When coronavirus exploded in our country, it brought with it a seismic shift—an upheaval of socio-economic functioning for the sake of social distancing. But while the most I had to give up was Instagram-documented restaurant dinners, bear hugging my friends, and raging at weekend gigs, the fear and panic created by the indefinite lockdowns threatened far greater losses for too many others.
Huddled in my terrarium of upper middle-class privilege, I pored over disturbing accounts of underpaid, underfed migrant workers threatened by suicide and starvation, with a cup of Dalgona coffee in hand. I got paid my monthly salary for clicking on a keyboard from the comfort of my couch, while covering stories of struggling freelancers facing job losses and evictions for no fault of their own. Even as Instagram influencers desperately tried to make jhadu-pocha the latest fitness trend, I shared domestic duties with a live-in house help and my mother’s systematic meal planning. Though I had spent the last five years fending for myself in Pune and Mumbai, I found myself in a position to return to my hometown of Goa—now declared a green zone—and wait out the shitstorm. All these factors should’ve made me breathe a sigh of relief. But in reality, every breath feels heavily anchored to anxious thoughts and a debilitating sense of shame about my situation.
Don’t get me wrong: I am fortunate to have food options on my table, an unlimited 4G data plan on days when the WiFi sucks (which is everyday), as well as a supportive squad to hit up for Zoom calls if I’m feeling down. But despite floating about in a bubble that brims with privilege, I also find myself sinking in a downward spiral of guilt that sometimes feels like it could swallow me whole. I feel ashamed for not facing the kind of hardships that flood my news feed, for being disconnected from the reported reality that is all too real for the rest of my country’s citizens. And when I do instinctively find myself cribbing about things that make me annoyed or sad—like being catapulted into a long-distance relationship overnight or struggling to find a work-life balance, or simply not having access to my usual vices—I find myself feeling overwhelmingly guilty for complaining about the trivial luxuries that other people often don’t even have in the first place.
By definition, guilt is your conscience’s way of washing over your mind when you’ve done something wrong, a moral method to make you feel remorseful for bad behaviour. But the guilt that I, and many of my friends and colleagues who find themselves in a similar situation in these unprecedented times are feeling, is far more elusive, even sinister. It’s the kind that tickles your tummy with terror and makes you think twice before you share on social media that you’re actually starting to enjoy being in quarantine.
As the pandemic presses upon our lives with a dystopian filter, many psychologists have spoken about how this has prompted a surge in survivor’s guilt—a mental condition that was previously associated with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in soldiers who went to war but felt liable for escaping alive. As we shut ourselves in to wage a war against a virus, it doesn’t seem shocking that we’re far more susceptible to mental distress. When you factor in the constant churn of social media and news blasts that leave you with no option to be oblivious to the reality, the crippling impact of what we’re going through hits harder. This is also the paradox of privilege, wherein a person's socio-economic advantage gives them access to their materialistic desires, but also leaves them with an unshakeable guilt for getting these, weighing down on their mental health.
From a young age, many Indians have been conditioned to believe that if someone is worse off than they are, it’s because their karmic calendar is out to collect its due—and not because our society breeds inequality by a default design which allows a minority to profit off the struggling majority. But when the entire community finds itself caught in the same conundrum, the glaring inequalities embedded into our system start to show up. We are all affected in some ways, yes, but the less privileged are far more affected and will take far more time and efforts to get out of this moment we all share. In India’s diverse and complex societal fabric, we also have to take into account the roles of class, caste and religion in determining who gets to be privileged and who doesn’t. This essentially creates a chasm so deeply dangerous that ultimately only those who can afford to live in high-rise towers, practise the majoritarian faith and keep their savings stable can walk away relatively unscathed. So when you find yourself caught in a freefall of overwhelming, giddy guilt for being part of the privileged 1 percent (or maybe even far lesser), it can mess with your mind and lull you into an existential vortex.
It makes me put myself and my actions under a microscope, constantly making me question what I did to deserve to get away without facing the worst of a crisis that is overturning everyone’s lives. It makes me snap at friends who are venting about how they miss partying on Saturday nights, even when their FOMO is totally warranted. It makes me irritated with anyone flexing their quarantine cooking when it's just their way of coping. The thing is that it’s unfair on my part to do that. Pain, they say, is relative to each person’s experience and not an absolute. Every person is on a different emotional journey and everyone’s distress, including mine, should therefore be valid.
After dealing with this guilt for a while now, I have also come to realise that as with any recovery programme, acknowledging your demons is the first step in understanding them. Humans are programmed to feel guilt so they can be empowered with empathy, integrated as functional members of society, and learn to never take each other for granted. The horrors that surround you may be difficult to swallow, but awareness about them is a necessary prescription. Even so, it’s okay to take the occasional day off and soak in the illusion of ignorance, as long as you emerge from it with a more robust outlook.
Checking your privilege makes you more mindful about the personal decisions you make, more careful about the words you use and more grateful for what you’ve been given. At the same time, acknowledgement is the equivalent of adding viral news to your Instagram story: it’s encouraged but unlikely to impact change. Long-lasting change can only come from holding people accountable, donating what you can and keeping yourself as well as the ones you care about informed in an age where unsuspecting citizens keep taking online classes at WhatsApp university.
As someone I saw on my Instagram feed said: We are not in the same boat, but are facing the same storm. You may not be able to save someone from getting seasick, or protect their boat from capsizing, but you can always lend them your spare life jacket.
Follow Shamani Joshi on Instagram.