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Opinion | I am finally living in the moment

What is it about the present that is keeping me here? Because of the pandemic, we are having a collective near-death experience

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in the final scene of the series ‘Mad Men’.
Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in the final scene of the series ‘Mad Men’.

I don’t know about you but I have always hated it when people tell you to “be in the moment". What’s so great about being in the moment when the unnerving future and the semi-transparent past can be your frenemies instead? Besides, who would want to live in this present? I have lost track of the number of people I have heard wishing they could go to sleep and wake in a year when a vaccine walks amongst us. So it’s surprising to me that after years of feeling my eyes twitch at the mention of vipassana or a mindfulness app, I am, currently, living largely in the present.

When I look in the mirror, my face is not newly carved in Zen but here is how I recognize that something has changed in the last couple of months. I am not procrastinating hugely. Like many people, my ability to more or less meet my deadlines has almost always been accompanied by a counterproductive anxiety about meeting my deadlines that makes me want to do no work. Picture me worrying about not delivering and folding clothes or reading a romance novel instead. These last couple of months, however, I have been able to work without the mild nausea that is so old and so familiar I had forgotten what it is like to be without it. I mostly get through my to-do list and when I don’t I feel less panicked than I usually do. A sign of the times, I have been thinking, is the mutated exam dream. I (and one other person I know) had the familiar “it’s the morning of the exam and things have gone wrong" dream. Except that for the first time since this nightmare began plaguing us, each of us shrugged it away inside the dream. Never mind, was the general mood.

What is it about the present that is keeping me here? The distinct lack of a future, for sure. But I think it’s more than that. I think because of the pandemic we are having a collective near-death experience (NDE). The near-death experience has been a field of empirical study for a few decades and scientists have been fascinated by some of the common features that subjects report: a sense of lightness and freedom from pain, a bright light, encounters with people they loved, the sense of your life being under rapid review (“my whole life flashed before my eyes," as the popular saying goes). Everyone who goes through a near-death experience reports a near-permanent transformation. Cherie Aimee, an American motivational speaker, for instance, is famous for her NDE, during an episode when she was without a heartbeat for 90 whole minutes. She has since gotten a heart transplant and built a big personal brand. Aimee said in an interview, “After my heart transplant, I wrote my #1 bestselling book with one finger typing on my iPhone propped up on a pillow." Of course, Aimee’s brand is about living life with no regrets.

Oh, regrets. What are you supposed to do with them? It’s no longer cool to admit you have any. Everything is supposed to be a beautiful scar.

This week a woman I know well lost her mother to the coronavirus. I was there when she received the news that the mother who had been admitted to hospital at 4am had died by afternoon. A perennially cheerful and practical woman, she collapsed into tears and recriminations at herself that she had not said goodbye, had not given her mother a last meal. Though her mother and she were exceptionally close and though she was a very loving daughter, she was berating herself for not being a success within moments of hearing the news. In those first few minutes, as she wept, she spoke to her departed mother, chiding her for leaving, chiding herself for not doing better.

With the pandemic so pervasive, we are all going to be filled with regrets. For people we didn’t speak to, for unresolved fights, for insurance policies we didn’t buy, sex we didn’t have, money we didn’t spend, risks we took, the list is endless.

A friend told me about updating her will this week and it was one of the most calming pieces of news I have heard recently. A near-death experience in the American model makes you go out and make war and business, spitting in the face of death. Instead, I wish our collective near-death experience would help us prepare for death itself, for a world without people we love, without our selves.

Medical science governs many of the reasons we aren’t allowed to be near our dying right now. But heartlessness governs it too. That’s why you hear so many stories of families having to struggle to even understand what has happened to the bodies of their loved ones—so far from having a civilized model to say goodbye safely. It’s an unkind world that does not allow us to ease the fear both of the dying and of those left behind. In Connie Willis’ fantastic and sad novel about near-death experiences, Passage, the near-death experience is an SOS call and the protagonist experiences near-death experiences as being on the sinking Titanic.

It is funny that I am finally able to somewhat live in the present when really all of us on the good ship should be preparing for a future filled with loss and regrets.

Cheap Thrills is a fortnightly column about millennials, obsessions and secrets. Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger.

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