When I can’t sleep, instead of counting sheep, I like to play a little game called ‘list everything I haven’t done in my life’. Getting married, having children and buying a house are the usual contenders, along with living abroad, learning French and achieving a level of success that makes others feel inferior. But there can also be slightly more niche additions too. Be photographed by paparazzi as part of an illicit political scandal, star in a West End production of the Phantom of the Opera and fit into a size 10 dress have all featured in my witching hour worries.
The concept of living a “Big Life” has become a recurring concern of mine as I approach my third decade. Am I making the most of my time on earth? Do I have what it takes to achieve something on a grand scale? Will I be remembered by those who come after me? All these questions swirl around in my head as I turn the pages of my calendar with increasingly rapid regularity. Add a global pandemic into the mix and these questions have started to spiral in a somewhat compulsive manner.
No great tale of adventure starts with staying at home clutching a bottle of Dettol
As the nation continues to wait at the window for normality to come home, the question of how we establish a “Big Life” becomes more complicated. Travelling to exotic lands or meeting lovers in dim, bustling bars means potentially putting other lives at risk. But on the other hand, no great tale of adventure starts with staying at home clutching a bottle of Dettol.
This disinfected approach to life is all very well if you’re settled firmly into a form of inert middle age, with a partner, 2.5 children and an irritatingly bouncy labradoodle named Lola. But what about those on the precipice of life, who, for the foreseeable future, can’t even get off the runway because in order to do so will require them to quarantine for two weeks wherever they land?
Will our spiritual and psychological evolution continue without the opportunity to drunkenly snog at least two people on a Disney themed pub crawl?
All you have to do is look at the pictures of university students locked away in their dormitories, cut off from any semblance of a typical freshers experience, to understand how lockdown has stunted the internal growth of people still crafting the early chapters of their lives. If these restrictions increase, how can we expect the next generation to live big, meaningful, messy, complicated lives, when isolation and fear define their coming of age experiences? Will our spiritual and psychological evolution continue without the opportunity to drunkenly snog at least two people on a Disney themed pub crawl?
The answer, you’ll be pleased to know, is yes. In many ways, the younger generation has been given a powerful gift; stillness. If my university experience was anything to go by, many students are dropped at their campuses without having made a single active decision in their arrival. GCSEs, A Levels and then a university degree are part of a flight plan handed to you aged 11. The destination is already decided and any unique ambitions you might develop along the way are deemed teenage turbulence. Now with nothing to do but think, many students might be regretting flying on autopilot.
Times of inaction often lead to moments of intense change. My sister, after less than a year in her graduate role at an insurance company, quit this summer to begin her Masters in clinical neuroscience. Having moved back home and without the busyness of London living to distract her, the ‘now or never’ impetus had time to take effect. Quitting was the first step in her reawakening. Taking the decision has made her infinitely braver and more in touch with herself. There’s no degree or graduate scheme that can teach that.
In Glennon Doyle’s global bestseller ‘Untamed’ (which I recently read on Adele’s recommendation because, let’s face it, she seems to be having somewhat of a renaissance) the author explains how, in the pursuit of understanding herself as part of her new found sobriety, she would go to her wardrobe, close the door and sit quietly on the floor. It was in those moments she would sink into her ‘Knowing’, or what you and I might call intuition.
Through this practice Doyle describes gaining powerful moments of clarity in both small and big decisions about her life. In a world where we are constantly available, chronically busy and almost always tired, being forced to stop and listen to our deepest, and normally most unavailable, thoughts might allow us to see things clearly for the first time in our lives. I personally don’t have a wardrobe that will take both the weight of my thoughts as well as my thighs, but find the bath a more than adequate cocoon for contemplation.
When I really think about it, a “Big Life” to me means big and bold relationships
If I allow myself to indulge in one of these moments of deep reflection, I realise that while being chased by The Daily Mail outside a private members club with some dodgy politician would certainly be thrilling, it’s cheap carbs in comparison to the nourishing “bigness” I am hungry for. A size 10 label proudly sewn into a new dress is of course appealing, but the starvation it would take to achieve it would leave me less than satisfied. When I really think about it, a “Big Life” to me means big and bold relationships that both shake and solidify who I am. Am I connected with the people I love? If the answer is yes, I know my life is as big as it needs to be.
After all, following one of those sleepless nights, where life seems to have shrunk beyond hope, it is the walk I take with my sister, the dinner I have with my best friends, or the afternoon cup of tea with my Mum that stretches things back into shape. Covid has unravelled life’s rich tapestry. But the threads remain. If you take the time to decide how you want to put things back together, you might end up with something better, and bigger, than you ever had before.