To be really honest, the first few weeks of lockdown were a breath of fresh air. I was in a lucky position: no one I am close to has had the virus, or is at serious risk. I had some money anxieties – my small business has been closed now for over two months – but I could see a path through, and government help was enough to stop me feeling too anxious. I share a big flat in a very green and lovely part of south London. My daily walks were good, the sun shone. And I had some real space in my life for the first time in about three years – whole weekends with no work, no study, just the freedom to wander and watch films and have video calls.
That probably went on for about a month before the novelty began to wear off. I started to miss seeing my friends. Not on a screen - that strange simulacrum of experience that always leaves me feeling not-quite-connected, the gap between its version of social sparks and real life spontaneity somehow always painfully large – but in a house, sharing food and hugs, or a pub, the energy of different people rubbing across the space. I missed the theatre and cinema, the possibilities that I never took up enough but, as a Londoner, were always there – a comforting wealth of opportunities. Again, the small-screen version lacked that fundamental zing that can only happen when a bunch of humans relax in a space together. And as a trainee counsellor, reaching the end of my course this summer, I yearn to be back in a room with a client, responding to unspoken feelings and body language.
I write this on Monday 1st June, as the lockdown measures are eased a bit further in England. Already some freedoms have come back. I’ve perked up my weekends by getting back on my old bike, travelling to visit friends (at a 2m distance…) in different parts of London. I can see family this week. Things to be hopeful about in many ways.
But this is a crisis shaped by uncertainty. Do I trust our government’s decisions in this, as scientists question whether easing now is the right move? Will there be a second wave, steaming down the tracks in a month when we’re all adjusting to a new normal? Or, in the autumn or winter, when lockdown is not shaped by sunny days distanced-but-together in the park?
As these difficult thoughts and anxieties began to gnaw at me a couple of weeks ago, I read an article saying we might be able to take holidays in the UK this summer. Dreaming of beaches and far horizons I decided to provisionally book a self-catering cottage – somewhere I could take an appropriately-distanced break from the city - if we’re allowed in a few months’ time. I agreed with the owner: nothing goes ahead unless the rules permit, unless we can do it safely. And now I sit and wait, like the rest of us, to see if my hopes can become reality.
For most of us, hope is the fundamental emotional stance we can take in the face of despair. And in the midst of a global pandemic with no clear ending in sight, despair teeters constantly in my peripheral vision. It can make its presence felt in a single article about the difficulties of finding a vaccine, the failures of the planned English track-and-trace scheme. Jubilation sneaks in as a headline claims the virus may be losing its potency – but without enough evidence. This is a tightrope over a chasm of hopelessness. The rope is hope, a thin thread but so powerful it can support me across vast canyons.
For psychologists, hope is a bit of a super-power, greater even than self-efficacy and resilience in helping us lead happier and more successful lives. In his study of the effects of hope, Scott Kaufman describes how one study tracked the achievements of US high school students against their levels of hope over time. It showed that hope was related to a higher GPA over 6 years, and that students who were hopeful were more likely to graduate and less likely to be dismissed from school due to bad grades. Other studies link hope to academic achievement and creative thinking abilities.
Kaufman splits out two aspects of hope: a sense of agency to reach a goal, and also the strategies to get there. It is the force that pushes us forward while helping us find ways around problems, empowering our sense that we can reach something in the future – even if we don’t quite yet know how entirely. For me, it is a reserve I have drawn deeply on these past few months, a well of self-belief and life experiences that have taught me: this too shall pass. And in the meantime, control what you can, try to let go of the rest. Build for the future, live in the present. Again, this tightrope is a fine balance.
And what of those moments, days, or weeks where we fall and that chasm rises up before us? I’ve known some of those recently, days where the weight is on my shoulders and lead sits in my belly as I get out of bed. The uncertainty sits on me, mocking my attempts to move forward, to plan. To some extent I accept it; I let it in. Despair is a fair reaction in these times. And at some point it lifts, often with no obvious reason, and I find some hope again, a thread to cling to.
I suspect this is a pattern that I will get to know better over these next few months, where hope will continue to mingle with despair, sorrow and anger. But it’s always there, in the background, a rope over a chasm. When I’m ready I can get back onto it and find my way a bit further forward, to the other side of this particular ravine.