulating the unknown can help us understand it, we still have a long way to go. This enemy we cannot see has stripped us bare and now we are being forced to reckon with what we previously preferred to avert our eyes from.

Our vulnerability grates, rankles, and smarts. It feels like a violation but we’re not sure who to direct our anger at. Frustration translates into silence, words don’t quite fit anymore. Almost overnight, human warmth pivots to digital to palliate isolation and loneliness. We discover that conveying fellow feeling in print is trickier than we thought.

And so we pour our hearts out onto screens, letting all the love spill out.

We are getting to know ourselves and the process is fraught with surprises. Perhaps we’re finding out we’re not who we told others we were, perhaps we’re finding out we’re not even who we thought we were.

Each day brings new fears and new epiphanies as we edge a little closer to the edge of the abyss. Meanwhile, our ruminations are quietly gnawing away at our sense of self, our communications, our creativity.

We are changing but not out of choice. This aggravates us. We do not like to be told what to do, pandemic notwithstanding, and the pace is relentless, our brains cannot keep up, we’re exhausted. Our collective mental health is volatile. But the enemy we dread the most isn’t always the coronavirus. We are wondering how soon the aftermath will come for us, we are never not wondering how soon the aftermath will come for us.

Our thinking is stuck in a loop.

With courage, we attempt to redefine what enough means, what else we can do without, what to sacrifice next. Enough varies according to what we’re able to salvage from the wreckage. We’re trying to upgrade our lexicon to match a future that caught us unawares and immediately grounded us for not paying attention.

We can no longer rely on language the way we used to and yet we’re determined to get on with life. No one else has figured out how to yet either and few have the energy to pretend. We are, it seems, equally stunned. Reflexively, we long to embrace what was and can never be again, our lost innocence, our old normal.

In limbo, lost at home, lost in our heads, lost for words.

Forced to carry out life audits that do not always stand up to scrutiny, we wonder why we ever believed things could bring us more happiness than people. We cling on, we let go, we surrender to the unknown and try to make the most of the present moment while it still feels possible.

There’s comfort in knowing all this is only temporary even though the definition thereof is constantly expanding.

Inevitably, the pandemic is transforming the way we write about our inner landscapes; our voice is changing, our tone is variable, our message is cryptic because we have no idea what we’re doing. We lose the plot several times a day; we profit off people’s misfortunes; we appeal to reason and basic common decency. And yet, we aren’t quite ready to entertain new perspectives, we aren’t quite ready to think new thoughts, we aren’t quite ready to experience a new reality.

This is way more uncertainty than most of us have ever had to deal with yet we are slowly learning to accept it. We are also learning how to mine the present for all the joy we kept hoping tomorrow would bring.

We are here now, this is enough.

We found the words.


I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor now based in the Netherlands. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

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