Wake up, press snooze. Press snooze again. It’s ok, the alarm is set for ten minutes earlier than I know I need to get up for this exact reason: to maintain the illusion that I’m getting a bit of extra sleep.
But my body doesn’t buy it. I drag myself through the morning rituals to make my face slightly more fit for human company, pulling on the clothes I ironed the night before. Spray, rinse, brush, pin, tie up, belt and button, and I’m ready to go. I mutter a goodbye to my mother, father. Even though I won’t be in the company of someone I love for many, many hours, I’m far too tired for upbeat pleasantries, and I know they are too.
I stand at the same door to enter the same train carriage on the same train I catch every day. That same bearded guy in the too-short pants who reads Quran on his Ipad is sitting a few seats down from me. He doesn’t look up. Why should he? Everyone knows that deliberate eye contact is something only freaks do on public transport.
I do a little experiment on the second train I have to take to get to work and try and catch someone’s eye. But even the guy who is barely 50cm away from me wants none of it. (This is one of the paradoxes of modern life: we’re all forced to compete for increasingly tight spaces, whether on trains or in the housing market, but we barely acknowledge the existence of the person next to us.) The woman on my other side has smudged mascara on her eyelid. I think about telling her, but she has headphones in and so do I, so why bother?
Ah coffee, that wonderful, socially acceptable drug. One, two, three, however many it takes to still the dull ache in the temples and the ever-present threat of stress and boredom. It’s also one of the few legitimate excuses to leave the office. To say, I’m going to go outside so I don’t crawl under my desk and bore a hole into it with a drill, is to invite mental health audits and polite concern, while to pop out for a coffee barely warrants an upward glance from our double screens.
Keep snacking. Just keep snacking. Buy that eight dollar cold-pressed juice. Buy that ten dollar salad. Throw half of it away after it sits out next to the keyboard all afternoon and gets wilted and soggy. Get up and go to the bathroom just for the sake of it, even as the emails flood in. Pray in the corner that the Muslim guy in IT used to pray in. (There’s always a Muslim guy in IT.)
Spend time with friends and family, going to festivals and events and cafes we’ve seen on Instagram. Many people are on their phones at these gatherings, not wanting to miss a moment of capturing these ‘memories’. We’re so busy all the time. I need to schedule my catch-ups days in advance, weeks even. I have three email addresses and am part of about seventeen Whatsapp groups. I’m ‘connected’, accessible to just about anyone who feels like talking to me, except most people don’t.
Is this what people dream of when they’re children? To work in jobs with nondescript titles like ‘Accounts Supply Chain Executive’ or ‘Client Project Officer’ and revert to banal phrases like, I can’t believe it’s only Wednesday, every single Wednesday? To spend all our daylight hours around people who don’t care about us simply to pay for things for the people who do? To scramble for space, attention, just a moment of someone else’s time before they lose interest and stop replying, even though Whatsapp helpfully informs us that they’re still online?
I cannot think that this is what it was all for, the migrant dreams of our parents, whose blood and tears poured into our homework, our white coats and practising certificates. And yet we are the lucky ones, the ones whose only real challenges are prosperity and excess. We are safe and comfortable and our bellies are full, but so many of us are under-stimulated and tired and constantly plagued by the question: is this it?
If and when I ask this of anyone, the answers are often pragmatic, straightforward. Do some online shopping. Go out more. Just be grateful. Get some more hobbies. Book a holiday. Find a job you’re passionate about-as if to suggest that there are enough jobs for everyone (see this Four Corners story), let alone enough jobs for every single person to have one they love. Move to a different city, a different country.
My passport is well-liked almost everywhere, so why not? The UK will have me. So will Canada or New Zealand or just about anywhere where English is sought after, which is just about everywhere. Borders are not closed to me with fences and patrols, unlike the majority of global ‘citizens’. I can do a third degree, retrain as a midwife or a zoologist or an animation designer. Sure, I don’t have the inexhaustible privilege of a 40 year old white man, but I have enough of it to do many things with my time and money.
But all these answers merely disguise the fact that something is fundamentally wrong with the neoliberal foundations of our greedy, lonely society, and many of us realise it without realising it at all. I remember all too vividly a discussion in my old workplace in which several people admitted that they either needed to be planning a holiday or have one booked to get through their working weeks, but within minutes we were all back to our desks and clicking on Bruce Jenner’s face on the Daily Mail.
So many of the issues which plague us are related in ways we barely think of, let alone understand. Our obsession with anti-ageing creams, stretching the confines of what constitutes youth as we stretch our skins. The swiping of screens just to meet someone new. The posting of selfies and videos of dogs doing tricks and the obligatory something about human rights abuses. The loneliness which has reached chronic levels (see this article in the Guardian) and the shortening of our short attention spans, satiated by memes, clickbait articles and Candy Crush. There’s the soar in housing prices and the arms race and the weddings which now cost us $28,858 on average.
Those who are persistently troubled by such things often move to places like Jordan or Yemen, in search of a life centred around worship. Some schedule in doses of spirituality in ten minute spurts and do the occasional spiritual getaway in an attempt to keep it together. Some pursue passions in academia or the community sector and are happy enough for a time, but later find themselves crushed under the wheel of grant applications and ever-increasing casualisation. Some seek temporary solace in getting lots of likes on Facebook or cake-decorating classes or hourly news alerts, and some are just fine with the way things are-just as long as there’s another holiday on the horizon.
What is the life of this world but amusement and play? but verily the Home in the Hereafter,- that is life indeed, if they but knew.