Now that we’re all locked up for the foreseeable future, we have time to imagine how we may have changed by the time normal life returns. The reality is we won’t change much, if at all.
Over the years, it’s stayed with me how quickly people can adapt to extreme change. In my early 20s I ran homeless shelters. In one shelter, there was a well-spoken, highly educated antiques dealer whose daughter was killed in a car accident. Unable to cope with the grief, he began drinking. Eventually he lost everything. When he was drunk, he was loud and boorish. He threatened me many times. One day he came into the shelter and he was sober, courteous and a great conversationalist. We shared a cigarette and spoke about Regency furniture and The Iliad. Then he fell silent and looked around the shelter with its flaking paintwork and dilapidated chairs. “Peter,” he said, “Do you know what gets me the most is that I’ve gotten used to this. It’s become my life.”
Faced with loss and trauma, it’s easy to descend into fatalism and there is survival value in our ability to adapt to all kinds of loss. I’ve helped people who’ve lost their partners of 40 years, their homes and their businesses. I’ve watched addicts, their lives a wreck and pleading for another drink, and I’ve sat beside people in the last moments of their lives. These moments change us but not as deeply as we think.
When Dawn Bilbrough, a critical care nurse, was unable to buy fruit and vegetables after a 48-hour shift supporting people sick with coronavirus, she pleaded with us to stop stripping the shelves of food. “It’s people like me,” she said, “who are going to be looking after you when you’re at your lowest. Stop it please…”
I’ve watched addicts, their lives a wreck and pleading for another drink, and I've sat beside people in the last moments of their lives. These moments change us but not as deeply as we think.
We retweet the video and lower our heads, sensing our vulnerability, knowing that something has to change. But normality is resilient. It waits, patiently, for the habits that govern our lives to regain their footing, and they always do.
After 9/11 we asked, naively, if violent, apocalyptic films could ever be shown again and now respected commentators, fuelled by the immediacy of a pandemic, say “at this pivotal moment in human history much may change”. In 2001 we cheered New York firefighters walking into the toxic, smouldering wreckage of the Twin Towers. Today, we applaud nurses and doctors, coming home exhausted. And there’s no doubt that crises can bring the best out in people, like the 72-year-old Italian priest who sacrificed his own life by giving the respirator his congregation had bought him to a young stranger.
But the memories of any crisis, like the wounds of grief, do pass and we go back to our habits, good and bad, simply because they’re familiar to us. Life after lockdown won’t be dramatically different. It’s possible, at least in the short term, we may travel less to meetings, be kinder to each other and able to appreciate the vulnerabilities that bind us as a species. But we’ll soon be back to our petty squabbles and selfie-soaked narcissism.
Perhaps, the best we can hope for is that we take one thing, small as it may seem, to remind us what it means to face the collapse of everything we know. Here’s mine: today, I went for a run with my teenage daughter and I noticed, perhaps for the first time, how fresh the air felt on my lungs. I’ll remember that.
Dr Peter Hughes is a psychologist specialising in addiction, entrepreneur and writer.