The First Time You Look Back

On 2020, time machines and tightrope walkers

“To live only for some future goal is shallow. It is the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top.

The only Zen you find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.

Sometimes it's a little better to travel than to arrive.”  

– Robert Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance)

I’ve been trying to find a slick way to sum up this year. To paint an accurate portrait of what I can safely say (and hope) is the weirdest year of our lives.

Is it even possible to capture the fluidity of a zeitgeist that seemed to mutate in real time? How do you even begin the document the strange things you did and felt this year?

I started 2020 in a different city, in a different professional setting, and with a different haircut than I have now. I can’t tell which change has been more disorienting.

I don’t know if it’s just a late-20s thing but, like me, so many of my friends have really felt it this year. All of the anxiety and nausea and weight that comes with being trapped in time with no idea what comes next.

When you lose the ability to look forward, it is only natural that we looked back.

Ask any half-decent tightrope walker and they’ll tell you that the worst thing you can do is look down. Why? Its scary, for one. Its distracting. It’ll make you rethink your choices and wonder what the hell you’re doing here. You’d have to be an amateur to let your eyes drift to what’s under you instead of motoring steadily towards the landing spot ahead. There’s plenty of good reasons why you don’t just pause in mid-air.

On most days in most years, most of us are too busy playing the game of life to stop and wonder if we even know or like what we’re doing. Why waste time thinking when we’re programmed to keep things moving?

But this year feels like someone blew a whistle in the middle of a marathon and told everyone to stop moving and get ready, because the remainder of the race would have to be completed on horseback. And seven billion competitors suddenly found themselves with nothing to do but take stock of their positions and figure out how to adapt to these new circumstances.

Did we have the skills to continue the race?

Were you happy with the progress you had made so far?

Had you been too slow? Have you moved too fast?

Had you crossed enough milestones?

Did you bring the right supplies? The right company? Should you have?

Did you even like running?? Maybe rock climbing is more your speed?

We spend our lives hurtling from one shiny target to the next, wary of taking a break to inspect the funny noise coming from the engine, afraid to see what’s under the hood. The pandemic has been the speed bump that no one saw coming.

“People are stuck in a house with their choices” - Dave Chappelle 

Subtract your favourite social outlets, your routines, your plans, the familiar faces and places in your life. Add the enforced retrospection and isolation that comes with a year-long lockdown, and you get a Vipassana you didn’t really sign up for (1★ rating on Trip Advisor the last time I checked).

Add to this the fact that 2020 has often felt like a malfunctioning time machine. Last week feels like October, October feels like March, and March feels like Mexico. What I’m trying to say is, time isn’t even trying to make sense anymore. Agitating about the past, present and future is understandable. They’ve often felt like a gooey mix of the same thing.

The society we live in today is not the society we lived in a year ago. There are new rules, new norms and new tools you need to navigate the new normal *vomits*.

Do you begin adapting to the new world? Do you wait for things to go back to ‘the way they were before’? Or do you just freeze?

Which parts of you should you keep? Which parts do you throw away? Which parts are now obsolete?

Its taken me a long time to find my bearings this year. I’m still trying to figure out stuff like

  • How to be productive at home when your bed is right there *points three feet away*

  • How to make the right choice between calling your friends or escaping into the familiar warmth of a Youtube rabbit hole

  • How to find a happy balance between being on top of your shit and not being too hard on yourself when you’re not

  • How not to let the things you can’t control ruin the things you can

  • How to be ‘grateful when things are going well and graceful when they aren’t’
    (h/t Dustin ‘The Diamond’ Poirier)

  • How to breathe, and get out of my own brain. Because nothing is as good or as bad as we make it out to be in our heads

If you’ve made it this far and think this piece is going to end with some magic formula to ‘solve’ the puzzle that is 2020…I hate it break it to you, chief. I’m still trying to make sense of it myself.

What I do have though, is a list of things that have helped me regain my footing when I’ve found myself surrendering to ennui.

Like this quote from a book I read this year:

“The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.” – Ursula Le Guin (The Left Hand of Darkness)

Or this quote from a book I re-read this year:

“We are not going in circles, we are going upwards. The path is a spiral; we have already climbed many steps.” – Hermann Hesse (Siddhartha)

Or this album:

And this meme:

Or memes in general:

I’m also very optimistic about 2021 (if you think nothing really changes from one calendar year to the next, here’s a cookie for being a mature adult immune to the whims of conventional Gregorian loops - 🍪). At the very least, time continuously affords us new opportunities and markers to reset. Almost like clockwork.

I’ve learned it is dumb to be endlessly worried about what may or may not come next (though I still do it). Amos Tversky once said that “When you are a pessimist and the bad thing happens, you live it twice. Once when you worry about it, and the second time when it happens.”

None of us will ever forget how we made it through the pandemic. You will always remember how you buckled down and became an efficient machine while working from home (or not). You might prefer the new versions of your old routines. You will count yourself as a battle hardened entrepreneur or professional or parent for keeping your ship afloat in these conditions. You will appreciate the extended time you spent with your loved ones. You will be proud of yourself for throwing your name in the hat for Lockdown’s Got Talent and starting to bake, paint, teach or write (🙋‍♂️) from home.

Most of all, if you’re reading this, you survived 100% of your worst days this year. Congratulations, you legend. That’s no small feat.

“Sometimes the greatest meals on vacations are the ones you find when Plan A falls through” - Anthony Bourdain

This year we’ve been shown a dramatically different way to ‘do life’. If nothing else it has been fascinating to see how many new approaches we’ve found to do ordinary things that we previously assumed could only be done a certain way. At some point this will all make sense. That’s what I’m counting on anyway.

And so a very Happy New Year to readers of this blog. Thank you for making this year significantly brighter for me. See you on the other side👋 - RS

Thank you to my friends Aaryaman Vir, Ayushi Amin, Ruchi Shah, Jai Nanavati, Kartik Shah, Shiv Parekh, Simone Dhondy and Akshay Mehra for reading early drafts of this and being generous with your thoughts. You guys are the best.