Around this time last year, the world was plunged into an inescapable frenzy, one that seemed to render time meaningless, stretching and twisting to feel much longer and transforming our very understanding of life and our control over it. In a year that was literally supposed to embody the idea of perfect vision, we became unable to see anything more than a foggy future—as if every aspect of our lives, hopes, dreams and ambitions became cryogenically frozen in a claustrophobic capsule for reasons beyond our control.
But while 2020 may have been the year for broken hearts and breakdowns, it was also the year we all learnt to truly give ourselves a break. That’s not to say 2020 wasn’t a year of immense loss and sacrifice. But for someone with relative privilege, this was also a year to savour that strange serenity that came with floating on in an existence where the future ceased to exist. To slow down and dive deep into ourselves through self-reflections that made us more resilient. To sink into a comfort zone where pyjamas were the only dress code, and running to our kitchens the only commute. A year where all our unproductivity and nothingness were a product of our circumstances.
But after almost a year of stringent lockdowns and social distancing, we kind of had enough of the pared-back life. As the restrictions that once defined our lives began to be eased out in a phased manner, we started going back to life as it was. And doing so aggressively in some ways.
Soon enough, the cosy comfort we had found in the void gave way to a flurry of post-lockdown firsts: that first dinner at a fancy restaurant, the first time shopping at a mall and, for some, that first time doing ecstasy at a rave. We were taken from the clutches of our caves so we could crawl back to some version of the life we had before.
At first it was actually quite nice: we were no longer shackled in concrete cages, left to the mercy of an invisible enemy. We slowly regained the agency to take control of our lives once again, even if that meant risking the wrath of a virus that is still very much destroying lives around the world. We had familiarised ourselves with the work from home rhythm, which meant we are now free to explore offices that came with real ocean views (even if it also came with disastrous WiFi connections). Every day we’re gaining a little more confidence to get back to the daily grind. But as we’re getting there, the simple joys we found in playing board games, the sound of chirping birds and making sourdough bread are slowly fading away.
Almost a year later, it feels like in some ways, 2020 never happened. The same old cacophony of crazy traffic. The same old Saturday night selfies on social media. The same old pressures of an existence defined by the concept of chasing the future instead of walking along in the present. Except this time, with the added pressure to make up for the time we lost in 2020. And the constant need to wear a face mask.
“2021 is a year of hope for all the right reasons, but we’re also rapidly unlearning the feelings of taking a pausing and reflecting at the end of the day,” Arushi Sethi, a mental health activist and the co-founder of advocacy organisation Trijog Wellness, told VICE. “Especially for Gen Z and millennials, the year comes with the feeling that we have to make up for the time we supposedly wasted in 2020, because we associate productivity with professional success.” For Sethi too, while the slow return to normalcy came with a sigh of relief, it also added the extra baggage of wanting to fulfill the goals we couldn’t in 2020. “We had learnt how simple things could make us feel gratitude, oneness, and togetherness, but now we’ve changed our lens of pleasure to seek the same unrealistic desires for happiness. And all this while we’re still in the midst of the pandemic!”
Mental health experts point out that the pandemic fuelled FOMO has left us craving our regular old lives to the point where many of us are now going into overdrive to immerse ourselves in activities that were temporarily forbidden. Not only do people admit that they’re more open to taking risks — like attending crowded parties despite the pandemic — it’s also pushed everyone to squeeze in as much as they can in a limited time frame. And as everything from taking on more professional responsibilities to taking a rebound holiday resurface as priorities, experts worry that the sudden change of pace could lead to a quick burnout.
“We were living almost in a suspended time zone, where our thinking had become like that of people who live in war zones,” Hvovi Bhagwagar, a Mumbai-based psychologist and psychotherapist told VICE. “New businesses, future plans, higher education, these things were all put on hold. But now that our lives are slowly opening up, it’s leading to an explosion of information.” Bhagwagar explained that while we had blissfully tucked away 2020 as a year to pause, the return to normalcy has almost propelled us into fast forward mode. “We know from past lockdowns and what happened during SARS that when people resume normal life, they have a lot of precautions and are in a state of alertness, but also want to go out and do a lot so it causes a manic energy. It’s like a jolt to our systems and we may overextend ourselves, and try to do too much.” Bhagwagar pointed out that in the long term, this could make us more aggressive, unhappy and isolated. “Human beings are creatures of familiarity and safety — and we perform best when there is consistency in our life, which isn’t the case at the moment.” Bhagwagar exemplified this statement with the analogy of a person on a fast, who must eat small amounts of food after breaking their fast, to prevent upsetting their system.
“Instead of putting that pressure on ourselves to make up for 2020, we must look at the situation with bounded optimism, which means we must stay positive, but also be realistic about our situation,” agreed Sethi. The mental health activist added that the strangeness of the times and the guilt we may feel could lead to us perceiving what stresses us incorrectly, ultimately pushing us to equate our self-worth with our financial success. She also recommended finding activities that fulfil us emotionally, physically, spiritually as well as mentally.
“At a strange time like this, it’s important for us to reexamine our priorities, and keep ourselves occupied with the activities that kept us grounded when factors like travel time or socialising were removed from our lives,” said Bhagwagar. “That is one of the best ways to keep ourselves from getting swept away in the turning tides.”