Our lives are mapped around referential points. We all have calendars littered with birthdays, exams, parties, graduation ceremonies, interviews, visits to friends, events, plays, holidays, gigs. None of us live purely spontaneously. For decades modern life has functioned on the presumption that imposing order onto our immediate futures will make us more productive, prompt and predictable. Life is prearranged invisibly around us, marked by the constant promises of the near future, what’s coming next, what will I be doing tomorrow?
A few weeks ago, this kind of organisation became impossible. The novel coronavirus began to dominate news coverage, university emails and then steadily our personal lives. ‘Normal’ life as we knew it gradually ceased to exist; everyday dependent on what new policies were enforced by the government and what new data became available. For most of us at Exeter, this meant packing up and concluding the year months in advance, coming home wherever that might be in the world and facing the prospect of exams done from our bedrooms and virtual graduations. For final years, sadly it has meant an end to life at Exeter completely, a strange climactic anti-climax to their university years.
The scope of most of our lives has been dramatically reduced. The places we used to utilise are closed, the networks of people we engaged with in our social lives has become severely limited, and the huge allocation of mental resources we dedicated to planning for the future have been reassigned to planning the everyday. Whilst of course, this monumental constriction of our lives is alien and stress-inducing, a reframing of our current circumstances means for many students, this new existence offers a rare opportunity to practise living in the here and now, a chance to be kinder to themselves, and ease up on the damaging desire for continual security.
University life and career preparation is both exciting and exhausting, and it is easy to feel overwhelmed under the pressure to make the most of the experience. People feel they need to apply for grad jobs, internships and placements all whilst enjoying a healthy social life and maintaining the best grades they can. It is easy, in a time of crisis, to forget that ordinariness can be devastatingly difficult as well.
Planning, thinking to the future and visualising what we want to achieve is of course a natural aspect of human thinking. It is what drives us to make the decisions we make and settles us when we are going through a period of difficulty. What this virus is illuminating however, is that whilst we understandably attempt to direct our lives, not every eventuality can be prepared for, and that we have to find ways to accept this. When the agency we are used to is seemingly stripped from us, we must simply manage what we can, deciding how we are going to use our time, who we are going to phone, what we are going to watch and read. This forced sense of presentness is teaching us valuable lessons about our ability to exert control over our lives and the responsibilities we often unduly put on ourselves.
Uncertainty is a part of life, but there are ways to understand and manage it. The ability to compartmentalize, to understand what aspects of life you can and cannot influence, is a very healthy mental mechanism to develop. There has been a wave of altruism that has been very moving to witness since the crisis started and that many of you will have taken part in, it is important to remember to extend that compassion to yourself. It is ok to not be thinking about your career right now and ok to not be making the most of days spent in quarantine in the traditional sense. Whatever you can do to help yourself day by day, including practising self-care and mindfulness, any of it is an achievement in itself.
Life as we know it will return. There will be a time when this crisis is over, even if that possibility seems remote right now. The shops and bars will reopen, the bypassed birthdays will be celebrated and the plans you had made for the coming years will resume. The priority right now is obviously social distancing, protecting the health care professionals and essential workers that do not have the luxury of an empty calendar. They are the people to which the coming lift of the lockdown and the end of the crisis will be owed. For us as students, living through this period means acknowledging the uncertainty and sadness around us, and subsequently finding ways to manage the lack of control we all currently have, doing whatever we can to help ourselves and our communities. It is important right now to take stock and evaluate, to learn what we can from this bizarre moment of pause that none of us could have anticipated. When we all come out the other side, maybe this change in thinking will result in a change of priorities.
– Emma Vernon
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