It is a 2020 truth that if you’re not currently a) unemployed b) grieving a loved one or c) ill then what you are… is fine.
“How are you?” asks a friend over a pixellated video line or down a dodgy telephone connection.
“I’m fine,” you say. “It’s fine.”
This is of course, the correct response. The world is going through an unprecedented crisis, and to be anything other than grateful or acknowledging of the safety that you have by being none of the above, is fair and apt. It reflects paying attention, settling in, being a grown-up – just fine, through gritted teeth. You’re plodding on, looking after yourself, doing your best. Some things are good, some things are bad. It’s an extraordinary time – but extraordinary times will pass. All this is true.
And also of course, very few people are fine.
I am fine. The lighting I do has vanished entirely, and many of my colleagues and peers are having a hideous time as the industry burns. The government response to the arts has been, in keeping with their overall response generally, grotesque – an industry run by the self-employed has largely been left to rot, and the people who brought you the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, run the West End and Glastonbury Festival, who bring your Christmas panto and favourite bands are all “unskilled labour” and should re-train as boxers asap. But I write books, and 2020 has had a particularly high word count. Like everyone else I’m taking a financial hit, but I’ve still got a good income and past years of living on nothing but small author advances means I save everything I have anyway. The lack of lighting has thrown so much of the careful balance of my life into chaos and leaves a great big gaping hole where live music and the company of my peers should be – but I’m fine.
I have very little family, and they’re fine. My Mum is old enough and vulnerable enough that she spent the first few months shielding at home by herself, and even now is very careful about leaving the house and hasn’t seen any other human indoors since March. But she’s also near enough that I can cycle to her and sit in the wonder and amazement that is her back garden (blimey I now get garden-lust as a thing) at 2m distance eating pizza. Two of her friends have died of Covid. I helped her dial into the remote funeral of one of them on her computer screen – and she is fine.
I have friends who’ve had Covid, in various degrees of barely-noticed-it up to and including weeks of hospitalisation and months of painful recovery. I have friends who’ve also lost family members, and have had to work out how to grieve alone, or with the maybe one-other person in their flat who they’re allowed to be near. In my experience of grief, it doesn’t so much fade, as get papered over with more living. It is hard, right now, to do much of that what with so much living suspended.
I know people who’ve gone to live with their parents, or whose parents have gone to live with them, or who have left the UK entirely to be with overseas family and now don’t know when they’ll return, or who were forced to leave their adopted country when a visa expired to come back to the UK, homeless, jobless at the height of a recession. I know people with medical problems who’ve had to isolate for weeks before the faintest possibility of needful surgery. I know parents whose lives were turned upside down, teachers and students who still don’t know what the term brings. I know medics and NHS staff, civil servants just battered by the ever-rising-tide-ness of it all. I have one friend who is MIA, who I can only hope is back in her home and not checking her UK phone or email – I just don’t know.
And what is remarkable about all of them is that they are also… fine.
It seems that this is both the most astonishing, heart-lifting and soul-crushing thing about this situation. When I see the people I love looking after themselves and each other, dealing with all this crap with a cry of “well, it’s not like there’s any other choice, is there?” (and there isn’t) I am blown away by their excellence. I am reminded time and time again just how lucky I am to not be dealing with this stuff, to be safe and well. I am perpetually grateful and perpetually awed. The way people are fine – people who have lost so much – is genuinely incredible. They make hope possible.
And at the same time, there is a part of my soul – of the souls of many I’ve talked to – who cannot help but compare pains. Who do not feel that it is acceptable for someone with the luck to not be [ill/unemployed/grieving] to be anything other than fine. We are not mourning a loved one. We are not in dire straits. Therefore the loneliness, the constant grinding of it all, the anger and the fear are somehow… indulgent.
This is of course, bullshit. Comparing pain always is. But it is difficult to be ok with the human brain’s capacity to hold two seemingly contradictory truths simultaneously. It is true that I am hopeful, grateful, lucky and fine. It is true that I am sad, that this year has been pants, that I miss human contact and the normal functioning of the world. It is true that we all need to be kind to ourselves. It is true that we just need to get our heads down and get on with things. Accepting the truth of all this requires a bit of neurological juggling. Thankfully the mind can pull this off – it’s only in stories that things are black and white, and while stories are great, sometimes when we tell them about our own lives they turn out to lack the nuance we actually need to survive.
Equally, it is sometimes hard to remember that compassion is not the same as making someone else’s suffering about you. With so much pain currently in the world, it is easy to be swamped and drown in it all – and as the first aiders always say, you can’t do CPR on someone else if you’re already having a heart attack. Trying to stay compassionate without becoming either numb or frankly depressed is also one of the great adventures of 2020, and frankly I haven’t nailed it yet – but I’m trying. Damnit.
Meanwhile, to everyone else who is fine – to the great mass of us who are doing alright all things considered – hello. All these things are true, and you are fine, and it will be ok, and it does suck, and none of this is cool. And yes, it will pass, and yes, the winter will be long. But one day we’ll all get to hug each other again, and oh boy will it be the best, kindest and most over-due human connection of awesome, and I cannot wait to meet you there.