There is a man who lives in the apartment across from mine who, for the past twelve days at least, sits inside and plays video games incessantly. I wake up early and go for a run, and by the time I return-usually before 8 a.m., he's up and playing. As I go about my days working from home, I periodically glance out my window and there he is, engulfed in his computer screen, fingers swirling about his joypad. I doubt he ever moves. Lately, I've doubted his humanity, allowing my imagination to fancy my neighbor a robot.
In my apartment complex, each unit has an outdoor balcony, some larger than others. His balcony is quite large, decorated with sundry plants and settees and a large sun umbrella. The strange thing about his balcony though, is that the lights remain on, always. There is a wall light, ostensibly placed there to provide guidance to the rare resident who chooses to do laundry in midnight hours. But aside from the wall light, there are tiny white lights the man must have hung at some point, thinking perhaps that he'd sit outside with a friend or a lady, sipping mojitos beneath twinkle lights and discussing hopes, dreams, and fears amidst his tiny, apartment balcony jungle.
It occurs to me that he could save money by simply turning his lights off, that this wastefulness is as American a trait as any-our entitlement and lack of self-awareness underscored by the ways we have fought so hard against the current circumstances. The shelter in place order is temporary. We still have the freedom to leave home and take a walk in fresh air, to go buy fresh produce and cook a meal for our loved ones. We still have books, and movies and an endless pit of content on the internet. We are barely on house arrest, we've simply been asked to pause. And pausing might be what people are resisting the most, because it is in moments of pausing that we see ourselves most clearly. Without the normal, hectic distractions of the outside world, our inner turmoil is especially potent. Many of us can't handle facing our inner turmoil, so we bury our heads in our phones, blast music, play video games for hours on end, speak into devices hoping that it will mimic the real thing well enough to keep us sane for a while.
I don't know if video-game-playing-man lives with another person. I just know that for the last week and a half, he has remained a steadfast object of my existence. When I close my shades, there he sits. When I open them, there he is. Often, I wake up in the dead of night to empty my bladder and as I walk back to my bed, I see him across the way, his face lit up by the soft blue light of his computer, his thumbs intensely working, headphones covering both ears, insulating him from the quiet chirping of frogs and gentle hum of late night traffic.
It struck me one morning that video-game-playing-man might always play video games. Before the recent shelter in place order, I was admittedly not home much, my life and interests pulling me a million different directions all at once. It has been calming, in a way, to take a step back from constant busyness to stay grounded in one place for awhile. But any judgement I have projected onto this man could very well be misplaced. Maybe he earns a living playing video games. Or maybe he's a student and has time to spare now that his classes have been cancelled. Or, maybe he's simply coping the best way he knows how-by diving deeply into an alternative world that is colorful and stimulating and entirely factitious. Whatever game he is so immersed in is undoubtedly comforting given the nakedly uncertain state of the world we live in now.
Leaning on certainties may be the biggest spoof of all. Before the coronavirus paused life as we knew it, how many of us thought such a thing was possible? I joked that video-game-playing-man is robotic in his actions, but aren't we all a bit robotic? A bit too complacent with the status quo, depending too heavily on the structure of an entirely constructed existence. Nothing in life is certain-the jobs we rely upon, the institutions we turn to for answers, the men and women we look up to when we can't find the answers ourselves.
A few months ago, when the virus was slowly spreading through China, I never considered the very real possibility that it may spread into my own town or community. Ignorance is bliss, until it isn't. And while we all cope in unique ways, I have noticed an overarching longing to return to ignorant bliss. People want life to be like it was a few months ago, but that simply won't happen. Surviving something as life-altering as a worldwide pandemic should probably change each of us, a little. Here's to hoping it changes us all for the better.