by Elisha Carey
Isolation day 16. I’ve been wracking my brain for days, weeks even, trying to come up with an idea for my final opinion piece. The big finisher. Something that wraps up all these months of hard work in a neat little bow. As much as I’ve tried to resist it, it feels weird to write about anything other than what’s happening right now. Our lives have, in a very short space of time, morphed into the dystopian teen fiction novels we read growing up, but instead of getting to shoot arrows or whatever the hell Shailene Woodley was able to do in Divergent, we just sit at home for what’s kinda like an endless and even more depressing Stephen’s Day (minus the getting pissed with your friends). The apocalypse is here, and I don’t even know where my shoes are.
After gushing about the experience non-stop in my last opinion piece, I’ve had to end my Erasmus early. These long quarantine days are spent torturing myself thinking that if only I had known what was to come, I would’ve napped less and cycled more, gone for more coffees with friends and visited a museum at least once or twice. If I had known it would be my last time seeing them, I would have hugged my little Erasmus family that bit tighter when we gathered in my room for what we thought was just a see-you-soon party. Crucially, I definitely wouldn’t have skipped two whole nights out in order to do the readings for my Thursday morning class. I had only skipped them because I felt assured of many more great nights out for the rest of the semester. But how naïve I was. We’re not assured of anything in this life, except that it is going to be hugely, very disappointing at times.
Since I’m a huge ball of cringe, it comes naturally that I’m also a big believer in “what’s meant for you won’t pass by you” and everybody’s personal favourite “everything happens for a reason.” But the more I try to apply these to the situation our world now finds itself in, the less sense they make. For the first time in my life, I watch the news every night. It tells tales of limited ICU beds, death tolls and makeshift morgues in ice skating rinks, refrigerated trucks and carparks. I was especially struck by video footage of inside a hospital in Madrid, where the coronavirus patients lay coughing on the floor, because there wasn’t enough hospital beds to deal with the numbers. With the amount of people I see on Instagram stories still going on picnics and walks with their friends, this could well be our future too.
In the wake of devastation, we’re told to believe that bad things happen for a reason,
and once we learn from them, we are rewarded with some sort of happily ever after. Like many others, I believe in this romantic notion of beginnings and endings. Movies (at least the bad, sappy ones that I watch) begin where the main character is just constantly getting screwed over and end with some sort of triumph: getting the girl, the round of applause or the trophy and being carried off the field on the shoulders of your teammates. Cinema rewards trauma with having your dream come true. I’m not going to lie, I’ve felt more sorry for myself than is socially acceptable these past few weeks. It’s like I’m trapped inside a Groundhog Day hellscape where every single day is just: wake up, google whether the Netherlands has gotten the coronavirus situation under control, cry when it obviously hasn’t, go to sleep, lather, rinse, repeat. I’m riding out the rest of this quarantine on a spectacular wave of self-pity. It’s felt a little like being robbed. I chose this course because it afforded me the opportunity to study abroad and I slaved away in a retail job I hated in order to fund the trip. All for nought. And I’ve been pondering just how the universe is going to reward me for this. Repay me for my mild suffering. I would accept a Master’s programme, a Pulitzer prize or Prince Harry as my boyfriend. Happily ever afters make the bad stuff make sense. They are our reason in a world without any.
Allowing myself to indulge in my hard-done-by-ness lacks crucial perspective. My disappointment over my Erasmus is nothing when compared to the hundreds of thousands of job losses of last month, as well as the 85 lives lost so far in this country. Frontline healthcare workers are having to face going to work every day where they know only two things for certain: that they will come into contact with covid-positive people and that there is a shortage of personal protective equipment. I worry for my friends on placement as well as relatives who are being asked to reuse their surgical masks. People are dying and more people will die. It’s unspeakable and nightmarish and it’s now reality. Could all this have happened for a reason? Is there a lesson in it somewhere from which we can learn? And afterwards will we be rewarded with some sort of equal yet opposite reaction?
Unfortunately, even the biggest thing we can dream up is not the secret to healing the losses we have and will suffer as a result of these incredibly trying times. Because things don’t happen for some prescriptive, predetermined reason. They just happen. Sometimes what happens is great, sometimes what happens is devastating but real life is what happens in the equilibrium between greatness and devastation. Life does not begin at pain and end with success. It meanders along between the two. I understand that people use the phrase to offer comfort to others or bring it to themselves and the idea that there is no preordained script or omnipotent power controlling the trajectory of our lives can leave us feeling, well, helpless.
But even if everything does not have a reason that does not mean we cannot bring reason or meaning to the things that do happen. When we take back the responsibility to make something out of the horrible events that occur in the course of life, we also regain some control. Make no mistake, this requires some heavy-lifting and is probably just about the last thing anyone wants to put their energy into when they are experiencing profound pain or loss. On the first day of my J1, just a couple of hours after I got off the plane, I found out that my granny had passed away. We were incredibly close, so this was a loss that had the potential of unravelling the whole summer for me, but I channelled my grief into my work with the children I was teaching. I encouraged them to write down the things that made them sad or things they wanted to let go of on pieces of scrap paper and we burned them (on a fire we made ourselves) or we put them in a time capsule and buried them in the woods. The whole experience was cathartic and I wonder if I would’ve been able to touch the lives of the young girls I worked with as well if I hadn’t suffered the heartbreak of losing my grandmother.
American author and one of my personal favourites, Neil Gaiman, once wrote, “face your life, it’s pain, it’s pleasure, leave no path untaken.” Giving up is easy, waiting around for a reason to explain life’s unfairness is easy too. What is difficult is actually taking responsibility for how we heal and process our pain. We don’t own events or their reasons, but we own what we do with them. We cannot wait for a grand reckoning to explain all this. Some good thing to come along and wipe all our slates clean. Some reason. Because no good thing will be big enough to erase loss from who we are now. Not even marrying Prince Harry (who maybe you heard, married somebody who wasn’t me). When all this is over, we won’t be rewarded for the pain we endured or the restraint we had to show by staying away from our loved ones so that they could be safe. Because pain is not the currency we use to buy a happy ending. Things are likely to be even harder for a little while, many people will have lost somebody close to them and the economy will be in absolute tatters. Together we will have to find our own reasons and make something of this new path we’ve found ourselves on, dust ourselves off and begin again.