What is the meaning of life?
What is the meaning of life? By Elizabeth S. Ling

Crisis Mode

In lockdown, I felt like I was better able to see some things for how they were, but I was not always happy with the realities I had to confront.
By Heidi Lai

My first existential crisis happened in eighth grade. We were watching “King Kong” in history class when I found myself making the long and painful trek up to the front of the room, where my teacher was grading papers in silence. I asked him verbatim — no prelude, no introduction — “What is the meaning of life?” He smiled a funny little smile and put his grading down.

The next day, he brought me “the meaning of life” — a paper-clipped, 70-page folder from Wikipedia. I was flabbergasted, as anybody would be after being handed the meaning of life; thumbing through Cicero, Kierkegaard, and the ancient Greek philosophers, I thought, I am only thirteen years old. I was immediately seized with panic and vertigo. Would this be the rest of my life, forever grappling with this awareness of death? Unfortunately for me, yes.

Not much has changed since then. I still experience existential dread every hour, every day of the week. But during quarantine, for the first time, I wasn’t the only one spiraling in the cereal aisle of the grocery store, thinking about our inevitable descents toward death. It hasn’t just been me; it’s been everyone.

We’ve all been there: from ignoring a text or an email because responding just doesn’t feel worth it, to finding ourselves not wanting to participate in a Zoom class as much as usual. It’s just all so much of the same. Some days I just want to throw my hands up and scream, “When will this end?” We like to call it “Zoom fatigue,” but I think it’s something more. When classes, interviews, socializing, and family bonding time all take place on the same screen and can all be stopped with a click of “End Meeting,” it becomes difficult to discern anything’s intrinsic value.

In Buddhism, there’s the belief that you can arrive at deep and meaningful truths if you spend enough time sitting alone. (That’s the idea behind meditation, isn’t it?) I guess, in a way, that was lockdown. Sitting in our homes all day, we’ve had to confront the insides of our brains and work out what we actually think about our lives without the busyness of the day-to-day to distract us.

It’s funny. In lockdown, I felt like I was better able to see some things for how they were, but I was not always happy with the realities I had to confront.

For example, my respect for politics has crumbled — perhaps in part due to the fact that it has become too polarizing and too negative, but I think largely because, over time, my distrust toward the system has collapsed into neglect. Something changed in me when I saw the Capitol getting overrun, senators hiding behind desks, rioters carrying out flags and clutching loaded weapons — it struck a chord more personal than ordinary mistrust. I felt violated. We are taught from a young age to associate our government with freedom, with democracy. We paint little pictures of those famous buildings on our worksheets. Seeing the Capitol overrun soured that idealism.

I mourn for the time in fifth grade when I watched Obama’s inauguration with an awe for our government that has since faded. Over the course of the past three years, I feel like a torch has been taken to institutions we held sacred. And now, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, I wonder if I am capable of attaining any sort of reverence for politics at all.

Another, less bleak realization I’ve had to confront over quarantine has been the illusion of celebrity. After seeing celebrities filming music videos from bathtubs in their bathrooms and conducting Zoom interviews in sweatpants and a full face of makeup, I just don’t think I can ever view them the same. It’s not in a bad way, or even in a way where I’ve lost interest in those particular celebrities. But I am more aware of the ways in which society has carefully cultivated the mystique of money and status around them, from talk shows to profiles in magazines, that have since been stripped away.

There was a Zoom interview I was watching in which Peter Dinklage had a full-out beard, a weird angle on his webcam, and the biggest expression of disinterest on his face — one that said, What’s the point? We’re all at home in our sweatpants in bed, anyway.

That’s been my quarantine mood.

— Magazine writer Heidi Lai can be reached at heidi.lai@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @hiheidz.