The Waiting.

Photo by Maksym Kaharlytskyi on Unsplash

I stand at the front door of a building that barely used to have one, and I explain rules to people. That is the plainest, and most deceptively harrowing, description of the job I have done since the hospitality sector reopened in July this year. At its root it is about a kind of gambling. Not in the public health sense, but rather because in dealing with strangers you must now reckon with an unpredictable factor the prediction of which used to be comfortably irrelevant — their philosophy of life.

As the pandemic evolves it appears its social trauma of isolation and alienation has been enjoined with something more unsettling — the way it forces people to shed the cloak of comfort and conformity that we previously donned in public, and bare our discomforts, withheld emotions and reflexes. I cannot predict now if the next person I speak to will be visibly and outwardly anxious, bitter or even angry. That goes both for those deeply afraid and those profoundly and obnoxiously unafraid. To have to meet a hundred people a day in this way, truly as they are with little patience left in them for the kinds of relations that performative society imbues us with, is more than professionally exhausting, it is spiritually disquieting. It is a strange and ugly version of the reality we have lived until now, a kind of embarrassment and shame in the moment of our Garden-of-Eden-like awakening to our own nakedness.

So too, across the social world. A recent fraught conversation over the phone ended with the sad joint epilogue that it might have been far less so face-to-face, in any of those socialising spaces that you share someone’s presence in when you know that body language and facial cues will allow for a separation of the words you are saying from the underlying relationship you are saying them within — a diffusing of the stakes of discourse that we have been dangerously separated from now. A bus ride home in the gloom of Autumn’s grey early evening was abruptly stopped when two strangers went to war over the one not wearing a mask, despite her protestations of asthma. Some joined in, creating a small chorus of muffled shouts, others kept their tired, disappointed gazes fixed away.

Even as practical matters offer the means to get by in this new reality — that newly deep-rooted social suspicion, confusion, and frustration, continue to change our human relationships in ways that no political or economic effort can address. Governments can plan, they can implement, they can make things matter in the material world. But the material world is laced through with something altogether more ethereal, something difficult to name (although the process of doing so has defined centuries of our story), and whether you believe it to be metaphysical or psychological (and all else), we can surely all agree now that when it is unwound it requires something unusually powerful to tie it back together again.

It is like this, bruised from this place in time, that I embrace the humility of accepting that I was wrong about our ancestors. I cannot help but learn that those who have had the misfortune of aligning their lifetime on stage with the moments in the timeline when the curtain is flapped open by some historic gust were not wrong to pine after miracles. After all, be they divine or divined by people, they offer that hackneyed but indefatigable remnant up to us that convinces us of the purpose of struggle: hope.

And so a waiting world holds its messaging mediums close to their faces around which held breath has become the climate, waiting for that which is out of their hands. A few times in history the study of the natural sciences forcefully reminds us of the true purpose and utility of growing our understanding of this natural world we have no choice but to encounter. Like the Greeks looking to Olympus, occasionally the hands of something higher than the average person’s understanding reaches down and hands us a kind of salvation. The scientific community, embattled and emblazoned with the scars of decades of work that has received no clear public thanks, now stand to fulfil that archetype of heroism precisely because they stand for everything that it has always represented to us — the rescue of our society.

This is the state of our world as it awaits a vaccine.

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