On love and panic

They better have washed their hands vigorously.

I woke early this morning – who’s on a healthy sleep schedule these days, anyway? – and looking for something quick and digestible to read, stumbled across this New York Times opinion piece. And it needled me more than it should have done, possibly because I had a conversation with a friend a few days ago about a strange romantic situation he was in. Like the raging hypocrite I am, I think what I told him amounted to: “look, try not to panic”.

Fair play to you if you’re single and trying to date right now. Personally I can’t think of anything I’d rather do less than try and date via Zoom; I would honestly take ‘carrier pigeon’ as my preferred method of communication over any sort of video chat. But if you’re doing it, and enjoying it, hats off to you. I’m just not sure that dating while under the influence of a global health crisis is… wise.

It’s impossible not to take stock of your life right now, and chances are, I’d feel differently if I were 40 and single rather than 30 and single. Even though I don’t always believe it, deep down I know that time is, for now, still on my side. So I get it, I really do; more time alone, endless bad news, being confronted with death and sickness – those things collide and demand things of us. Who are we, really? What’s actually important? How big is the gap between what your life looks like now and what it could look like, if you lived it to make yourself properly content? When death makes its presence felt, it’s obvious to ponder, if only briefly, ‘what might I want to leave behind?’

A few weeks ago, in the Brighton girlfriends’ group chat, we were talking about how being forced into solitude makes you consider what you want. I remember saying that when I can resume dating in a more normal fashion, I’m going to stand for less nonsense than I might have done previously. When you have to be by yourself, you learn to give yourself what you want and need. You learn that you don’t need anyone else to do that for you. You can buy your own flowers, mix your own drinks, dig yourself out of periodic existential crises by doing the things that please you and only you.

(I followed my group chat comment up with “I say this now; as soon as some needy writer boy appears in a nice cardigan, it’ll all go out the window”, so that gives you some indication of the strength of my resolve. ‘Twas ever fucking thus.)

So the thing that didn’t sit right with me in that opinion piece was the idea that we should read too much into the feelings triggered by the Current Situation. Because it’s amplifying everything. As Esther Perel says in the article, the crisis is a “relationship accelerator”. But I would personally argue that it’s only an accelerator if you decide that it is. Because this is going to end. We are going to be able to meet in person again, and sit in bars bringing out our best material to impress the person across the table from us.

As someone who is fuelled by anxiety, I understand the urge to panic and I also loathe being kept in a state of uncertainty. I’m not writing this from a super-chilled, Zen state of mind, God, no. I spend a lot of time writing endings in my head, deciding that off the back of one misunderstanding, someone thinks I’m a terrible human being. I’m not an optimist, I don’t deal in best case scenarios. But I do know that those endings I write have little to do with reality. If there’s one thing I absolutely believe to be true, it’s this: you never know. You never know who will reappear in your life, who will linger long after you think you’ve fucked it, who will walk in at just the moment you were looking the other way.

You do not have to fix everything right now – we are living through, yes, sorry, unprecedented events. Your anxiety levels are heightened and you want to claw back some control, and usually I’d be arguing for giving your own feelings plenty of space and taking them seriously but right now, take them with a pinch of salt. How you feel today may not be how you feel tomorrow. How you feel at midnight, during the witching hour for the lonely, is not how you feel at 7 the next morning when the sun is streaming in. And decisions made in a state of panic are rarely good decisions, and that is never more true than when deciding what to do with your fragile, precious heart.

It doesn’t feel like it right now, I know, but we have time. You have time. There’s a line by Heather Havrilesky I think of often (because of course there is, you know me well enough by now): people who believe in life-changing love are the ones who find it. If you’re going to write endings in your head, you have the choice as to whether they’re happy or sad. It can always go either way.

You never know.

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