Yesterday, I attended a funeral for the first time in about eight years. The occasion touched me more than I would ever be able to explain - words are definitely not enough to convey the depth of my impressions. Some things are better left unsaid, but it’s hard to keep it to myself either.
As it happens, this summer and the year overall have been challenging for me personally and I assume for everyone else too. Roaring 20s, huh? Cancelled plans, unpredictable turn of events, masks and hand-sanitisers instead of numerous flights and big parties. While the pandemic might have been predictable, it was rather irreversible. The world has changed probably forever. As a French doctor Céléstin-Alexis Agbessi said, the French "joie de vivre," is now incompatible with the "new normal" imposed by the coronavirus. But it’s not just the French - it’s all of us.
Like many, I’ve had my plans trampled by the pandemic, and it does feel like we’re in this for much longer. If someone had told me on March 12th when I was packing my bag to go to Ukraine for a month-long quarantine, that it would turn into an almost 6-month stay, I wouldn’t have believed it. An 18-year-old me would probably get very freaked out at the very possibility of such a twist, a 23-year-old me did her best to pull herself together and accept the situation. The pandemic has been a great lesson in stoicism, and the funeral reinforced the things that have been swirling around in my head during the last five months (five months of COVID!).
I believe it was Jordan Peterson who said that we shouldn’t try to avoid good problems - those that do not involve deadly diseases, or death, or some irreversible life-threatening damage. Again, like most people I know, I would want to erase the mere possibility of problems, especially those that provoke anxiety. Everyone who has ever felt like their whole world will fall apart if they don’t get this cool job, or this very important residence permit, or don’t succeed in building a long-term relationship with someone they fancied, knows very well that anxiety is real. More than that, anxiety is human, and like in the case of corruption, it never fades away completely: we can only reduce its levels.
The popular solution is to try to be more mindful of our thoughts so that once anxiety kicks in, we shut it up with our reasonable arguments why our fears are unjustified. That’s a great exercise, but it deals with the process of experiencing anxiety without addressing the core of the problem. We don’t like facing challenges on our way. We are anxious because we know deep down that things never go as smoothly as we would like them to, but we still cling to the idea that they should. Because we are all nice people, we’ve done something good, and so maybe karma is a thing and everything will be fine?
I don’t know why we do that. Is it maybe because we’ve come to enjoy comfort too much and in the spirit of evolution try to compensate for the miseries our ancestors encountered? After all, the 21st century with its progress has spoiled us. We’re used to having our problems solved by someone else - UberEats for example - which gives the impression that there was no problem in the first place. Right, these are very small problems but as with everything in life, we get used to good things very fast and extrapolate our attitudes to other areas. Why bother overthinking how to introduce yourself to women at the bar and make a fuss out of it, if we can just go on Tinder and voila - there is no problem. Why try hard?
The issue is that all these life shortcuts end up making us feel extremely anxious and resentful when bigger - but still good - problems come up. We then see life as it is and not through the lens of Spotify and Glovo. Finding a new job, or having to do a regular health check, moving to a new city, being vulnerable with someone, or getting married etc. These are all risks - bigger or smaller - because every outcome will determine our life to some extent. Our risk aversion is, it seems to me, generally high. Unlike our ancestors, we don’t have to go hunting every now and then knowing that we might get killed by a person from another tribe. We live in a relatively safe world, and that’s why COVID has been so devastating. Even travelling abroad is a risk now as we might be denied entrance unless we provide our COVID test results (in the best case).
Stressed, depressed, but at least healthy and alive. No, not at least. Thankfully healthy and alive! When I complain about my good problems and cry on my father’s shoulder about how unfair and complicated life is, he usually replies with ‘So do you want to change roles with your great grandmother (who is 90)? You’d be at peace then. You’d just eat, sleep, watch TV, and go for a walk in the garden every now and then. No jobs, no colleagues, no visas, no messed up travel itineraries, no nerve-wracking choices, no crushes’. When I try to trade my good problems for that kind of life in my head, I come to see how wrong it is of me to complain. It is all very weird: you understand very well that problems are an essential part of life, but you still want to avoid the pain and the struggle that follows. I wouldn’t even call it a mindset problem. It’s more like Milton Friedman’s free lunch discussion: we would all prefer to get those but we wouldn’t want to be the ones who have to earn the money to buy it for us. It’s hard to resist a free lunch though or a possibility of getting a free lunch as much as it is hard to dismiss a mere thought that maybe this time there won’t be any problems.
Someone once told me that if we experience some physical pain occasionally, or if we get a bruise, it means that we are alive. It’s only when there’s nothing of that, that we have to stay alert. Dead people don’t worry about income, career and relationship prospects: nothing can bother them. It’s in a way a perfect life we would like to attain: a sweet utopia but with blood pulsing through our veins, our eyes open, and our family not mourning. I looked at my 33-year-old professor lying dead in a coffin and realised that I would give everything just to be here, on earth. Just to be here… To see the sun, to touch flowers, to take pictures of the sky, to talk to my colleagues, to stroke a bunny, to eat, to drink coffee, to hug my parents, to say silly things, to laugh, even to cry and feel sad, [insert anything you're grateful for], to love! And to have good problems. In the words of Tolstoy, as long as there is life, there is hope.