COVID-19 SPECIAL: #OpinionOfTheDay

Fending off Covid-19 gloom with a maniacally grinning raccoon

A couple of years ago, I bought a book with a maniacally grinning raccoon on the cover.

It was standing on its hind legs with arms spread wide. Surrounded by shiny confetti, the raccoon certainly seemed to be very happy about something.

Going through the book, I learnt that it was physically impossible for the raccoon to be anything but overjoyed, because it was dead and had been stuffed by a taxidermist, so it was now fixed in its celebratory pose for eternity.

The book, called Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things, is about its author and raccoon owner Jenny Lawson's lifelong battle with crippling anxiety and depression.

I bought the book at the time mostly for the joy of brandishing its contents and raccoon at my exceedingly gloomy girlfriend.

But the Covid-19 pandemic has been making a lot of people exceedingly gloomy, including myself, and so I have found the raccoon looming larger than I had expected it to.

I became uncharacteristically gloomy less than a week into the circuit breaker period, which began on April 7. Everything about my existence suddenly seemed dreadful, which was strange because I was at home and on leave, both of which I enjoy.

As a generally cheery and optimistic person, I knew the pandemic was inflicting a mental and emotional toll on people cooped up in their homes around the world, but I saw no reason for this to happen to me.

But one can maintain a "normal" frame of mind for only so long before it becomes an act of delusion.

Sooner or later, each of us has to come to terms with the new normal, not just as a concept but as the way we are now to lead our lives. This new normal inevitably includes much that makes us sad, lonely, frustrated, disheartened and angry.

But because we cannot just make the horrible aspects disappear, the next best thing is to see how we can make living alongside these more bearable, to magnify the good things that remain and to see the humour in the situation.

 
 
 

This is difficult and will take a furious effort, but is ultimately worthwhile, I think.

The alternative, something which Ms Lawson has grappled with for most of her life, really isn't much of an alternative at all.

Being furiously happy is about, she writes, "taking those moments when things are fine and making them amazing, because those moments are what make us who we are, and they're the same moments we take into battle with us when our brains declare war on our very existence".

Dead but yet always up for spreading joy and offering supportive high-fives, the raccoon seemed to be on to something.

It seemed to be saying to me: "Look, some really bad stuff has happened to me and there are things I can't do any more, like going outdoors and breathing, but I'm still trying to have a wickedly good time in the only way I can."

So I have been ferociously enjoying my time at home with my family and dog in a throwback to times long ago, when my brothers and I had not yet embarked on mostly separate lives.

Yes, we are stuck at home, but that only gives us opportunities to do things together that we have not been able to do for a long time.

One of the joys of having a big family - I have three brothers - is that you don't have to invite friends over to have a party. We bought a Nintendo Switch gaming console and a game called Super Smash Brothers Ultimate, joking that we'd beat one another up virtually so we wouldn't have to do it in real life.

It is our way of thrusting our raccoony paws out and grinning as widely as we can.

Granted, morbidly cheerful raccoons will not appeal to everyone, but they don't have to. To each his own - I don't pretend to know the secret to attaining joy for everyone.

Instead, we would all be better off if, in spite of the trying times and how disgruntled we may be, we hold off lashing out and pointing fingers at others.

For example, I think the ill-fated Gov.sg Covid-19 superhero campaign last month deserved better. The five-member Virus Vanguard vanished from Gov.sg's website and Facebook page just a day after its first appearance on April 19, following heavy public criticism of the characters and concerns over the originality of the art. The group comprised Dr Disinfector, Fake News Buster, Must Always Walk Alone (Mawa) Man, Circuit Breaker and Care-leh Dee.

 

Each of the characters had a clever and tongue-in-cheek back-story which, for the most part, managed to be wholesome and in line with what might be expected of a government campaign.

The only misstep, perhaps, was Mawa Man, who shared with his creator an allegiance to the Manchester United football club and an antipathy for rivals Liverpool.

His name plays on both social distancing and the Liverpool "You'll Never Walk Alone" anthem.

In the current climate, a character appearing to target a certain group of people, even in jest, might not have been the best idea.

Nonetheless, the spirit in which the campaign was conceived is to be applauded.

Some may feel the tone the campaign adopted to be inappropriate. But these are extraordinarily tense times and extraordinary attempts are required to ease said tension.

There is no better time to try to be funny and I don't fault Gov.sg for trying to brighten our days, especially since they are able to reach so many people.

Singaporeans have been urged to embrace the spirit of social distancing and circuit breaker regulations, and I think a similar perspective is warranted here.

 
 
 

Instead of spewing vitriol at the campaign and its creator, we would be better served by remembering that we want to spread laughter and joy, not droplets, as widely as possible. This will not happen if we allow the admittedly very real feelings of despair and negativity to dictate how we behave.

When we talk about fighting the coronavirus, we should also be conscious that there are better and worse ways to fight.

I would rather fight to keep laughing during that process than fight other people.

It's funny what a dead raccoon can teach you.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 24, 2020, with the headline 'Fending off Covid-19 gloom with a maniacally grinning raccoon'. Print Edition | Subscribe