After the Storm
Extraordinarily, it will pass. It always does. One day, the crisis roiling our minds and our societies will be history. But it will not be forgotten lightly. There will be a sense of a world that existed before — and of one that came after. Older people will evoke for younger ones what pre society was like — and the contrast will awe and puzzle. Crucially, quite what the change will be isn’t predetermined. It doesn’t lie in our hands to avoid the crisis; it is very much up to us to determine what the crisis might mean and could give birth to over the long term. As in personal life, breakdowns have a capacity to lead to breakthroughs. What might these be? We can already ask ourselves what we would ideally want the world to be like after; what we would want a lot more of — and what very much less of.
What we learnt we wanted more of…
For much of history, the status quo is made to feel impregnable. Nothing new can be tried; every provocative idea is to be batted away; this is the way we’ve always done it and always will. Visionary thoughts for reorganizing society, for amending our ways of working, earning, loving or nursing ourselves, are made to feel outlandish and impractical; the current state is inviolable. Except, of course, it isn’t. Crises reveal that — under sufficient pressure, and with the imaginative restlessness bred by necessity — pretty much everything is up for being rethought: the money supply, the education system, the hospital service, community support, entertainment, leisure, love. We might live wholly differently and in some ways, far more fruitfully, joyfully, kindly and efficiently. We have over the years learnt everything we need to know about stagnation; we have a chance, once the storm has abated, to remember possibility. After so much horror that was unforeseen, the current non-existence of a beautiful idea — however apparently fanciful — need never again be any sort of conclusive argument against it.
The old world taught us a great deal about ourselves as individuals. The storm reminded us of ourselves as creatures of the group: we relearnt that none of us survives unless everyone survives and that the overall health of a society depends on the protection and security of its least prestigious members. We learnt that there is no island distant enough, no penthouse exclusive enough, no private ventilator plausible enough to save us. We learnt that if we were to live, we had to rely on what belonged to us all — and that every nation, even a so-called mighty one, can only ever be as strong as its communal foundations.
We learnt, extraordinarily, that we are not principally interested in ourselves, that there is something far more compelling and gratifying than individual pride. We learnt about the pleasures of serving others. We learnt to give due recognition to an urge that otherwise lay buried and shy within us: the desire to help strangers.
We learnt how exhausting it is to try to resolve all our needs with only one other very special person, who we hoped could render everyone else superfluous. We outgrew Romanticism, and discovered a more open-hearted, less possessive form of love: a love of friends, neighbors, colleagues and fellow vulnerable suffering humans.
And what we learnt we wanted less of…
To wage war on frivolity isn’t to be dour or unalive to the pleasures of dancing, messing about or cracking extremely rude jokes. True frivolity involves being far too serious about things that are at heart very silly without recognising them as such; it is to devote one’s greatest energies to banality while refusing the claims of warmth and fellowship. There will plenty of other crises: the asteroid of 2043, the earthquake of 2192, the alien invasion of 2289… We should make sure that when these strike, we’ll be preoccupied with pursuits in line with our natural dignity and sense of meaning: we may be laughing, we might even be dancing, but we’ll have learnt to evaluate each day against the more purposeful measure of death.
We will, along the way, also have learnt to appreciate the hitherto unheralded pleasures of an evening stroll through familiar, undramatic, deeply lovable streets, or an afternoon in a public garden, lying in the grass next to unknown families having a picnic. We will become connoisseurs of all that is wondrous and available for almost nothing in the here and now.
We will do away with our fear of touch. We will treasure every moment of tangible contact: a satisfying fiddle with our cheek or a deep exploration in our left nostril, an arm around a shoulder, a kiss, the simple miracle of a hug.
After the storm, we will have less patience with sentimental good humor. We’ll know so much about darkness, we’ll have had our fill of glossy assurance. It will be pessimism cheerfully borne that will provide us with the wisest perspective. We’ll be experts at melancholy and the finest form of comedy: gallows humor.
Every brush with death, individually or societally, begs us to address one large and otherwise fatefully ignored question: how would we really, really prefer to live? The storm is our tragic chance to piece together one or two more profound and satisfying answers.
If you enjoyed this article, many of its ideas are explored further in The School of Life: Calm, a guide to developing the art of finding serenity by understanding the sources of our anxiety and frustrations.
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Founded by the philosopher Alain de Botton, The School of Life is a global organization helping people to find perspective and resilience in the face of life’s challenges. We share ideas through a range of channels, including books, eBooks, films, virtual classes and tools for emotional well-being.