Returning to the paradox of London

Last night I traveled to London. It’s only the second time I’ve been back since the pandemic.

Before the pandemic I had lived and worked in London for around five years. So I had a mix of excitement, anticipation and trepidation returning.

Excitement to return to a truly great city. The power and energy in this city is immense. Even if I only passed through the centre briefly yesterday, the connectedness of people, logistics and infrastructure is incredible.

Anticipation to see things and return to my home country. To experience what it is like to not be a ‘foreigner’ and have a full understanding of how things worked around me. I anticipated seeing people I have either not seen in a long time, or never met due to COVID.

Trepidation as I expect reverse culture shock. I have since left these shores and developed myself. Yet London and the UK have also developed and changed. I’m no longer a part of the place I grew up. Bizarrely, the fact that everything is in English confuses me.


Time away gives a fresh sense of curiosity. I saw an incredible paradox in London which I had never outwardly expressed before.

Firstly, the sense of ‘system’, where you felt like a number of one out of the millions going around you. I looked up to see ads about sleeping pills being the solution to my problems, or a corporate ad dressed up as warm and fuzzy to make me want to change my bank. I felt I had returned to a soulless place, where the rat race slowly pushes people into despair.

At the same time, I saw incredible sense of independence. Here was a frankly awe-inspiring freedom that people displayed around me. People of whatever backgrounds, young or old, living life how they wanted to. I saw a young group of people jumping between tube stops. It included both boys and girls. They dressed in fashionable wear, one or two more of them with something more revealing. They did not care what I thought. They lived life by their own rules.

How can it be that a city which can drive people to misery can also have this irrepressible sense of freedom and opportunity? It can be hard to fully comprehend what I see.

The disturbing thing is that both realities exist at the same time. I’ve lived here. I’ve experienced both.

Perhaps the act of freedom is a rebellion against the ‘system’ I mentioned? This makes for a nice tale, though doesn’t fully make sense to me. The sense of how people lived here comes from one of independence rather than rebellion. Yes, some may want to fight the system, but the people I know who have fulfilling lives in London march to their own drumbeat without caring about the outside noise. They do things for themselves, not in spite of something else.

Another possible explanation is that this sense of freedom is really a delusion. Yes these young people seem free now, but the moment they have responsibilities – jobs, kids, mortgages (more likely rent!). This esprit de joie will be crushed, returning them to their belonged state of being a mindless drone. But again, people are shifting their relationship with work. More people, especially young, are questioning why we need a ‘successful’ job, and looking more holistically about what life means for them.

To me, neither of the two previous explanations make sense. So instead, here is the answer I come to: I believe people make the reality they want. This is true in life, but never is it more visible than in a place like London.

There are those who follow the ambition for achievement. This included me. I wanted to have more, do more, and be better than others. I got lost in the big system of London, where I ended up with few friends or hobbies. I lost sight of my freedom and power.

Some understand that life is to be lived. They find ways to be fulfilled, and do not let the worries about work drag their life down. They balance the needs of the world with enjoying the moment. They take advantage of the museums, or the friendships around them.

So where are you on this scale?

Fortunately, where you are now does not need to define you for the rest of your life. Whilst I lost sight about the beauty of life, I found it once more. I appreciated the great things about living in London – the opportunity, excitement, culture and people. This shifted from the worries – the rent, career, frustrations at work, delays on the tube.

It is possible. And the only thing that needs to change is you.

What side of the London paradox do you sit on?

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