For me, one of the most memorable moments of the pandemic was back in November, in the first week of lockdown 2 (a small lifetime ago now). Listening to news on the radio over lunch at home, I heard the moment when Professor John Bell told the presenter about the positive results of the Pfizer vaccine trials. She tentatively asked about the implications: did this mean that we could look at a return to normality in spring 2021? ‘Yes. Yes. Yes’ he memorably stated.
The presenter Sarah Montague’s emotion was clear through the radio, and videos shared afterwards showed her raising her arms in joy in the studio. And at my kitchen table I felt a few tears well up out of seemingly nowhere.
Joy turned to an anxious wait as the vaccine rollout began, a mutant variant pulled the rug from beneath our feet in Britain, cases rocketed and a new lockdown was imposed. Now, as the vaccine rollout intensifies, the future feels both painfully closer and yet enormously further away, a hill across a valley that we know we still have to cross. The daily grind of lockdown jars noticeably against a backdrop of desperate hope, alongside the great fear that things could very easily be thrown off-course again.
As I sat down to write this blog and thought about the endings and beginning before us, something unexpected came to my mind: the ancient Greek epic The Odyssey. I studied Classics at university and like many, I have always had a particular affection for Odysseus. I re-read the epic last summer, the old myths appealing to me in the midst of our difficult present.
The tale of Odysseus’ 20-year return from the Trojan Wars after his ship was set adrift by a huge storm, The Odyssey tells how (spoiler) even once home, the hero had to fight a bunch of suitors to win back his wife and crown. The epic ends suddenly with Odysseus laying down his arms and the gods promising peace, but as I read the final lines last summer I was struck by the distinct sense of fragility that remains. A neat ending this is not.
Athena tells Odysseus in that moment:
‘Odysseus, you are adaptable;
You always find solutions. Stop this war,
Or Zeus will be enraged at you.’
(Book 24, 543-5)
Athena points to Odysseus’ famed adaptability. His Greek epithet throughout the epic is often translated as ‘wily’ – he’s the strategist of the Greeks, originator of the Trojan Horse plan. His ability to adapt and to think before he acts is frequently shown to save him, whether facing the seductive Sirens while at sea, the terrifying giant Cyclops, or the suitors once he gets home.
Odysseus’ story is one of desperate trials both at war and then at sea over two decades. But half of the epic is taken up with the trials he faces once he gets home to Ithaca, and the ending doesn’t leave us with a sense that things are all tied up. As our own epic pandemic year has twisted and turned, we are all facing some of the desperate fears and uncertainties of Odysseus, steering our small boats around hostile seas with no idea when we will get home again – and what home might look like once we do.
One of the difficult facts of a life-changing event like the pandemic is that everything has already changed. While we yearn for a return, we will never go back to January 2020. I don’t mean that the things we miss won’t come back, because I’m sure they will, perhaps sooner than we can imagine right now. Rather, I’m thinking of the emotional place we were in a year ago, before the first lockdowns.
We’ve all been through something momentous this year. While the impacts will have been different for each of us, huge events can’t fail to touch and change us all. Perhaps we’ve got to know our closest family and relationships better, or learned how resilient we are. Many people are grieving the loss of a loved one, or coping with financial stresses or job loss. My relationship with nature has become clear to me, and the importance of spending time outdoors – and I’ve responded by thinking about how I build that into my life once lockdown is over.
Change is tumultuous, and the emotions it has stirred are often just below the surface right now, as we all find ways to survive and get on with the day-to-day. But they are released at surprising moments, like my tears as I listened to the radio in November. Likewise, reports abound of the emotional impact on many as they receive the vaccine. One doctor shared her emotional journey in the BMJ, a cacophony of feelings from following the news, to sitting in the chair, to her euphoric feelings afterwards. The story is so moving partly because it describes a journey we will all be travelling at some point soon.
Building a New Home
The tearful moments as people receive their vaccine hint at the deep and stormy lakes of feeling lying beneath calm surfaces. My surprise response as I listened to the radio in November shows how suddenly strong emotions can well up and overtake us in times of intense and long-term distress. We are all coping in our own ways, and may not realise the extent of feelings that we are cutting off in order to survive.
So it’s hard to know what will happen when we do eventually start to see things shift back again. What of all those held-in, pent-up feelings? Many of us imagine parties, holidays and time with friends, jubilant pub trips and festivals. I hope so. But there will be other ways that the emotional fallout shows itself, both now and when the relief floods in.
Think of the possible responses on the first time back to the office, or colleagues seeing each other in person again after many, many months. My fantasy right now is of getting on a train to central London and meeting a friend for dinner, in a restaurant, somewhere small and inviting in Soho or Fitzrovia. How will I feel once I get there?
My instinct is that, as we emerge out of lockdown and into something different again, our responses will be a confusing, messy mix. The idea of a neat return to normal is a helpful fantasy right now, but like Odysseus we will reach home only to find that it is not the same as it was. As he had to fight the suitors lining up for his wife’s hand, so we will face our own battles as we recover, rebuild, or make the changes that lockdown taught us were necessary in our lives. This process will be empowering, enthralling, difficult – and anything but normal.