[Words by Dyani Sheppard (she/her)]
There can be comfort in the practice of romanticising: the desire to believe in the best version of our lives. But this process can leave us with an airbrushed memory, disjointed from reality. Despite the chaos of 2020 there has been an inclination towards romanticisation – whether encouraged by the government for their own political gain; performed, as ever, on social media; or, in each of our own romanticised retrospective reflections on lockdown. With such a turbulent year, are these acts of romanticism a damaging form of escapism as we deny objective reality? Or are they a valuable coping strategy that allows us to still see the beauty in life?
At the beginning of the pandemic, much of the Government’s statements embraced war rhetoric: positioning themselves as the courageous victors over the enemy of the virus. Here they sought to romanticise reality by calling upon war time nostalgia and nationalistic pride in an unashamed attempt to unify the population into sympathetic deference and to protect themselves from public criticism. In this vein, NHS and other key workers were depicted as heroes to be celebrated with optimistic rainbows and weekly cheers. As many NHS workers pointed out, their jobs had been made a greater challenge by the government’s lack of funding and blatant errors, leaving PPE unavailable. This approach was an attempt to increase nationalistic pride and therefore romanticise the situation into one that could be overcome by unity, neighbourliness and high spirits. While optimism has its merits, it cannot be a substitute for effective governance, or policies that extend past mere symbolic support for our ‘heroes’. Romanticisation, used in this way, can be toxic. The public sought desperately for comfort, for moments of lightness and positivity, and the government played into this by offering up a romanticised narrative of the pandemic that distracted from their shortcomings.
The further we move from the intensity of that initial lockdown, from those first moments of complete anxiety and disorientation, the easier it becomes to romanticise the period. One common view I’ve heard, and share, is that once we adjusted to life in a global pandemic, many of us began to enjoy aspects of lockdown, that, upon reflection, we now miss. Now that our lives have opened up, with a return to work, to socialising, to studying, there seems a nostalgia for the period of lockdown when, without these obligations, we rushed to take advantage of our government mandated exercise allowance and sought out soothing and time filling activities like baking, reading, crafting. Anything we collectively brand as ‘wholesome’, essentially. Does this romanticised recollection speak more to what we were lacking in everyday pre-global pandemic life? Perhaps, collectively, we are happier with a regular routine, healthy habits, less work or academic stress, and relaxing activities that invite a bit of creativity into our days. These simple and healthy elements were romanticised even early on, revealing that they were not a part of most people’s lives previously. Can this romanticisation be used to motivate change – be it in our individual lives or in regard to wider societal changes? Can then our romanticisation of lockdown act like a utopian vision? As we reflect and see the value in certain elements, perhaps we will strive to bring them forward into our ‘normality’.
However, romanticisation isn’t necessarily confined to our retrospective; it can also work in the present, as was shown in lockdown, when it became a coping method. Many seemed to romanticise aspects of the situation as they returned to nature and found a renewed appreciation for their local spaces, and sought to find beauty in the daily stillness we found ourselves in. In this way, this period has arguably proven that we need a degree of romanticism to be at peace with the ugly, painful, and unjust aspects of life: to allow escapism within the confines of our real lives. Maybe this increased trend of romanticism was a by-product of our constant reminding that this was an ‘unprecedented’ time – this sense of living through the exceptional made us feel like our individual feelings and the recording of these feelings became more important. We were no longer cruising through normality but suddenly in an intense, unique situation which brought our interiorities under microscopic examination.
Perhaps this is the reason for the popularity of the TikTok main character trend in May, which encouraged viewers to see themselves as the main character in their own lives: to romanticise the self in order to fully embrace our existence. While partly playful, the concept still glamourizes the individual and works on the assumption that our lives are uniquely valuable. Society encourages us to take this approach and believe ourselves to be exceptional with unique behaviours and thoughts. The unquestioned acceptance of individualism in our society leads us to romanticise ourselves, conflating our value with uniqueness. However, the pandemic disproved this use of romanticism as it evoked a blanket of similar responses: we all panicked, exercised, baked, longed for normality, and experienced similar waves of emotion. This period revealed that we may be more alike than we tend to believe, and while some may find comfort in our assumed uniqueness, I find comfort in the contrary. Considering our complex interiorities as something relatable and common helps alleviate isolation. It is empowering to be able to share a deep part of yourself with a mass of strangers who on the surface you may not feel remotely connected to. It was a humbling and humanising realisation during an otherwise strange and isolated period.
There is a tempting glamour in over-romanticising the self as an individual which can lead us to become detached from one another, forgetting the fundamental similarities that connect us. Similarly, when we are sold romanticism by external forces it is often a toxic attempt to distract us from a reality that we should be aware of. But we need romanticism. We need it to raise our aspirations, to separate ourselves just enough from reality so that we are reminded that life is not stagnant but full of possibility. It reminds us that there is beauty found even in the smallest moments of our everyday, that there is something to always be grateful for.