What would make a better normal for you in the post-pandemic world?
Gentle reader: How happy do you feel, right now? How happy would you be to wake up tomorrow and find that the world had returned to how it was before the pandemic?
The silence that opened up inside me
Is true happiness possible in a world that has fallen silent?
Happiness is an increasingly valuable commodity amidst the ravages of 2020. The coronavirus pandemic forced an abrupt halting of daily life. Many of us felt (or feel) cut off from sources of happiness that we might normally seek in the wider world. Forced indoors, forced inward, the mind’s focus was forced onto the internal world of thoughts and feelings.
This sudden silence could feel both jolting and uncomfortable. Zadie Smith describes this reaction beautifully in her recent appearance on the Adam Buxton podcast:
“I was surprised by the silence that opened up inside me. I just really didn’t have anything to say or think. I just felt very empty.”
This silence is not for everyone. It leaves nowhere to run from your thoughts. Nowhere to run from yourself. Smith found this silence uncomfortable. She recounts a conversation with her youngest brother, who is keen on meditation:
“He was saying – I’ve never meditated – but he was saying when you meditate very seriously, you get to the kind of core of yourself. What’s there is just nothing. It’s just a big load of nothing. And that’s what terrifies people. Exactly that. This kind of quiet, airy place in which nothing goes on. I was very struck by him saying that. I had a tiny glimpse of it after lockdown. Everything’s gone. There’s nothing to do. There’s no purpose. And for most people it’s terrifying. It’s terrifying for me. So instead of sitting in that meditative moment, I wrote a book. Avoidance.”
What is the silence trying to tell you? This silence that is always there underneath everything, but is usually drowned out by the sheer noise of life. Confronted by silence, and by what the silence is trying to tell you, it is only natural that you might want more than anything to see things start moving again.
What is happiness?
Is true happiness possible in a world that is all about relentless forward motion?
“What is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.”
These deceptively simple words from Mad Men‘s Don Draper* cut to the heart of his craft as an advertising executive on New York’s Madison Avenue in the 1960s. Happiness is the most valuable commodity in advertising. It seems as if our need for happiness can never be exhausted.
Constantly in search of happiness himself, Don Draper’s life and his work both feed off life’s relentless forward motion. Draper frequently restates his faith in a one-word guiding principle for life, one that he uses to explain and to justify his restless and often ruthless actions:
Why return to normal?
Is true happiness possible in a world that is once again as it once was… a world that is “back to normal”, a world that is all about moving forward?
Where do we go once the meditative moment of lockdown is broken? Would you want to go back to pre-pandemic life exactly as it was? What would you have changed about the way you used to live, if you’d had the chance?
We have the chance to change how we live, starting right now. Matt Haig shared a lovely simple tweet**** earlier this month about the choice we all face:
“Why return to normal when we could make a better normal?”
I was so taken by Mr Haig’s words that I had to retweet them. I was delighted when Ben Swart replied to my retweet with a picture of some wise and timely captioned words from Paul de Gregorio:
“There can be no return to normal because normal was the problem to begin with.”
The normal that we knew before (Normal 1.0, perhaps?) was at best less than perfect.
I love Brian Eno’s recent words*** about how we might use these times to reframe how we perceive life:
“I was talking the other day to a carpenter who lives nearby. He was astonished by how little money he’d been spending over the last months because there were no shops open. It had changed all his perceptions about how much he needed to earn, about what he really liked doing. He’d discovered he enjoyed being with his children by the river… As for the social effects: it’s been so nice seeing people having an alibi to be nice to each other. England has been through five years of division and anger. Now something has happened that allows us to reach across and say ‘Are you OK?'”
What would make for a better normal for you in the post-pandemic world?
What would make you happiest, tomorrow?
What would make you happiest, right this instant?
* I remember once seeing Don Draper described as a character so conflicted he makes Tony Soprano look like Bob the Builder. I dearly wish that I could remember the source of these words. If you know, please share the author and a link to these words with me. I will be delighted to credit them here.
** Is true happiness possible in a world that is all about relentless forward motion? The ending of Mad Men would seem to suggest that it is not. This is the most ironic and satisfying ending imaginable. In Mad Men‘s closing moments, Draper seems at last to have found some inner peace and happiness in a meditative moment on a California cliffside. But his smile at the chime of a temple bell and the subsequent cut to a Coca-Cola commercial (which we’re given to think he has that moment dreamt into being) suggests that he is immediately moving forward from this fleeting silence and stillness. This is a very Buddhist ending. Don Draper is unable to escape Saṃsāra – the endless cycles of pain that form existence.
*** Perceptive readers will note that I also touched on these words from Eno in We’re all beginners at this. But they are so lovely and so relevant to this post that I am including them here, too.
**** Please do consider reading Mr Haig’s excellent book The Midnight Library.