In the early hours of 19 July 2018, I found myself in the half-deserted corridors of a hospital. My wife was being treated for a life-threatening haemorrhage she had suffered the evening before and I was convinced she wouldn’t survive.
So I spent the night making plans for my life after her death, thinking about the things I would do ─ including things I would be more free to do on my own ─ and convincing myself that in the end I would be alright. This conviction helped me a lot in the following days, as she lay in an induced coma in the hospital’s ICU. It helped me even more when she died, actually somewhat unexpectedly, a short week later: despite the shock and sadness, I knew instantly I would be alright.
Being an optimist isn’t about avoiding worst case scenarios: it’s about confronting them and thinking them through. In a sense, the life I am living now is the one I thought through that July evening.
We ─ and that is literally all of us ─ are going through quite a rough phase at the moment. We’re all sad about what has already happened and anxious about what lies ahead of us, knowing it will get worse. Because it will get worse.
Here is a small consolation: eventually, this will be over. Maybe next year, maybe this summer, maybe at Easter. (Actually, no, not at Easter.) Things will be different. There will be traumas to process. But we will also be able to build new things.
Now is a good time to plan ahead, at least in our heads. We don’t know what the post-COVID-19 world will look like, and there’s probably not much point in making very practical plans (but if you can, don’t hesitate!), but making plans is a well-known coping strategy and it’s one you may want to try now.
I have already spoken to people for whom the current situation ─ from the global crisis to self-isolation ─ has been an inspiration to think about changing their lives: move abroad, look for a stable relationship, start a new hobby. Perhaps this is what you needed to realise how your current relationship is holding you back.
Maybe the realisation that your job isn’t one that the government considers ‘essential’ makes you want to look for a new one when this is all over. I can understand that. Never before in my life have I felt such admiration for the actual difference healthcare professionals are making ─ not even during that week two summers ago.
Or maybe you want to make a serious effort trying to change society. That would be awesome: the pandemic highlights many things that we all knew were wrong in society but could somewhat comfortably ignore until now. It seems inevitable that society will change and now is the time to think about your role in shaping its future and helping to right these wrongs.
And actually, even if you’re not the kind of person who thinks in terms of changing society, now is a good time to think about how the crisis is affecting many marginalised communities. Have you wondered how homeless people can follow the recommendation to stay at home? Can you imagine how sex workers survive for weeks or months without income? Do you know that domestic violence tends to increase when families are confined to the same space 24/7?
The advice from scientists and governments around the world is to Stay! At! Home! And while there are things you can do already ─ if you can afford to make a contribution to support groups for those marginalised communities, they need it now more than ever ─ a lot of time will be spent doing nothing and waiting. And thinking. So you may as well think of future plans, big or small.
As the government has put me on indefinite house arrest, I am making plans to visit new people and places. I am thinking about how I can make sure future jobs make an actual difference somewhere. And I wonder what role I can play in creating a more fair society that shows it has learned from the lessons we are all learning the hard way now.
Things are difficult and they will remain difficult for quite a while. We need to be kind and compassionate ─ to others and to ourselves. But we should not stop dreaming about leading better lives and building better societies. Because we need these dreams more than ever.