The past weeks have been shocking. The sight of churches in Italy filled with coffins, the scenes of manically busy hospital departments in New York and elsewhere, the rising graph lines. The shock of people dealing with the loss of work and income; the shock of lockdowns and losing our personal liberty. As the theme song for Friends said: So no one told you life was gonna be this way…
We all have our own version of how we think life should be. First-world people talk about culture shock when they visit a third-world country. Well, suddenly we’re all in culture shock. As I veer away from people on my daily walk, we exchange smiles or cheery greetings, trying to be positive, but I suspect they’re feeling just as lost and anxious as I am.
I remember experiencing culture-shock when I went to India in the 1990s. It was one of my first holidays with Anthony and it was also the first time I had travelled out of Europe. We arrived in Kerala in the south. I remember the crows in the rafters inside the airport terminal building and the lack of glass in the windows of the bus we took into town. In the town itself I saw shops overflowing with every kind of goods and a man chopping off the heads of flapping chickens. I was struck by the dust, the exhaust fumes and the noise. Everywhere felt like an assault. In those first days I looked for things I recognised, places where I might find something I thought normal, the ‘nice’ areas where I might catch my breath.
And yet, within a week, everything had changed. I had become used to the chaos of the streets, used to my hotel bathroom having a plastic bucket instead of a proper shower, used to the glimpses of terrible poverty and appalling disfigurement. There was a kind of numbness to it, of course. This was just an aspect of India, I told myself, which was also amazingly beautiful and enchantingly friendly. That kind of shock is easy to absorb. I came home with a better understanding of lives lived very differently from mine, and of the astounding comfort of my daily life.
I suspect most of us have gone through events that really challenged the way we thought things should be.
Ten years before that trip to India, as AIDS began to fold its fingers around my community, I was at work when a friend telephoned to ask if I could drive his boyfriend to a hospital appointment. Charing Cross Hospital had once been an easy stroll away but now he was too sick to walk any distance. They had ordered a taxi but the driver had taken one look at the tell-tale purple blotches on his face and refused. So had a second. Hence the call. I told my boss I had to collect some fabric samples and sped off to my friends’ flat. As I drove them to the hospital, we fumed about the taxi drivers’ attitude, furious that the hospital couldn’t provide transport. At the time, there were stories of ambulance drivers refusing to take AIDS patients, too. It was shocking. This was not how life was meant to be.
A few years later, I was visiting my best friend in the AIDS ward of the Westminster Hospital. I was there most evenings, bringing him soup he would barely touch, sitting with him all evening to chat or simply keeping him company as he dozed. I would often glimpse people there that I recognised, maybe having met them once at a dinner party or just seen them around over the years. Many looked close to death. Driving home late at night, I would grasp the steering wheel and bawl my eyes out. It’s not meant to be like this, I wailed to myself.
That kind of shock changes everything in your life. For me, the effect of dealing with the grief of losing not only my closest friend but several other good friends lasted for years. It caused me to re-evaluate everything in my life and try to understand what was important and what was not. The changes I made in my life then led me to where I am now. You might’ve experienced something similar.
When people talk admiringly of plucky Londoners during the Blitz, the truth is that they had no option but to get on with life as best they could. And that’s the same for us now. What strikes me when I hear people say they can’t wait for things to return to normal is that life won’t be like it was before. It will have changed because we will have changed. Sure, we’ll relish the return of our personal freedom and we’ll know, as a cartoon stated recently, that a work meeting can indeed be reduced to an email. But something that rocks the foundations is going to have a profound effect. We can’t possibly know in what ways until we’re there, on the other side of the crisis.
My own experiences have shown me that change always has positives embedded in it. What they’ll be, who knows. As that Star Trek misquote says: it’s life, Jim, but not as we know it.
We may not be sure where we’re heading but I hope your journey goes well.