The internet is on fire. As the world adapts to a shock like it hasn’t seen in modern history, the internet has become an equal source of solace and anxiety. Everything has moved online, from official meetings to Tinder dating, complete with exhaustive digital guides on the etiquette required for each kind of encounter.
As in the time of any other crisis, the line between news and WhatsApp forwards are increasingly blurred, especially as the news gets ‘curiouser and curiouser’ with each passing day. Only recently, primetime hour on a popular news channel ended with a request that Taimur, Saif Ali Khan’s 3-year-old son, make an appearance to blow kisses at the viewers, to cheer them up on the first day of India’s nation-wide lockdown. While we can only speculate about the number of people who stand the risk of losing their health, loved ones, income and jobs during this crisis, we only need to turn to the internet to gauge how the public felt about Taimur’s inability to make an appearance because he was, “on the potty.”
Decidedly, a lot of the information coming out has been strange and disconcerting — did you hear about the sword-waving Godwoman in UP? The man in Kerala who committed suicide after the government shut liquor shops? The woman who spat at a policeman after she was stopped in Kolkata? As we share a daunting global reality with those who feature in these clickbait-esque news stories, it isn’t difficult to discern why our anxiety levels spike with every phone beep.
Despite all this, it helps to acknowledge that news reporters are still out risking infection to bring us the latest information on this rapidly evolving crisis. It’s an uncertain situation, and we find tidbits of information each day, which poses more questions than answers, plunging us into further uncertainty.
Even as the world has slowed down considerably, with deserted roads and silent streets, many of our minds are still racing to keep track and make sense of this rapidly evolving situation. For this reason, most mental health care advice centres on judicious media exposure.
In keeping tabs on my own time expenditure in the last week, I’ve noticed that a lot of my resources drain out in responding to emails and text messages from friends who are checking-in. Many of these social media engagements are essential, but consuming. My emails, no matter how often I clear my mailbox, always remain unread because I receive a new official email every half an hour. On the rare occasion when I don’t receive any new communication, I get sad. Does no one care about me anymore?
Author David Kessler, in an interview with Harvard Business Review, discussed how much of the world is experiencing grief — over the loss of normalcy, and the possibility of all we have potential to use. Our mind is struggling to grasp the magnitude of this disruption and our emotions are in discord, trying to play themselves out in confined spaces, ricocheting off all the people who are in quarantine with us. “This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air,” said Kessler.
So, when confined to our homes with nothing but our anxiety, dread, grief and helplessness, our gadgets give us a window to the world — they give us purpose. Spending hours verifying the veracity of WhatsApp forwards gives us purpose. Tracking this exploding situation by looking at various news publications gives us purpose. Checking in on colleagues we haven’t spoken to in half a decade gives us purpose. But, all of it also exhausts us, at a time when we are already emotionally frayed.
What can we do? The answers, again, abound on the internet. Art lovers can now explore every exhibit in New York’s famed Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) since 1929 on the internet. Orchestra aficionados can now tune in online as the Berlin Philharmonie makes their concerts digital. Nerds can now take all the Coursera courses they’ve always wanted to take and fitness geeks can make use of all the premium videos Adidas has made available for free. As our access to the physical world shrinks, many brands — from meditation apps to porn websites — have made efforts to open up the scope of the internet for those confined. Now, all we need to do is keep ourselves from scratching the itch that makes us want to check our social media every three minutes.
As we try to find the silver linings in a tough situation, we might have to develop new coping mechanisms. No, I don’t mean compulsive cookie-eating and binge-watching Netflix, though those are most people’s fallback comfort routines in times of crisis. But this crisis is not personal, it is collective, and any useful coping mechanism would need to be sustainable.
Given that we don’t know how long we would need to court this ‘new normal’, we have to find a way to make the most of the current constraints. Developing structure to our days helps separate the different days of the week and building self-discipline helps us make most of our waking hours. It sounds so simple, but that doesn’t make it one bit easy.
Like in the cult 2013 Tamil movie Soodhu Kavvum, where actor Ramesh Tilak rushes to shower and get ready in the morning just to sit down and drink, it might help to start each day feeling fresh — don’t drink though; the purpose of this article is not to nudge you towards alcoholism. Pinning down a block of time for exercise and designating an area for work also helps feel like your time and space is not all folding into one another.
While judicious consumption of the news and social media can still leave us feeling glum, at least that feeling is not spilling all over our day. While we build mental structures to help us make sense of this time, we will also build our resilience to tackle the challenges it poses. We learn to have screaming conversations with neighbours across windows, we decide to start having thoughtful conversation with potted plants and we can even try our hand at becoming an Instagram sensation, if we are so inclined. What is most important now is empathy, as we accept that everyone is struggling with a different version of the same problem.
Acceptance of that helps us muster up the patience to deal with news anchors who want to bother star-kids while they are ‘on the potty’ and for anxious older relatives who just can’t stop forwarding fake news on WhatsApp.
As we forgive the world for being so chaotic, we might realise that a lot of its noise isn’t directed at us. It just exists, like the cacophonous sound of traffic horns, at a time when that was so normal. All we can do now is change what we can, accept what we can’t, and hope for the best as this unprecedented event in modern history plays itself out.