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What If You Don’t Want To Go Back To Your Old Life?

Writer Alexandra Jones explores how to cope when change is the only certainty


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My grandparents have been married for more than 50 years. They don’t really get on and sometimes they stop speaking for weeks at a time, a situation which neither of them seems to mind. Despite this, my grandmother often tells me that I should get married, and soon.

At 31, as well as being single, I also don’t own a home. These are both facts that she finds, almost intolerably, worrying. “I think I just want to live in a van for a while,” was my response, last time we spoke. “Just drive around, see stuff…have an adventure…”

My grandmother sounded perturbed, “you can’t do that.”

Pre-pandemic, I would have agreed with her. Driving around, writing and seeing where life takes me…seemed, well, ludicrous. There were earning thresholds to smash. Savings targets to hit. Relationship milestones to post about online. As lockdown has worn on though, the idea that these things would offer me the security that I was striving for started to seem just as ludicrous.

“Everyone’s feeling like this right now,” agreed my friend Anita*, on a screen, sipping a thickly orange cocktail. “Mango juice and vodka,” she explained. “Health kick.”

She divorced two years ago, a week before her 30th birthday. “I was so stressed that that was it - my one chance at marriage and kids, gone. But if my husband hadn’t been a cheating shitbag I would probably be stuck inside with two children right now. Instead I’m ignoring my emails and planning to move to Portugal. And it makes me wonder - did I even want those things in the first place?”

Megan Hellerer is the renowned New York-based career coach and founder of WTF Am I Doing With My Life? who specialises in guiding what she calls “under-fulfilled overachievers” through times of crisis. Most famously, she is the woman who helped set Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on her path to congress. Hellerer explains: “From a young age, certainly in the western world, we were told that if we jump through specific hoops - go to university, get the job, get married, save money, keep the job for as long as possible - then we would be safe and secure.”

For Hellerer this meant going to Stanford, then rising through the ranks at Google. “But in times like these - ‘lifelong security,’ is shown to be a myth.”


“in times like these - those things we think we should be doing, to offer us ‘lifelong security,’ is shown to be a myth”

“I think,” she continues, “that the veil has been lifting - for millennials in particular - for a while now.” Who doesn’t remember 2008, and the same dizzying sense of one world ending and something new spooling out (the flinty-bright digital age, its edges razor-sharp and terrifying)? “The financial crash exposed the shakiness of our banking institutions; automation means that a ‘job for life’ doesn’t exist anymore. And now coronavirus, this huge tragedy….it throws the idea of certainty-by-numbers out the window.”

One Sunday evening, the sunset dark pink like a fresh scar, I allowed myself to succumb to the existential hysteria. To the thought that there is only one certainty in life and that is death, and so to be chasing certainty seemed macabre, if you thought about it rationally.

In fact, the Berlin-based relationship therapist Andrew G Marshall points out that while it might make us uneasy, uncertainty can be a fruitful and creative starting point. “Anxiety is a perfectly normal emotion - you’re never going to get rid of it. It’s a bit like trying to get rid of the rain.” Rather than trying to push down unease, Marshall argues that we should “accept the feelings and challenge the thoughts - what we tend to do is accept the thoughts and challenge the feelings.” Thoughts can often be false and hysterical, whereas feelings just are.

“Anxiety is a perfectly normal emotion - you’re never going to get rid of it. It’s a bit like trying to get rid of the rain”

So, what now? "Accept the fact that you’re anxious - especially if you’re considering something new, but then take a dictation of the thoughts - write them down, what is your anxiety saying will happen? Some of these things, when you see them written on paper, will seem so ridiculous that they’re easy to discount. And others, like ‘if I try to step off the corporate path, I won’t be able to cope’ - you can change into questions: ‘how would I cope?’”

Hellerer argues that we should follow our curiosity. “Your curiosity is the best proxy you have for your purpose. Look around you, what things make you truly curious? What articles, what social posts, what TV shows? Where’s your curiosity most piqued? Indoors or outdoors? If you start to follow these threads of curiosity, without worrying where they might end up, you start to build a picture of what naturally sparks your passion.”

On YouTube, a few days ago I was watching a countdown of the biggest tidal waves in celluloid history; the most unsettling moment is not when the wave hits the land, swallowing buildings with the churning fury of a crocodile's death roll. It is the few minutes before, as the people stare out at the oncoming water. Watching the video your stomach flips - run, you fools, hide! - nauseated partly by the terrible burden of knowing their fates before they do.

Like those people on the shore, when news of the new virus broke, we marvelled at it. Standing in our summertime brights, with plastic buckets in our hands and sandcastles at our feet. Run you fools. It grew bigger on the horizon - hide! - but we stood and watched until it was almost blotting out the sun.

During lockdown we’ve sheltered in our homes as if on high ground, wondering when we’ll be able to go back to the beaches - and what we’ll find when we get there. In a world where the economy has stalled, a third of the workforce is receiving wage subsidies from the government and whole industries struggle to survive, so many of the conceits of the past suddenly seem as sound as straw houses. In this world, the only certainty, the only constant, is change. But perhaps that’s not such a bad thing.

Images | shutterstock

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