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From the wreck of the pandemic we can salvage and resurrect an inner life | Nyadol Nyuon

In early March I flew to New Zealand through the busy Tullamarine airport. I returned to a country in lockdown. I had been to speak at the New Zealand festival of the arts held in Wellington. Life was normal. We moved freely: going out for drinks, eating at various restaurants, hugging friends and shaking hands. We even went to a club to dance. It was packed as sweaty, dancing bodies pumped into each other. We casually spoke about the spread of the coronavirus as it began to emerge as a potentially serious public health issue but the consequences and impact of the disease felt distant. It was still happening far away. It was not yet an issue to worry about or to change one’s plans to accommodate. At that time, such a reaction would have appeared exaggerated. The events that followed over the next few days were unimaginable.

At the festival, I had presented to a full room of a few hundred people; 24 hours later, that felt like a bygone era. By the time I landed in Melbourne, restrictions were in place and large gatherings had been banned. I went home and began my 14 days of isolation. It was difficult to keep up with the pace of change. In Victoria, events progressed to a state of emergency. Back in New Zealand, the country went into a nationwide lockdown. The world became a different place within weeks.

The large issues – the politics and economics of the pandemic – were constantly discussed on television and in media releases by state and federal governments. These announcements did little to calm people. There was panic buying that led to supermarkets rationing essential products. The rationing of products reminded me of when I lived in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya before being resettled in Australia. I used to wait for the United Nations food rations, provided fortnightly. The lines for the rations were long, just like the lines of people now waiting to register for welfare payments.

I saw my old world of Kakuma reflected in the new world enforced by the plague. The old world involved facing up to your life, daily, knowing you had little control. You had to live with uncertainty. The challenge of living with uncertainty is that you never get used to it. The need, the human desire, for returning to something more grounded is always lingering. These feelings leave one caught in a state of waiting to begin living again when normalcy returns. We are living in such a world now.

Since the beginning of the pandemic we have been waiting – waiting to see whether we are next, waiting to flatten the curve, waiting for a vaccine, waiting to return to a life before the plague. The wait is not over yet. I write as Victoria returns to the beginning of the wait. We are going back into lockdown for the second time. The situation is no longer an emergency, it is a state of disaster, meaning that the premier is satisfied that the state is suffering an emergency that constitutes a significant and widespread danger to life or property.

‘What has been pitilessly clarified by the plague is there is no limit to what we can lose.’ Photograph: Christopher Hopkins/The Guardian

For many, we cannot wait for this to be over and to get back to our lives – maybe even to pick things up from where the plague forced a pause and yanked us out of the lives we had built. I have wondered, however, what exactly do I want to go back to? My life before the plague was not perfect, and even if perfection should not be the goal. It was not a lived life – it was a rushed life. A life with a laundry list of things that needed to be ticked off.

I got into the habit of rushing from one thing to another as a way of fulfilling promises I had made to myself when I was a refugee in Kakuma. Now I’m a grown woman this habit has become a way of life, which was draining my days of joy and putting me on a path that included ticking “collapsing in a heap” off my list of achievements.

The habit started as a plea when I was a desperate teenager with big dreams but was limited by the confines of a refugee camp. Every night, after my mother had finished singing gospel songs and praying, I would lie on my back, stared up into the dark ceiling of the room that my whole family shared, and began pleading. I vowed to God that in return for getting my family out of the camp, I would be a good Christian and I would take all opportunities that come my way in my new country.

My family arrived in Australia in March 2005. Within a few months I was enrolled in year 11. I grabbed every opportunity and attempted to get the best out of it. I completed two degrees, including a law degree from the University of Melbourne. I achieved a childhood dream when I was admitted to the legal profession in 2016. I made it to Collins Street, working at Arnold Bloch Leibler, a leading Australian commercial law firm. I became a mother. I took on the new challenge of advocating against racism. I never paused – there was always something to be done and done well. The list of things that needed to be done kept growing, and the pace at which they needed to be done kept getting faster – until the plague forced a halt. Many of my commitments were cancelled. It seemed as though life itself was getting cancelled, as seeing family and friends or attending work was no longer possible. These were the best outcomes: some people lost their lives.

As the days turned to weeks and weeks to months, my life became very different from the life I had been living a few months before. The pace had slowed down considerably. I began to wonder what was salvageable – even a blessing in disguise – during this unusual time.

The plague is not a beautiful thing but something can be retrieved even from the worst of circumstances. This is not to minimise experiences of pain, loss or anguish. There is nothing enlightened about suffering. Surviving a traumatic event is not a prerequisite to a good or reflective life. I know positive thinking does not feed your hunger, soothe pain, or pay bills but neither does becoming depressed over life’s difficulties. This is not tough love; it is life that is tough. Many of us know that to be true but the pandemic is forcing us to reckon with this in a manner that would never have been possible before. How we respond to this new reality will be determined by the individual circumstances of our lives and the privileges we enjoy. I have found those answers that understate or exaggerated the situation to be fruitless.

We have seen the impact of exaggerated reactions because they tend to be public, ugly and harmful. This includes panic buying that leaves vulnerable members of society without access to essential goods. We have also witnessed the irrational racism that seeks to blame others for causing or spreading the virus. It began with racist abuse and attacks on Asian people living in Australia. It has now, assisted by media reports, spread to other immigrants’ communities. A new term, “Covid racism”, has been introduced to describe the old fear of the others.

Nyadol Nyuon

‘I do not want to return to the rush of my life as it was before the plague. I want to live.’ Photograph: Christopher Hopkins/The Guardian

If the exaggerated reactions are outward, the understated ones tend to be private. We are undoubtedly privileged in Australia but we cannot understate how privileged we are as a global plague takes hold. I have witnessed people whose eyes express concern comforting themselves, and probably others, with the phrase, “But I am so lucky.” I hear this often from friends, and suspect part of the reason they feel the need to say so is because when speaking to someone who they think has survived worse, they want to show compassion. That is good but it is not necessary. I think it is permissible to feel your emotions as they are without worrying whether the reaction is appropriate when compared with others’ experiences. This is not to reject the value of reflecting. It is to say that our reflection on privilege can turn into self-blame. Why I am not coping well? You are not coping because you are in fucking global pandemic. Salvage what you can.

What I want to salvage from the wreck left by this pandemic is a fresh point of view and a new way of life. I am borrowing the idea that this unprecedented event is a “sacred pause”. I do not want to return to the rush of my life as it was before the plague. I want to live. The idea that this is an opportunity to rebuild a life (for those of us who will survive), gives us an opportunity to re-examine our lives while the noise of the world has turned down. Perhaps now we can hear whatever it is that our inner voice has been struggling to tell us as it tried to compete with the buzz of a busy life in a busy world. We have an opportunity to ask whether all the things we used to do, and which we can’t do now, brought meaning to our lives. We can now weigh up what truly belongs and what can be left in the life before the plague.

Our resolve to hold on to the reflective view will be tested as we try to conjure up lives while living in lockdown. There are times I struggle to remain positive. Yes, I have a stable job. Thankfully, my children are well. But I have also missed my brother’s surgery, which he went through alone though he lives in Melbourne, no more than 30 minutes’ drive from my children and I. So far I have only spoken to him by phone. I miss him. My children miss him, as I am reminded by my daughter asking when she will see him so they can go to see the dinosaurs. We haven’t had the chance to interact with our new neighbours. They have children around my children’s age and my daughter is eager to make friends. Yet they have to interact mostly by waving at each other through the window. My daughter often protests, asking why she can’t meet the neighbours; I tell her it is because of coronavirus. Recently I caught her discouraging her brother from playing with one of her toys by telling him: “It is coronavirus.” She is learning to live with the plague, maybe even to use it to her advantage. That is the task we all face now.

What has been pitilessly clarified by the plague is there is no limit to what we can lose. Seneca, the Stoic philosopher, wrote: “Remember that all we have is ‘on loan’ from fortune, which can reclaim it without our permission – indeed, without even advance notice.” When fortune comes for the outer life, we can retreat to the inner life and tap into resources of resilience, courage and fortitude to keep ourselves “together” – as Nina Simone said – until things change.

For now, our inner strength does not need to be tested by jumping from planes, climbing Mount Everest or running a marathon. Instead, we have to attempt to survive a global pandemic, mostly at home. To retreat into our inner self, we must cultivate that self.

Perhaps I am putting too much of a positive spin on it but this is what I hope to learn from the plague. To begin the imperfect process of practising a more lived life.

• This essay will be part of the anthology Fire, Flood and Plague, edited by Sophie Cunningham and published by Penguin Random House in December

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