The remembering self at the end of ‘the year of Covid-19’

As this ‘blog’, which is still finding the meaning for its existence, is supposed to be about music, I will reference a story recounted by Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast And Slow. A man listened to a record of his favourite movement from his favourite symphony, performed beautifully by a world class orchestra. He sat there with his eyes closed, soaking in every note, overcome with emotion.

Near the end of this exquisite piece of music, there was a massive scratch on the record which cut through every frequency and gave the listener the shock of his life. When discussing it afterwards, he reported that he’d been enjoying the symphony until it was ruined by this horrible interruption. Even though he’d experienced 15 minutes of bliss, the 16th minute caused him to discount all of it. 

(A song to ponder this post to:)

It’s human nature to do this- to retrospectively cast memories in the light of what happens in the end. If an interview results in you getting the job, you will perhaps remember the hints of a rapport being established, the ease with which you relayed your experience and suitability for the role. If that same interview ended in rejection, the things you will think back on are those awkward silences- ‘did I overshare a bit?’, ‘did I laugh too loudly at that joke?’ and so on.

It’s an age-old conflict between the remembering self and the experiencing self- the two ‘selves’ that Kahneman talks about. Most of our experiences are defined by the narrative imposed afterwards by our remembering selves. We often forget to count the experiences that ran against that narrative.

The reference in this article’s title sums up the problem our ‘remembering selves’ now face, when ‘2020’ becomes shorthand for ‘the year of Covid-19’. It’s a year where personal difficulties and, for huge numbers, tragedies, have been manifold. Personal triumphs have been difficult to achieve- and have felt generally insensitive to celebrate- even as everyone sees another year added to their age.

I cannot think of a year of my life in which the significant elements of its trajectory – a formative trip, a musical opportunity, a new friendship, a relationship – would have been unaffected by Covid. I would’ve had no idea of what I’d missed so wouldn’t know what to catch up on. This is very much the situation for most people right now: being on hold, not knowing what they’re doing right now in a Covid-free parallel universe, and not knowing where to start when society returns to normal. How can you make up for lost time when you don’t know what was meant to happen? Given that I’m a musician, for whom one random conversation or backroom gig could be the thing that transforms my career, these questions loom large in my mind.

Walking back from the supermarket, lugging an assortment of very random shopping on a grim December evening (have the winter blues ever set in so quickly as this?), I saw the boarded up shops, the masks, the grim, stoic expressions, and it hit me, for the hundredth time this month already, just how horrible this all is for everyone. The solidarity of this shared gloom- the fact that we might now joke with our colleagues or friends about our own dilapidated emotional states like we would about the weather- provides little of the comfort one might have assumed.

There is a defeatism in writing off an entire year, but I can feel myself doing it already. It’s generally felt like a video game- challenging enough in itself- that has frozen. All the challenges that were there lie ahead but there’s nothing you can do to tackle or even prepare for them. You change the channel and the news is on with its incalculable tragedy; you change it back and the video game is still frozen. That’s in the best case scenario that you are not directly experiencing that tragedy yourself.

How do you deal with your own instinct to write something off completely?

Joyful summer reunions and long anticipated changes of scenery that you can’t quite believe are real; strengthened bonds of friendship and family forged over crap internet connections; Charlie Brooker making another ‘Wipe’ episode and good TV in general; the moment you think you’ve discovered an exercise routine you might actually stick to! There have been good moments, but trying to tease them from the shackles of this year is a daunting task. It is worth attempting, though. The remembering self doesn’t actually remember everything– sometimes you have to remind yourself of the experiences that don’t fit the prevailing narrative in order to salvage the good stuff.

Just now, I tried counting out on two hands anything that really leapt out as a ‘good memory’ this year. There were more than enough things, and they chipped away at the overarching gloom of this year enough to cheer me up a bit.