When I think of the return to ‘normality’ of life in a supposedly post-pandemic world, my mind often conjures up thoughts of convicted felons in overcrowded prisons, many bitter over bogus sentences that cost them a decent percentage of their lives. By that, I don’t equate the difficulty of lockdown or quarantine measures to the challenges of prison time – and frankly those who do are pathetically soft and entitled. What I mean is the risks posed by the reintegration of desocialized, isolated people into a world that has changed, and is doing so exponentially.
There are the pent up frustrations of a lack of direct interaction, physical exchange (be it affection, sexuality, athletic, whatever) and freedom of environment. The chance that the individual, or the world they re-enter, has changed too much for viable compatibility – perhaps both have. The proposition of the isolated now lacking the means to de-isolate, having lost social skills and graces, maybe even associating group settings or strangers as threat scenarios, regardless of context.
Generally speaking, prison produces one of four general results, much like Covid. Death is one, obviously. Another is a life sentence – the ongoing health conditions of Covid survivors comes to mind, as does the crushing weight of loss. It could be anything from the family business or a promising career to the virally deceased, with the grieving process often compromised by pandemic limitations.
Then there are those who escape largely unchanged, having gleaned no real lesson from the experience, good or bad. All too likely to enter other metaphoric prisons in future, they are also already inhabiting the psycholgical prisons of social constructs – be it systemic bigotry, economic inequality, social media manipulation, the list goes on.
I imagine that category is the largest, loaded with those who wasted what they thought was freedom when they had it, and will likely take it for granted again just as soon as the novelty wears off. Created by a system that sustains and enables them, both sides claiming to hate the other yet also needing them, locked in a perpetually abusive relationship where nobody is truly innocent.
The fourth, likely smallest category are the rehabilitated, or in Covid terms, the mutated: These are a rare few, often dragged into negative lifepaths by external pressures or nefarious influences, suddenly left to their own devices, and thriving as such. Those whose years were stolen, who perhaps stole in turn in order to survive, and were separated from society in turn. Through isolation they rediscovered or reinvented themselves, learning a new skill or discipline, finally given a real chance at betterment. They who were rarely allowed a moment of peace now left with nothing but time, and the false binary choice between productivity or insanity.
The reality, harsh as it may seem, is that Covid was a wasted opportunity for many. A lot of us had the time to do that thing we always talked about doing, yet didn’t do it. We could have contacted that long lost friend or relative, but we went and picked a pointless argument with a partner, relative or roomie out of boredom and frustration instead. We used it as an excuse not to, instead of a reason to do. It’s one thing to have a few weeks or even a couple months of anxiety and inertia, but a year is another thing entirely.
Those who normally wasted most of their day sitting around on a phone just killing time merely continued to do so, and I know far too many people (the kind who rely solely on external validation) who were just as ‘bored’ before the pandemic as during it. The only difference is instead of wasting their time on social media at home, they would have been at their favorite bar, pub or club, wasting good money to … Sit around on a phone. No point pitying them, they will pity themselves more than enough no matter what. Given a chance to spend more time with partners and family at home, they will blow that opportunity also by, of course, wasting that time in the ephemeral mundanity of social media.
Meanwhile, as others are keen to genuinely reconnect with others, and re-engage with what qualifies as civilization these days, the reality is that world may not share the same eagerness, and a lot of us have gone lone wolf for long enough that it has become more default than the pack. Some are no longer ‘people people’ – I for one have no desire to maintain the kind of social summer schedule I had in 2019. Nor have I any wish to go near densely populated areas in my own city for any reason other than live music or sport.
Humans are social animals, but the reality is the world has been getting more insular for at least two decades. Most people can occupy themselves so easily and cheaply at home that leaving the house often becomes an exercise in frivolity. Thus, the concept of being an introvert has finally developed a certain amount of cultural acceptance. For many, it really is healthier, and for them covid has been a surprise blessing. They serve fewer masters, finally left alone to confront the reality of their best/worst/brightest/darkest selves, which we all need to do at some point, whether we like it nor not.
Through covid, many people have finally been allowed to be autonomous individuals in a world where true individuality is eradicated at an alarming rate, despite what representation in advertising tells you. No more workplace politics, no social cliques, not even abusive clients or customers in an age where bogus online reviews can kill a person’s income.
The ironically emancipated likely dread the notion of returning to a so-called normality that’s far more dysfunctional than the simplicity of life in lockdown. For many, that ‘prison’ is their first real chance at developing a sense of structure and independence.
I look forward to seeing people again, but I worry about the inevitable emotional outpouring that may come with the reunions of friends, colleagues and family. For some, it will be cathartic, for others deeply toxic. In a world where we are prompted for emotion, opinion and reaction at every turn, some have found more consistent happiness in silence, and keeping that part they once shared for themselves – even if it may cause gaps in understanding between them and others.
Compassion isn’t just about listening and sharing – it’s often about holding back and maintaining silence too, a fact which many will try to convince you is wrong, as an Orwellian hatred of privacy rears it’s ugly head. In many cases, those who wish for us to open up do so because they want to see the gaps in our armour, to drop our own baggage to become their unpaid baggage handler. I know I’m done being an unpaid therapist for anyone I’m not already close with, and the idea of bonding with new people no longer holds the appeal it once did.
A year and a half of barely seeing anyone has taught me that even my own significant, likely permanent damage is tolerable compared to the incessant drama of others. That it’s usually better to simply be misunderstood in silence, rather than constantly explaining myself to those who refuse to explain their own errant behaviour, or acknowledge the patterns and consequences surrounding it.
I’m excited to see my friends and family, but when I tell them that pandemic life has been infinitely easier than life before it, I’m sure many don’t believe it. Those who always had weekends off and 9-5 jobs often forget how many work in industries where an active social or love life is impossible. In a country as seasonal as Canada, for too many summer is all work and no free time, and winter merely means one is too broke to leave the house. They may deal with so many people in a decade that a year of minimal social contact may in fact be a form of rehabilitation in itself.
In many of those industries, loyal workers have become like mercenaries, hired on false promises and laid off within a season, or worse yet cut to part time hours, but expected to keep full availability. It could be due to corporate budget cuts, or erratic small business owners who decide to have three young kids AND two sports cars in five years, but can’t ‘afford’ to staff a business properly.
For that staff, the job instability wrought en masse by Covid is a seasonal inevitability – they either do the work of four people, or don’t work at all. Many have only had their workloads compounded by the pandemic, and have stress that makes complaints like missing friends and bars being closed seem trivial. Others who were out of work may now be working themselves to death for years to climb out of debts inflicted by the pandemic – you still won’t be seeing them anytime soon.
Many are immigrants, some even refugees, for whom missing loved ones is a part of everyday life, for the rest of that life. It isn’t always a choice, and they leave the prison of one country to only to encounter the pathetic workplace conditions, gross systemic ignorance or economic ingratitude of another.
Really, much of life is essentially trading one prison for another, unless you choose to leave society behind entirely – not an option for most of us. As we reconnect with the people in our lives lucky enough to survive covid, let’s not forget that some of us have changed forever, and may no longer have the social or emotional capacity they once had and they may actually be healthier for it.
Some dread the prospect of the physical workspace, public transit or even the classroom far more than others may dread another lockdown. Incarcerated people need to reintegrate slowly and carefully. Your old partner-in-crime may not want to get back into their old ways again, whatever they are – if you really care, you’ll understand. People are supposed to change sometimes, and it’s usually those who don’t who end up trapped in perpetual cycles of failure and fuckery.
So let’s take it easy, yeah? Not everyone’s going to be rushing to fill up their calendar – especially those of us who already pack most of our days to the brim. Some will have phobias related to group settings and physical contact, much like newly released ex-cons – don’t take it too hard if that friend or family member isn’t leaping at the first change to hug again, or talk about their time away. They may just want to keep things light and take it easy – who could blame them?
One person’s summer is another person’s hell, and your prison may be freedom to them.