Two months ago a new word came hurtling into my vocabulary: furlough. A word that’s broadly non-existent in employer branding and unlikely to be used in my work. But then, along with 6.3 million employees in Britain, I became furloughed, and here I am writing about it. Such is the great uncertainty of these times and with it many more improbable phenomenons.
One personal oddity is the feeling of unease with being paid not to work. A rare moment to pursue the many things that weren’t possible due to feeble excuses that daily-life presented. Learning new skills, rekindling neglected hobbies, revolving one’s days around food consumption, and meekly attempting to keep fit. The joys of self-development and practicing abstract versions of self-care remains unmoved. But these moments of productive silver-linings are also, in its short irregular shifts, paled by currents of insecurity and helplessness that drift in, dampens the optimism and drowns my cheering thoughts. Calm and doubt, joy and guilt, gratitude and anger, inspiration and apathy, hope and fear; these opposite forces all bundled together in one stoic wait for normality. Yet returning back to life as before can’t happen.
In a dizzying, short space of time – but still not quick enough in the UK – we have seen the world change in ways that would have seemed impossible only a few months ago. Schools closed, bars and restaurants empty, the homeless given accommodation, temporary hospitals built in days, job losses, furloughs, and the earth catching its breath for a little while. Everything feels unreal and different, and the world as we see it right now is a stark reality check on what was broken, as well as a glimpse into the brilliance of what is possible. With that in mind, this pause in life is also a restart in undoing some mistakes and remaking how we go forward.
Furlough allows plenty of time to ask searching questions and ponder whether the drastic changes of today will make a lasting difference. As I squander my lockdown days refreshing the news, mesmerised by the spectacle of government intervention, sorely admiring our NHS, and feeling thankful for key workers; I wonder if in the years to come will we extend our weekly applause in ways that will protect and properly fund our NHS. Will we remember how overseas healthcare workers risked their lives and disproportionately fell ill for us when we talk about immigration? Will we remember who the backbone of our economy really was when we think about fair salaries and deem who is ‘low-skilled’? And I wonder if we’ll remember the catch of the safety-net beneath us when, at no fault of our own, we unexpectedly fell. That it wasn’t complacent comfort, but rather, much needed security – I’ll remember furlough.
When this new improbable world came to us, amidst the glaring failures of some, we also saw what was truly feasible. It revealed solutions as not too left, right or radical, but simply humane and necessary. Now that the real possibilities have been exposed, lets reshape our expectations, and our tolerance for misplaced blame and churned out excuses.
Like many disasters before, this will pass. But as the luring brightness glints at the end for us, the most luminous ray is in the change to come. Playful rainbows have become a fitting symbol of these times. That at the end of this perilous storm, through the turning wave of events, and amongst the sobering wreckage after, there will be something worth waiting for – worth changing for. Because even science tells us that real rainbows only happen with a change in direction of light.