Even as authorities across the country make up their minds on whether to lift lockdown restrictions, most people remain confined to their homes. Our professional and personal lives are now taxing affairs.
Much of this has to do with the fact that we have been reduced to pixels on a screen, conversing with people only on video. Fatigue has set in, and we now know this way of life is unsustainable, for a few reasons.
There is an intimate space each of us calls home. But we’re now working out of home. On video, our homes are on public display, being beamed across cold screens, in square boxes where we feel compelled to perform for others in what was once our safe space.
These others are usually colleagues – some of whom we know well, and many others whom we don’t. And all of them are looking into our private worlds.
It is inevitable that we will wonder how they may judge us and our havens. We wonder if the images of our home clash with the narrative of ourselves that we had crafted so carefully over years. At work, we were someone else; we used personas that we had created freely and independently, through the stories we told of ourselves, the clothes we wore, and everything else that defined our at-work alter-egos.
By way of perspective, I have a cousin who lives in a joint family where the father-in-law is judge, jury and executioner. Her colleagues knew her as someone with a mind of her own. At home, she is the demure daughter-in-law. Now, she’s working out of home and her colleagues can see that her in-laws are watching her all the time, even as they, from her other world, stare at her through the screen.
How does she reconcile these two worlds? So far, she has been unable to. The last time I spoke to her, she had suffered a relapse of clinical depression and was having trouble getting out of bed in the morning.
Then there are my neighbours — a bunch of bachelors cooped up in one apartment. They don’t call it home because it doesn’t feel like one to them. It’s where they come to get some fresh clothes and some sleep, until they can head back to their workplaces, where they live their lives out in far greater comfort — with air-conditioning, personal space, friends and free coffee. That was the place they dressed up for, that was where they socialised. They desperately want to go back to the office because that is where their truest identities now exist.
And so fatigue has set in, because in addition to everything else — the isolation, the chores, the monotony and anxiety — there is now also this implicit pressure to perform. You can no longer retreat to your desk and commune with your computer in peace either. You must speak and respond; be regularly seen and heard. Silences have become unnatural. And that alone is taxing.
In the physical world, no one expects every statement to be acknowledged or every question answered instantly.
In fact, not so long ago, we thought of that as unnatural. If anyone responded too promptly, we were wont to wonder if they’d even heard what we were saying. In our digital pixel boxes, though, one is compelled to speak and do it quickly and frequently or, in effect, fade out of view.
How ought we make peace with all this? By acknowledging a few things: Something changed over the last two months. Many of us are nervous, and that’s okay. Our desire to stay connected with others is a real and valid one. And for once, the fear we feel, is a fear everyone else is feeling as well. So we can take heart in that.
Which reminds me of a poem by Vikram Seth:
All you who sleep tonight
Far from the ones you love
No hands to left or right,
And emptiness above —
Know that you aren’t alone
The whole world shares your tears
Some for two nights or one
And some for all their years
The writer is co-founder at Founding Fuel and co-author of The Aadhaar Effect