The Red Queen’s Race

Well, in our country” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to stay in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

When I first read these lines, they rang a bell, they felt personal and intimate, somehow related to my normality. The main issue with that feeling is that these lines are extracted from a story about a fantasy world which is supposed to be crazy and scary, one that should leave visitors constantly wondering, yet it felt like it had something to do with what we nowadays have begun to consider normal.

The metaphor of a race with the only goal to remain in the same place has found huge fame since it was first published in 1871. The extract is taken from Lewis Carroll’s sequel of Alice in Wonderland, named Through the Looking glass, but the book itself is not the element of interest.

The metaphor of the Red Queen’s race is usually used as a parallel for very complex phenomena and by professionals in many different fields, from Physics to evolutionary biology and anthropology. Anyone who takes a quick search on the internet will see this extract from Carroll’s novel linked to many different areas of human knowledge. It must have something to do with the sound of it, “Red Queen’s Race” sounds very important, poetic, and it probably makes boring stuff seem a bit less boring. I read the metaphor for the first time in a book while studying for an exam, and as afore-mentioned, it immediately awakened my interest. I believe that it did so because I felt a connection between the really fast sort of reality we experience thanks to the internet, social media and globalisation, and the wonderland of Alice.

But there is another reason why everything seems way faster now, it is because something hit us, all of us, that made us slower. That is the pandemic of SARS-CoV-2. The world has not slowed down one bit during this pandemic; election in the USA, BLM protests, three Italian governments roughly in one year. Of course the last fact might have been less surprising and impactful than the first two, yet things have changed around us, while we had to stay mostly still.

We had to, because of things like lockdowns, masks, social distancing and more. If the state-imposed pressure and regulations weren’t enough, and they aren’t, the risk of death and illness have plagued us for the past year, bringing us deeper down in the rabbit hole of uncertainty, us the young university student more than others. The reasons for that are evident, I for example used to have a hectic lifestyle, travelling abroad at least twice a year, working to afford such travels, studying and participating as much as I could in university life, and, modestly, I had a very active social life. I am not saying that as a complaint, but I know many of my peers behaved similarly and feel equally damaged. I am saying this because, I, like every other human that lived the pandemic at its most dangerous times, have lost almost all of that for the past year, and realizing what that means and what are the consequences is not easy.

I began this article by talking about how an extract from a tale of wonderland felt normal, and the first reason I gave was globalisation and the internet. A fast-moving social reality, and yes, this connection is not original. The real reason why this metaphor came to my mind is another one. This article comes from the awareness of loss. Loss of time spent with friends, of time spent doing what I love, practicing sports, going to concerts and pubs. All of that is lost. Now we must run to remain in the same place, there is no way to get back to the place we were before, ours is too much of a fast sort of country for us to hope that things will get back to “normal”, and moreover, what is normal? Is a lockdown something that surprising nowadays? Haven’t the scientific facts yet convinced everyone that sometimes, to avoid deaths and disruption, it is necessary? Do you think, that the vaccine will arrive and that magically pubs, cinemas, and universities will pop up back in action as before?

Maybe they will, some of them surely will, but normality intended as things were before, is mostly lost. And this is very depressing, but should not be, and I know I’m not the first one to say it, but while in many aspects we have run a long way only to maintain stable relationships, to follow university as much as technology allowed, to remain mentally healthy, in other aspects, things moved on, we should too. It is hard to think that normality is impossible to recover, and of course, some have lost much more than others in this race and thinking that it will not be back, becomes harder. But pushing the normality of pre-pandemic times forward is not something healthy, it is not something safe and it can only be the cause of more desperation once the expectations are disappointed.

Our reality has changed, and we don’t know in which way, we cannot know how the pandemic will shape our lives from now on, but one thing is certain, we still have the main role in shaping it. In this year, plenty of terrible stuff happened, and more is coming, but that should not let us believe that we somehow lost the grip on our lives, that should not trick anyone into believing that the metaphor I used at the beginning of this article, is only about despair. There is hope, but the hope is never made of stillness.

The message I want to leave, the conclusion of this reasoning, is not that we live in the Red Queen’s Kingdom and are bound by her rules. We are, as usual, bound by an infinite amount of things, but that has never impeded humans from shaping the world around them. We have proved it, making things happen in the past year, realizing change in these months is possible, a change that might have also be only personal, a change that might be intangible, but it’s there, it’s in each one of us and nobody obliges us to wait until things change by themselves. That’s why I am talking about a new normality, saying that it shouldn’t be simply depressing. The loss must be recognized but must not be oppressive, the new normality is ours, mine and yours, and it’s also made of what we can and have already changed. We should not wander backwards, but forward, not for an old reality but for a new one.

I have purposefully ignored the second part of the extract so far: if you want to get somewhere else, you’d have to run at least twice as fast as that. Well, we are young and have good legs, everyone of us can break the loop. Remember sometimes that speed is not made of sprinting. That’s also why waiting for things to get back to normal is dangerous, you might be sprinting through this period with optimism and self-care, as I did, with safety and precautions, as I did, in the hope things will come your way eventually. They might, or they might not.

But speed is made of little increases in rhythm, is made of moments of rest and moments of sprint, as much as normality is made of small things, and the only way to get somewhere else is to start putting those small things where you want them, go the way you want to. I know all of this looks extremely abstract and sounds extremely hard to apply, but hope is something that can be passed on, and we humans are usually good at communicating. It’s hard and it’s going to get harder, so catch a breath, drink some water, and remember we are all together in this race: your somewhere else will get closer.

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