Decisions about one’s life are never easy, but unless they are precipitated by illness or sudden long distance love, they come with a feeling of being “KNOWN” due to their ritualistic nature. We go away to school, we move for jobs, we make sacrifices for the dream house, we need a bigger house because we decided we wanted kids, etc, etc. There is something big but at the same time reassuring in the knowledge that you dance a decade old dance, and the world around you has been constructing itself in ways that mirror and support that “dance”. Institutions, buildings, transport, time, everything is built to reinforce the progress you, inescapably, will undertake.
There is something called “the conditions of existence” and it was first discussed by French naturalist Cuvier (pls don’t Google it and start reading Scientology crap, the naming similarity is just a coincidence). It states that for an organism to exist, it needs a set of preexisting circumstances, “an economy of things” coming together to preserve that thing in its best possible state (the “best” here is my addition, since Cuvier only speaks about preserving the thing in a state of Being/Existing).
That’s what we have now. A system of things which work together to preserve a state of Us, us going to school, us going to work, us buying a house, us having a kid, us needing a bigger house, us wanting a better job, etc, etc. The decisions we have to make around this progress are not complicated insofar as they are not novel and they may be difficult but they are certainly not complex. The coordinates are generally ability, time, willingness, personal histories, a bit of luck. Some combination of the above allows any of us to be in a place where the decisions needed can be taken with some alacrity.
And then we come to today. Today, the COVID crisis has exploded the conditions for existence in ways we never thought possible and the implications of this, beyond surviving to the next week and keeping a job, are deeper and heavier and more complicated because, for some, like me, the pandemic raises questions on the very nature of the decisions we were once (not long ago) working towards.
I now ask myself often: why do I live where I live? what am I working towards? what kind of house do I want? why do I live so far away from my parents? how do I make my contributions matter? does my writing or my work mean anything anymore? what do I do next?
I am not alone in this. People are thinking about moving away from cities they have worked desperately hard to live in. Many of my friends are wondering why they’ve sacrificed the next 20 years of their life to buy a small flat they now have to spend an inordinate amount of time in and whose value is not likely to go up.
People, lots of people, wonder about career progression and whether being ambitious means anything anymore in times like these. Of course, we’ve discovered that we can work comfortably from our homes, but I bet you nobody though working from home meant negotiating couch vs table in your flat with the rest of your family. We all thought flexible working meant we’d all be sat in crowded, trendy cafes with a flat white, tapping away at our laptops. The Hoxton hotel dream. Well, that’s not happening, so will we be happy on the dining room/kitchen table while the roommate/ husband/ partner moans about putting their back out on the couch to give the kids the desk in the study? Is this the high flying, flexible, modern career we thought we’d have?
And what if we return to the office? For the next year or more, or until a vaccine is found, we will be returning to different ways of working. The camaraderie and excitement won’t be there until everyone feels safe. And maybe that takes a year, maybe it takes two, what do we do for two years? Do we sit and wait? Do we put plans on hold? Faced with this level of uncertainty, some people have already decided to take charge. People are moving away, buying large houses in remote areas and preparing to work remotely 80-90% of their time. Companies will have to allow for this option too (some are doing it). Because nobody can wait for years for things to come back to the infrastructure that propped up our former conditions for existence. It’s not fair to keep people in limbo. And some won’t stay there.
Moving about/ travel/ holidays? Last night, I spoke to my best friend in Bucharest about coming home for a visit, after retweeting this tweet on the anxieties of flying in pandemic times. I’ve had a phobia of flying for years now, and travel has always been slower and shorter distance for me, but this right here might have just sealed my relationship with air travel. And it’s probably not just me. There’s millions who are anxious flyers and some of them, not few, will put in balance the perceived convenience of getting on a plane and their mental health, and decide to board trains and buy second hand cars. It’s happening in India, where people are putting health first and buying family cars so they can travel in bubbles. Trains and cars means shorter trips or longer time spent travelling. It means less business trips, more time spent away from airports and in conf calls at home, wherever that home ends up being now.
What about kids and family? Even before this, lots of people were wondering about having and raising kids. Of course, even more were doing it with help from parents, nannies, taking early morning drives to drop off, project managing their home lives with the same tenacity as they did work projects. But while this crisis lasts, the preconditions of that whole apparatus working are gone. Kids, their education, their free time, their entire existence is something that has had to be redesigned because schools and nurseries are not open, and if they do open, it will not be as before. So, here again, you can either last it out until it comes full circle to the way it used to be, or wonder about an alternative way, one that looks at some home schooling (with an extreme solution, signalled by Jason Calacanis with his #microschool tweets) and remote teaching. And, just as before, that tends to topple the pre-condition of living in a certain place and owning a certain type of car as much as it puts pressure on the idea of school system as we know it and the micro-economies of child minding and child care.
I could go on forever. But the point is this: unless, somehow, we manage to come back to the exact place we were before this, some of the foundations of how we’re taught we should be living have been badly shaken. More of us will be thinking of alternative solutions and trying to make that happen in a world which is not build for that type of thinking. Decisions will become harder, have become harder but, in all of this, there is incredible opportunity to think about how to service those who want to move forward in different conditions for existence.
I for one am looking forward to finding some of these solutions. Because I, for one, was not sure about the conditions of our [previous] existence to begin with.