Emptiness in times of Covid
My manager again asked me to take time off 3 weeks ago. This was his 3rd such conversation, worried about the burn out and mental health of his team working relentlessly from their uneasy corners of bedrooms and living rooms in tiny Singapore flats. I have been working out of my bedroom for last 8 months since COVID forced people inside the safety of their homes. I finally applied for one week’s leave, half anxious about never ending business of corporate life and half worried about lack of ideas to utilize this time off.
Pre covid-era time off meant a flight from Singapore – literally and figuratively. Plans would be made well in advance with the best calendar utilization and airline ticket optimization. There are annual calendar guides to maximize your travel plans utilizing all long weekends. The circle of life in Singapore corporate life revolves around the weekend, payday, long weekend hop to nearby countries (Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar), two long trips to Europe or Japan/South Korea, and two home run to India and the planning of these activities. Year after year life passes by around these events. But that was in other life which has left only hazy nostalgic memories. We live in the time of Corona. So I asked my wife to plan some activities to best utilize the shared one week off that we were about to take.
We made dozens of plans to visit the Asian Civilization museum of Singapore which is rated amongst the top 10 museums in Asia; catch up on Netflix shows, sunbathe in Sentosa beach, try cooking exciting dishes or go to nature trails and explore other parts of Singapore.
The struggle started from the first morning itself. Suddenly the vacuum of not switching on to morning meetings and “zoom’ing” hit me with acute loss of purpose in life. I fancied feeling important when my helper, after repeated calls of breakfast on the table, used to bring my plate to my shabby work desk that I had set up in my bedroom. Her understanding and sympathetic eyes which used to meet my apologetic ones was a routine comfort that I realized I was going to miss for the entire week. I ate my breakfast in silence at the dining table. I also felt sudden pressure to keep the table tidy and take the dishes to the kitchen sink instead of her picking them up from my work desk every day.
After breakfast, I waited for my wife in anticipation of any plans. None were coming. When I inquired, she told flatly that she has to finish some urgent office work and we will cancel the museum visit. Modern husband & wife relationships are like atoms in different orbit levels; they circle around the same nucleus of the future good life but rarely happen to transition to the same orbit as the energy required to do so has a high threshold.
This sudden lack of ‘plans’ at 10 am in the morning was disorienting. I switched on the TV and flipped between Netflix and Amazon Prime shows. I am of an age where shock value out of gory violence, sadomasochistic and disturbing sex lives of characters, or stunning lack of scruples in pursuit of success hardly make for good viewing. It’s quite difficult to find a show worth opening up and investing my time over it. I aimlessly flipped between different show titles before I got bored and proceeded to browse through the internet in search of the next gold mine stocks. I passed my time reading up on a couple of investor reports which hardly made me any wiser. Tired after half an hour of poring through numbers, I wondered what could be done for the next 10 hours before I hoped I could sleep to avoid this torture of futile existence. I wondered what people did before mobile phones, the internet, and web series in their free times. It was only 15 years, where most people still did not possess a smartphone and there was no Netflix or Amazon Prime and not even youtube. Certainly, there were books but the majority of people did not read back then too. So how did an average Joe spent his spare time day after day, year after year?
Every day when I travel in Singapore metro or public transport buses, it is mental stress to sit quietly for more than 20 seconds before I pull out my mobile and start browsing. When you, by chance, look up from your mobile, there is not a single person who does not have his eyes fixed on his smartphone. People have truly built their isolated world in their smartphones and the person sitting next to him or she is galaxies away from his imagination. How did we ever talk to a fellow passenger is now a big mystery to me.
All these thoughts as they flooded my mind, made me very insecure and lonely. As each day passes, the emptiness of our hearts increases. We no longer know our neighbors, festivals are barren without people and mere shopping routines, even family members have not much to talk about. This big ballooning vacuum in our lives is one of the key problems to solve. In this age of startups, can someone come up with a real solution of bringing people closer, replicating our old social lives? One fascinating phenomenon I observed in Hanoi was an en-mass evening hang-out of ordinary folks outside their houses on the pavement. Everyone would come out of their houses with simple cane sugar juice and prawn crackers and enjoy their evening sharing modest condiments and their lives with each other. How do we build such a social structure to let people mingle and share their ordinary joys and griefs together with safety? I realized religion thrives on this business model though most often than not results in a perverse outcome of creating exclusive groups promoting discrimination or verse violence.
Can someone come up with a billion-dollar idea of providing a modest cost-effective idea of bringing people together away from dating sites or costly bars purely to enjoy a good conversation? This problem will be worth solving to ensure the mental health of our generation.