An invitation arrived for a friend’s daughter’s bat mitzvah, and to the surprise – and annoyance – of many on the list, the hosts were opting to conduct it via Zoom. The landmark celebration via Zoom seemed to belong, like remote learning models and stockpiling loo roll, to an earlier, darker stage of the pandemic. Nobody, obviously, wanted actually to go to a party; most of us are still struggling to muster enough social energy for an unmasked dinner with a friend. Equally, who, now, at least in New York, wants to spend their Saturday night in a breakout room on Zoom trying not to talk over five people?
The marking of life stages is always approximate, giving an external framework to vast variables in personal development. With the exception of hitting 18 – or 21 in the US – rarely are these boundaries marked by actual rule changes in how we might live. The shift towards post-pandemic life, hampered by uncertainty around new strains of the virus and soaring infection rates in developing parts of the world, brings with it what feels like a profound set of new options governed by unsettled rules. Is returning to work and life as it was pre-pandemic an invitation, a compulsion, a duty, or a chore? Can we opt out? How much can we opt out? And should we want to?
I have no answer to these questions, mainly because my response to this transitional stage seems to be enormous, insurmountable apathy. The few social interactions I’ve had since Covid rules eased in New York have been great; I’ve loved seeing friends. In each instance, however, I have suffered in the days afterwards from what felt like a social hangover, the shellshock of a hermit shoved into Times Square. Two days after eating indoors with a friend in a heaving restaurant downtown, I got sick for the first time in a year. Ugh, I thought; people are gross and I’m never doing that again.
There are, of course, huge vested interests in getting us up and about, and into our offices. A new strain of article is popping up, extolling the virtues of office life and reminding us that the adjustments we made to make remote working tolerable, or even preferable, must now be smartly abandoned. Commuting gets you out of the house! It gives you thinking time on the train! It reacquaints you with the joy of chatting with people who aren’t really your friends! Some of this is undoubtedly true. The need for processing time is real. It’s also not wild to wonder whether there might be a better way to attain it than jamming oneself into a packed train carriage every morning, followed by sitting in a cubicle for eight hours straight.
Perhaps all that’s needed is a period of reflection, to avoid the whiplash of an inevitable return to business as usual. “I don’t want to do anything,” said a friend recently. She was adamant it wasn’t depression. It was partly a habit of mind brought about, at the height of the pandemic, by the suspension of all future plans. And it was, I suspect, also recognition of the fact that not-deciding is a luxury many of us don’t want to give up. A small example: summer camps in New York are for the most part fully open, and pre-pandemic, to secure a spot with all the early-bird discounts you’d had to have booked back in March. No one thinks like that any more. Everything remains open. No one knows what they’re doing or where they’re going. All plans remain flexible, to be made or called off at the last minute. I sometimes think this must be what it’s like to be rich.
The flipside of non-decision-making is inertia, and no matter how much you persuade yourself that thinking time is as important as doing time, the cold current of snap-out-of-it guilt is starting to make itself felt. We can’t stay stalled for ever, if being stalled is what this is, caught between resenting Zoom interactions as tedious and inadequate, and real-life ones as germ-spreading nightmares. Just a tiny bit longer, I find myself thinking; just a couple more weeks to figure things out, even though I can’t say what these things really are. Inaction becomes avoidance. At some point, we’re going to have to get up and go to the party.