Will 2022 lead us away from the pessimism of the pandemic?

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Since March 2020 it feels as though the only constant has been uncertainty. In the salad days of the pandemic, nobody seemed to know anything, including the Government. I barely need to gesture to any of their recent scandals to prove that although they now claim to know a lot more about the virus, they still act as if they know nothing at all. It is no wonder that the public feels just as uncertain now as ever before.

The iron hammer of lockdown, intended to crush Covid-19 once and for all, is now a farcical game of whack-a-mole where the moment one virus is bashed, another variant pops up. At the time of writing, we may be free from restrictions, but we are in no way free of anxieties. There is always that voice coming from the back of our head (or the television) whispering (or shouting) that there might be a firebreak, more restrictions, another wave.

Taken in by a collective illusion

The pandemic has stripped away the modern world’s façade of certainty. It is a terrifying revelation to a generation who have known no war to realise that everything they take for granted as normal life can be changed by the contents of a single news broadcast. We were taken in by a collective illusion of certainty that society needs to maintain, that we will wake up tomorrow to a world the same as we know it today. Since the initial lockdown, the repeated broken promises and false hopes have completely shattered young people’s trust.

Society is built on relationships, and our relationship with authority has some serious trust issues: only 6% of young people trust politicians to tell the truth about Covid-19, only 21% trust teachers, and only 35% trust even professional scientists, according to a British Science Association study. We are becoming a generation of pessimists. Overwhelmed by uncertainty, we question how we can live in a society built upon confidence.

This article might read like the ramblings of a nihilist, but before the pandemic I would have described myself as a complete optimist. I was certain about my place in the world, I had faith in my future, and I was excited by the news. Now, I cringe away from the news because I expect the worst. I don’t want to get my hopes up at all anymore because I’ve been disappointed too many times. It is a slippery slope from self-preservation to apathy: a study at Imperial College London notes that most young people feel lonely and hopeless because of the pandemic, shutting themselves down from not only the news but other people. It isn’t just pessimism. These are the symptoms of depression.

We must learn to live with the virus

We are depressed because as a nation, and as a generation, we are grieving for the past. Perhaps the next generation won’t feel our pessimism as keenly because they won’t know a life without this uncertainty. Unlike us, they won’t be able to constantly compare their lives to a time B.C. – Before Covid. This nostalgia is always painful because it reminds us of what we’ve lost. Durham students can dress like y2k Britney all they want, but it won’t bring back flip phones and Blockbusters. Constant comparisons are the denial phase of our grief, because we don’t actually want to return to 2009. We just want 2020 to have been different. It’s so painful because it’s a complete fallacy. Ultimately, we can’t compare our world to a world where Covid-19 didn’t happen, because it did.

The Government’s latest mantra is that since we cannot eradicate Covid-19, we must learn to live with the virus. For me, it is just as important that we learn to live with uncertainty because we can never eradicate the threat of future restrictions. Living with uncertainty doesn’t mean trying to force ourselves to forget our anxieties, pulling the façade of certainty back over society once our confidence in it is shattered. Instead, it means taking the risk of being excited, even without confidence. It’s an important reminder that even before the pandemic, being happy was always a risk. Uncertainty was always there: by its very nature, being excited about something always makes you vulnerable to disappointment.

Apathy is the only risk-free form of emotion, which is why it’s so dangerously addictive. Admittedly, the odds have shifted recently, and in such uncertainty, happiness is a bigger risk than ever. But it’s a risk that is worth taking. For me at least, even a life of occasional optimism and frequent disappointment is better than a life of perpetual apathy and pessimism. At the very least, I think it’s worth a try. Because after all, the only way to combat apathy is to do exactly that: to try.

Image: Edwin Hooper via Unsplash

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