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How does lockdown affect frequent flyers?

Suddenly, slap bang in the midst of the 21st century, we’re grounded. Some weeks, the furthest distance we can travel is from the kitchen to the bathroom; sometimes we can walk up to 100 meters from our homes, so long as we’re masked and alone. Even when restrictions ease for a while, we can’t travel by air or rail or congregate in large groups. We don’t know how long it will be before the radius of our wanderings or range of our social interactions will contract or expand.

These restrictions don’t affect us all the same way. The rich can see through an extended lockdown in relative comfort. They have gardens and savings and can order in. Those of lesser means are crammed into smaller spaces while struggling to stave off hunger and financial ruin.

Similarly, some are used to restricted mobility. Threat of infection and reduced access to carers have added new challenges. But the gap between life before lockdown and life during lockdown is smaller for the very young, the very old, the unwell, and those with physical disabilities, than for other demographic groups.

In fact, affluence and good health may be related in some cases to higher levels of distress. I’m thinking in particular of people who travel for a living; the frequent flyers. When salespeople, CEOs, consultants, gigging speakers, and performers are grounded, a big part of who they are is put on hold indefinitely. They’re forced to reinvent themselves, or worse, to look long and hard in the mirror and try to figure out who they are when they’re not in motion.

But it’s not only frequent flyers who suffer from “lack-of-motion sickness.” Being grounded is tough for everyone. Apart from the incarcerated and the unwell, few of us are used to being stuck in one place, with the same faces and furniture to look at, for so long. All of us miss, in our own ways, the pleasures of movement, the escape that comes with being away from and in between.

Our lives feel more monotonous and static. We sense, often without being able to put our finger on it, the absence of everyday social grooming and the weak ties with co-workers and fellow commuters that contribute so much to our general sense of well-being. In zoos, even the most solitary animals can get depressed when deprived of movement and contact with others of their species. On top of that, we’re stymied by uncertainty, not knowing how long this will last, whether or when it’s going to get better or worse. It’s no wonder that depression is up and motivation down.

But perhaps more than all this, we’re stuck with ourselves and with those who don’t buy our bullsh*t. Along with other psychological benefits, travel allows us to escape. Every departure and arrival is an opportunity for reinvention. We get to turn ourselves into a blank slate and start again.

The sociologist, Zigmund Baumann, was perhaps the first to note the affinity between contemporary identity and tourism. Travel answers our need to slip with ease in and out of different worlds, while avoiding permanent commitments.

Low-cost air travel made it possible for millions around the world to trade local scenery occasionally for something more Instagramable. Many could aspire to periodic dislocation; their own little getaway. Frequent flyers turned this into a fine art; forever on the move. Even after arriving home or their next destination, no stay was more than a sojourn.

Now that escape route has been sealed off. And it's not clear if or when it will open up again. In the meantime, here we are. Here. For the foreseeable future. We’ve finally caught up with ourselves and can’t run away. We’re stuck with this family, these neighbours, this climate and scenery. But most of all, we’re stuck with this self—a self we barely know and have been trying to avoid.

Some are able to squeeze lemonade from these lemons. They rediscover quiet and routine; they take on new projects; they exercise and master new recipes; they connect with neighbors they never used to notice. Instead of sulking the way a grounded teenager does when kept home as a punishment, they work at becoming the other kind of grounded—serene and balanced and self-aware.

But I suspect that those able to perform such impressive acts of mental jiu-jitsu are higher life forms than ordinary folks—calmer, more philosophical, more patient. Or perhaps they just traveled less in the first place. The frequent flyers I know have an itch that only travel can scratch. The longer they are grounded, the more they itch. In fact, some are so itchy that they’ve booked flights despite the health risks and the extended periods of quarantine they’ll face at both ends of their journey. For them, to be stationary is to be trapped. If they don’t get away soon, they’ll suffocate.

Magazines and well-being blogs are full of advice about how to survive this period of immobility and uncertainty. Much of it is straightforward and sound. But little of it is of much use to those for whom frequent flying has become central to their sense of who they are and what they do. For them, the choice is stark: Either reinvent yourself for extended immobility or wait indefinitely for a return to normal that might never come.

On what seemed likely to be the last opportunity to do so before a second wave lockdown, I went for a walk on the beach in Jaffa. It was jellyfish season. Milky blobs of many shapes and sizes were washed up on the shore, being ogled and prodded by curious kids.

It’s not just kids who find jellyfish fascinating. Marine biologists have been working for years to unravel their mysteries. Research has yet to determine conclusively what jellyfish eat or whether they swim or float. But what we do know is that the swarms that plague Israel’s beaches each summer arrive in late spring and usually disappear by the end of July, after floating slowly north up the coast for a few weeks.

Jellyfish can't live without being in motion. They need the fluid medium of the sea to survive. Humans don’t. We’ve invented ever more efficient ways to propel ourselves through land, sea, and air, to spread out across the planet and to thrive in different climates. We’ve made the whole world our natural habitat. Our genius for communication and invention has allowed us to continue to connect and collaborate and entertain and socialize in virtual form even when we can’t do so physically. However, lockdown is teaching us that we’ve turned the sensation of movement into more than a metaphor for the feeling of getting somewhere. Take away far off destinations and the business of traveling to and from them, and a void opens where goals and progress used to be.

I know I’m anthropomorphizing and imputing to jellyfish more than a nervous system comprising tentacles allows. But as I looked at them, stranded on the beach, I couldn’t help thinking of all those frequent flyers now treading water and waiting for normality to return. To avoid being washed up or drifting off into oblivion like jellyfish at the end of the season, is there really any alternative to reinvention?

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