Reflections on the despair of lockdown
To be or not to be, is an easy question. Who to be, what to be, when to be, where to be, how to be and most importantly, why to be — these are the real questions. It’s been 9 months since the country wide lockdown was enforced and even though rules of lockdown are easing up, our shrinking economy being the priority, for most people and especially for students it is still work from home.
Stop for a moment and contemplate about it. Millions of people locked up at home, unable to go out. Social isolation has engulfed an entire culture in a pervasive thick boredom which, inevitably, has lead to an existential analysis of self. The surreal pause to the ever pacing ceaseless chaos of mundane life of a student made up of McDonald’s Burgers, Metro stations, university campus, friends, etc-these small fragmentary moments which join to make a lifetime paused for months. The physical spaces that are stitched into the fabric of our social lives are inaccessible, the very spaces which often act as a lacuna for our attachments, which more often than not, signify and symbolise the forward movement of life, have suddenly shut down to a halt. Libraries have closed, movies have closed and the cacophony (and the music that forms out it) has trickled out, at first slowly and then with sudden halt. Nowhere left to abandon self and escape into the world. This distinct but fuzzy feeling of time losing its concept is dangling on our heads with phantom threads. All moments are melting into each other to make same day lived over and over again. Is it really a different day if you do the same things over and over again?
In the contemporary world, even the most reclusive with unhappening lives mark their days with change, a rhythm to keep a person sane. Having been snatched (for our own survival, no less) of our everyday rituals, which have been marked with immediate danger; we no longer have the clutches of our sanity. You can’t go to college, you can’t dine out, you can’t go to a park to get some fresh air, you can’t meet your friends; because all these activities are risky and incautious.
I remember the time, a few weeks back, wandering in the night with my friends, happy with bellies full of roaring laughter and pure joy. My friend, telling me in crooks of old Delhi how its possible to just be and still love. I remember the last time I saw one of my professors, young and cynical, but still sowing seeds of ambitions, for tough love exists with charms of tenderness. The last time I watched a movie in a theatre hall, Chhapaak, reminds how even our rage against gendered crimes have been subsided, how the virus doesn’t discriminate. I remember the time I went out alone to eat chowmein from this particular place few days ago where I usually go and how good and spicy it was. I remember the last time I saw theatre artists and how I gathered the courage to vocalise my appreciation, we bought coffee and ranted about economy. It’s those little moments that are golden and valuable, in retrospect. More so, in this state of suspended waiting. It’s those moments we yearn to live again.
College life is characterized by a specific dysfunctionality , simmering with existential angst while daring to change the world. You look outside and the whole system seems to be deconstructing. Economy is collapsing, unemployment is sky-rocketing, COVID-19 cases are rising. You look inside- your future seems directionless, your dreams uncertain, your life a complete opposite of what you imagined college life to be. Marking your days with a directionless anxiety is to be expected-self introspection does that. What you choose to do with that self introspection is more important. Do you watch it take form as clouds and pass in front of your eyes or do you internalize your learnings and act? How do you imbue your life with purpose in an increasingly meaningless, chaotic world? How do we construct and adopt a reasonable framework for life in lockdown?
So what do we do? Existential angst is an underlying strain in our lives whether you consciously acknowledge it or not. The author of this article is not arrogant enough to give unsolicited advices and this is not one of those self help pieces certainly. But here is an attempt at some suggestions to be adjusted with individual preferences.
This is an overwhelming anxiety inducing exercise to inculcate a solid understanding which isn’t blown away by winds of chaos but highly rewarding. Understand that we don’t live in a rational universe, there is too much uncertainty in our world. It’s chaotic and maddening. You have essentially three fundamental choices, philosophical suicide (nihilism, giving up on life) a refusal of the absurd, or an embrace of the absurd. The later allowing for all of the benefits of attaching yourself to an absurd ideology, whilst remaining fundamentally free. So, embrace the absurdity, the vastness, the chaos, the irrationality of universe.
Realise your vast freedom
One of the core principles of existential thought is our freedom (and really our responsibility) to choose. Simone De Beavour said in Ethics of Ambiguity, “Freedom is the source from which all significations and all values spring. It is the original condition of all justification of existence. The man who seeks to justify his life must want freedom itself absolutely and above everything else.” We only have our facticity (what we choose/deduce to be real) and our ability to think with which to create an authentic life for ourselves. But we do have to make choices. They are typically not easy or comfortable, but making the hard choices earlier gives you more time to find the satisfaction that comes from living authentically. An absurd, simulated, coldly mechanistic or divinely created universe each carry implications for how to live authentically.
You have to choose what you deduce to be the most in line with your experience and exploration. Your experience may change your evaluation. Create your essence, don’t just consume the prepackaged lives offered by society. Sartre’s formulation, “Existence precedes essence”, is the groundwork for meaning. It seeks to show that there is no essence in the world until we make it. Essence and meaning come from human existence itself. Sartre says that our being-for-itself is a fundamental negation of that which is, which allows us to create all values in the world. You exist, then you define yourself. Which brings us to next part.
Construct meaning consciously
Adopting pre-meditated belief systems from society is not only a testament to lazy existence but also extremely limiting. Question everything. Questioning, critiquing, improving are all small conscious acts that accumulate and change life. It’s imperative to be aware of your own thinking patterns and analyse them. People construct meaning on a subconscious level because pure meaninglessness will take over if they don’t which is a tradeoff no one desires. The trick is to do it consciously. Nietzsche argues that whatever you become, if it is the product of a singular will, is better than that of someone who accepts what they are given.
Live with cognizance of the scarcity of your time on Earth
Kierkegaard realized that time is a commodity for which we can use our imagination to create a mental scarcity, raising the perceived value of each moment and day we live. “With the thought of death, the earnest person is able to create a scarcity so that the year and day will seem of infinite worth.” Giving more worth to each moment, you might tend to act more authentically.
Being as an activity
An important thing to remember is that existentialists didn’t think “being” is a simple thin property you hold. It’s something you do- actively with intention and gusto, or you aren’t doing it right. You can’t just assume you simply are; you have to play an active role in the process of embracing your existence, in making yourself up. It’s like a robot builds itself up, except for metal and gears, we use existence and effort- we aren’t just process of existence, we are the entire system itself. The robot isn’t just the act of building, he is the subject and the object and his existence is an activity. If he stopped building, it’s not that he will cease to exist. His life would just cease to have meaning since it’s his essence to build himself up. Same with human beings.
Take active part in building yourself up.
Hope with open eyes
In the end do not get bogged down by anxiety. Sartre says radical freedom breeds anxiety and that we have a proclivity to try to escape the reality of that freedom. To live authentically is to live with anxiety. Moreover, anxiety has unique and fundamental instruction to offer. Kierkegaard said that an unflappable person who has never experienced anxiety is a spiritless person. To have anxiety means that you care. The innocent idyllic convention states that when we pull through this, when the lockdown ends and a vaccine is available, we’ll learn to appreciate our lives more. We will value the laughter of our friends more, dance and sing like life was ending tomorrow, hold our loved ones with expressed affection and affectation, praise the filthy crowded streets with old school romanticism. We will hug our friends and appreciate our teachers and stop in the middle of the buzzing street to absorb the sounds of our interconnected lives and take in the nature’s beauty one trip at a time. Till then, we must imagine Sisyphus vibing.
19. I like books, punk rock, philosophy and panicking over the crushing weight of existence. Student of Journalism, teller of stories.