The Unexpected Pause
Fear is riddled with contradictions; especially in times of a pandemic like the COVID-19. We prepare for the worse while deeply hoping that the stocking up of toilet paper in bulk, hand sanitizer, pasta and everything consumable, ensures that we survive. Perhaps that is why Albert Camus, a Nobel laureate for literature, who saw humanity at its most vulnerable period – World Wall II, wrote with a poignant certainty, “There is no love of life without despair of life.”
In my own reflections on fear, optimism, cynicism and the complexities of them together, I acknowledge that one cannot really escape them in life, no matter how much we guard ourselves with luxury. If we have too much, we fear losing it all the time; strategising ways to secure it. If we have little, we worry if it will suffice? Almost every alternate day, I meet someone who complains about the problem of not having enough time. That book they wanted to read got consumed by office presentation, the passion for painting will resume post retirement, they shall rest after one more target is achieved and so on. It is not so much in finding time for a pursuit we crave but rather that we are almost casual in complaining that we are missing out on something because our hands are too full with everything else.
And then, all of a sudden there is a lockdown or a crisis and you are asked to stay at home. Self-quarantine. In an instance, you have all the extra time with you – the hours you spent commuting to work, every in-person meeting that could have been ideally an email, time veiled looking busy, making small talks, scrolling through concept decks and instruction guides. And yet the anxiety remains. In fact, if I be honest, it grows monstrously.
The fear of having no time to having too much of it hints at interesting pattern in the human behaviour. In the process of training ourselves to have excessive control over our schedules we have somewhat corrupted our ability to accept the gift of unexpected time. A pause we did not account for in our to-do list. A slowdown forced upon us in the light of global safety. Moments of reflections that popularly everyone preaches but seldom practices. There is a certain pride people take in pencilling their calendars a year in advance. Boasting of how they don’t have a minute to spare. Going with the flow is an admirable poetic metaphor but far from practical living for some.
I was made aware of this realisation last year during a conversation with a theatre artist named Johan Petite in Belgium. When I asked Johan for his life lesson, he replied saying “Stop at the red light.” I was slightly disappointed and perplexed. How could stopping at a red light be a nugget of wisdom I could imbibe. When I probed further he shared, “Because my whole life, when I was walking, when I was biking, I never stopped for the red light. If there was no car, I drove past by and I always wanted to be there (next stop). I wanted to go further. The biking was to get somewhere and I wanted to be at the next stop. And when I am doing dishes, I am not doing dishes. I am doing dishes to get in my couch.”
Johan looked back at his own past with a certain critic and noticed that the future he was so chronically intending to meet was getting lost because he wasn’t making most of the present. He invited me to a personal analysis by adding, “And what I learnt was that if you stop at the red light, even if no car is coming, even if it is 3AM in the night, you can just stand there. That is one of the most precious things you can have because you have the time and you can see everybody rushing. Have time. Mastering time is being able to master yourself because in the end you have to stop for the red light.”
Contemplating our mortal existence, we can examine how often does this chase of hustling and the adrenaline of being busy gets in the way of life. Stopping at a red light is not only a life lesson but rather a larger litmus test of our patience. No one leaves home knowing the number of red lights they will encounter and yet they are inevitable. Although, our reaction to them is under our authority. The frustration that stirs us to accelerate our motorbikes, oscillate our cars to the traffic time ticker is an indicator of how unsuspecting circumstances get the better of us. Even pausing for 60 seconds of a minute without a glint of anxiety could be our snacky meditation on the street. Just like short naps this too, for all you know, could revitalize our capacity to be productive and present.
The pandemic is possibly our red light. We have time at our disposal that we did not wish for or assume. Yet we have to find ways to fill it with something. And by no means I am suggesting for us to do more than we would have on a normal routine day. The choice is ours. We can rest. We can be creative. The internet has exploded with suggestions – learn a new language, explore unconventional music, practice yoga, paint, read that book you never found time for, Facetime with friends – you decide what soothes your soul. Do nothing if you feel bored. In fact, marinate in your boredom. How often in our competitive affairs do we deliberately seek unconcern? Imagine if we were to breathe voluntarily and it wasn’t an automated cycle of inhaling and exhaling? Bucket lists or no bucket lists. Goal sheet or no goal sheet. Depending upon our mood and mindset, we can stretch the day to our comfort.
This conceivably will not eliminate the uncertainties the world is encountering. It doesn’t guarantee that the news will become positive or the panic will evaporate. But there is a slight probability that the smaller world of our home will not be contaminated further with more fear and exasperation. Crisis don’t only reveal who we are but distinctly build who we become. One of these days, the headlines will announce that the situation is under control; things are better. We can resume our inter-country travels, hang out with friends in our favourite café, stroll to the corner shop for groceries and even sneeze without scaring the daylights out of humanity. When we do arrive at that, I hope we can carry the essence of these reflections and bring to our groove a new found love for stillness. We shall nod to the words of the Czech writer Milan Kundera who said, “To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring – it was peace.”
We shall triumph with a newly attained superpower for some and an old resurrected talent for others, the act of accepting the unexpected gift of time. Some answers would have emerged. Even if it took a while along with dreadful fear to excavate them, that’s alright. A while is better than eternity. An eternity of unknowing noises is never better than a delayed voice of knowing.
With that knowing – red lights, hopefully, won’t perturb us but provoke a smile next time.
Cover Image by: Vibhor Yadav
Johan Petite and I: Yashasvi Juyal