Searching for a narrative while washing hands

Text: Frieda Teller | Beitragsbild: Leonhard v.R. Bilder: Maike Stemmler und Frieda Teller

Four of us were squeezing in the back of a car. Stuck in the usual traffic of central Berlin, we were on our way to the concert of an Indonesian Gamelan orchestra. “Techno is the music of our generation”, my friend pronounced pretentiously, turning up the volume. Even before I could disagree, he engaged in a shouting monologue, which he supposedly had prepared just for occasions like this. Occasions when half drunk friends in their early twenties were searching for something meaningful to say. Tonight, he was convinced that the singular thing about our generation is techno or how he puts it: the musical promise of total liberty, the escape from late capitalism into ecstasy, an island where restricting identity containers are blown up and people emerge into a shared transcendent experience of feeling and nothing but feeling.

This is one of the stories I often conjure up nostalgically – my weekends are different now. 

It´s 2020 and Covid-19 is the antagonist. Our heroic fight against the virus consists in staying and doing nothing. Poor precondition for a narrative drive that requires movement as the pandemic demands the opposite. Which stories are we supposed to tell ourselves about this strange time?              

Nothing seems to be narratable in this present. Right after the exposition, when tension would be rising, there is a pause – blank, everything from now on happens behind closed doors and open screens, we are quarantined in the retarding moment. This moment is supposed to come after the climax, not before, that´s the way drama works. 

Honestly, I don´t believe that we should live our lives according to the patterns of ancient drama, we know how most of them end. But I am mourning the stories which were in some manner supposed to be rehearsed in my coming of age as well. I believed in being young and wild and free, remember YOLO – you only live once – so do whatever you want to, smash this car or party or whatever (metaphorically speaking most of the time). Even FOMO – the fear of missing out – is antiquated by now. I don’t fear it anymore – I have a conscious knowing of missing out. The songs we sing along do no longer apply to us, movies don’t mirror our daily struggles and I flinch when people in series are hugging – those stories are out of date, they aren’t offering any inspiration on how to survive in this pandemic. Consequentially lost got elected as youth word of the year in Germany. Lost – I identify with this on a deeper level which scares me, like something essential in the way we live our lives went extinct. Life has fundamentally changed.

But you, young people must be doing something – aren’t you online? Right, we are studying (online), working (mostly online) and dealing with daily live struggles (increasingly online), while practicing social, physical and emotional distancing. The latter one turning out to be the most crucial one. Since we all are affected from the pandemic, no one is allowed to suffer personally.     

In recent nights lying in bed, alone and awake, I realized how hard it is to not get overwhelmed by all the missing manifestations of joy, almost lived versions of myself and ideas I no longer dare to dream. That’s pathetic maybe, but it takes just two letters to turn drama into trauma.

The WHO warns, “Social isolation, fear of contagion, and loss of family members is compounded by the distress caused by loss of income and often employment.” With globally more than 17 percent of the 18-29 year olds losing their jobs, the philosophical and economic consequences of the pandemic form a great danger for young people’s psyche. Mental-health services, lacking even before the virus, fail to offer adequate support in most countries and it’s hard to find social support when you are locked in your room.      

When we can not find a way to make sense of what we are experiencing, we will be unable to communicate our fragile new experiences and to ask for help. We need stories to connect ourselves with others and ourselves, they help us build compassion and they reassure us that we are capable of managing the crisis. Stories enable us to move on.   

Historically, the psychological effects of a disaster lasted much longer than the event itself. Rates of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder in relation to a disaster increased until up to 20 years after, this has been proven after the explosion in Chernobyl in 1986. So, while washing my hands and staying somewhere, which could be referred to as home, I am worrying how far-reaching the consequences of this disaster will be.

The exhausting ambiguity is while you do need to plan everything beforehand, register for any event and calculate carefully, as if this is really worth it – you should not put too much anticipation into the future, chances are, it won’t happen. We lost this precious independent moment, but I am more afraid we have lost our hope.               

Camus said we must think of Sisyphus as a happy person. Remember, this ancient guy, Sisyphus, rolling a gigantic rock to the summit of a mountain and then, just shortly before he reaches the top, the rock falls back down. But he tries again and again, day by day. For the philosopher Camus that is exactly the absurdity of our daily lives, even before the pandemic. After nihilism revealed that all higher values were devaluated, and all gods got killed there is not anything significant left to live for. The consequences of losing our story are existential and dangerous and make every day a consuming hike to an unreachable top. We are damned to be free in the void of existence.    

Camus found hope, in the revolt, the act of resistance as a reassurance of being human, the enactment of our agency. Right now, it might be hard to tell why we are making all this effort – we might be able to reach a so called normal just to realize that racism, the climate crisis and the exploitation of capitalism still exist. What will we gain from the pandemic? Will it count as a victory if the vast majority of us survives the virus? 

We, the Generation Greta, already have a crisis to fight and we created a pretty convincing narrative to tell. We were the ones moving our gender non-conforming bodies to techno with demo signs in our hands, because we were the last generation to save this planet. We still are. But mass mobilization became irresponsible. The experience of standing one hour on a white cross two meters apart from everyone else, with a mask in your face making it difficult to shout, is draining and lonely, trust me I tried. However, this is no reason why a protest should end, in stories it never does. We just need to figure out, how to start a revolution from our beds.

I wonder if Camus was missing something. Although younger people are carrying a lower health risk with the pandemic, the protection measures hit all of us. We face this crisis together, because we are collectively lost in this existence. It is not about me performing my individual stories, it is about a solidary community, about us. Maybe all this loss is bursting space open, maybe we can adopt the change, connect and write stories together. Stories that show us alternative ways to live on this planet. Stories, which are desperately needed. Being hopeless is a privilege we no longer can afford. So, how do we want our stories to continue?

Back in the days, after the concert, we went to the party of a distant friend. We were flirting with strangers, drinking and dancing in a crowded living room. The night was unfolding by the seconds we were living it, but at the same time it wasn’t. An invisible script of a night in the lives of the so-called youth guided every step. Wouldn’t even our grandchildren be bored if those were the only stories, we had to tell. 

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