For some time I have suspected I am destined for greatness. Until now it’s been a secret suspicion, hidden away from the ordinary others around me on the grounds it would make them feel unworthy. It must be nice, I think as I watch them butter their toast or scroll on their phone, to go through life reconciled with the status quo, never having to bear the pressure of destiny on their standard fit shoulders. “They’re the lucky ones,” I lie to myself, settled in the knowledge it is me who is blessed.
The problem is my particular greatness has not yet shown itself through a meaningful or momentous contribution to humanity. I am not an olympic athlete (although I’m getting pretty good at burpees), I haven’t cured a disease and the book I dream of writing remains a few scribbles in a notebook. But I grew up believing fate bestowed its gifts like unexpected presents, wrapped in ribbons of surprise and delight. The past 28 years have been the warm up, preparing me for when my greatness kicks off. Time isn’t an issue when your success arrives prepackaged.
But 2020 has had a strange effect on me (has a less groundbreaking sentence ever been written?) Before covid, I was too busy to notice time passing. The only time the notion presented itself would be around my birthday when I might briefly wonder if this might be the year. But eight months of lockdown induced introspection can impact the most self assured amongst us. The pressure to make something extraordinary happen began to feel both imperative and impossible. Suddenly my faith in greatness arriving fully gift wrapped seemed a little untenable.
This might explain why, at the beginning of November’s national lockdown, I decided that fate might need chivvying along a bit. After some quick but careful thought, I realised my best bet for instant success would be to become an artist. The rationale was simple. Becoming a painter was something I could do from home and required no reason to interact with other people. It also gave me the opportunity to peruse my local art shop; a new type of shopping which, until recently, was uncharted territory. After spending £64 on paper and paintbrushes and googling “best art schools in the world,” things suddenly felt like they were coming together.
Doing nothing came as a welcome relief in the first lockdown. It was a time for deep personal reflection and banana bread. But the second time around, inertia felt decidedly wasteful.
It quickly became clear this was not the case. As I sat at my kitchen table trying desperately to resuscitate a gouache study that never stood a chance, I felt the unfamiliar sensation of panic rising. Doing nothing came as a welcome relief in the first lockdown. It was a time for deep personal reflection and banana bread. But the second time around, inertia felt decidedly wasteful. Without the mindless busyness of everyday life to distract me, it was difficult not to see each passing week on the calendar as a pointed reminder of all things unachieved. Things began to feel very bleak indeed.
It took an interview with Tracey Emin in The Sunday Times, to shake me out of my self pity. The artist revealed to Decca Aitkenhead that over the summer she had been diagnosed with bladder cancer. “To get past Christmas would be good,” she quipped. But rather than put down her paintbrushes and abandon any hope for the future, Emin harnessed the confrontation of time towards something more than self pity. In fact, she has been completely reinvigorated.
“I was feeling happy, excited about my future — anything could happen, like the stars were aligning,” she revealed when discussing her decision to move out of the studio and home she has lived in for the past 20 years in exchange for a Georgian town house she purchased on a whim. “I just felt really good. I’m excited about moving to my new house. I want to stay indoors and paint. I want to work. I don’t want to waste time.”
As for Emin, sometimes an epiphany can only be induced by the most catastrophic circumstances. For me, navigating life with the belief greatness will turn up unannounced is no longer an option. In fact, when we emerge from the darkness of lockdown, blinking up at the bright resemblance of normal life Boris has promised us by the Spring, my concept of greatness will be very different. This time around it won’t include ideas of writing novels and painting masterpieces, but rather the much simpler achievement of being with my best friends on a dance floor with a bottle of champagne.
Now wouldn’t that be great.