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On Coming Back from Covid

You can listen to a version of this piece here:

The pandemic has been a kind of long, descending staircase for me. At the outset, I tried to continue on with producing things -- content, research, writing, podcasts -- as I normally would. Then one by one I let each of those activities go. By July, I was all but comprehensively engaged in idleness. In this piece I want to detail a bit about some of the ways in which I think I've grown during that time, as well as some ways I hope to grow going forward.

The first thing that comes to mind in terms of lessons learned is a deep appreciation of my own fragility. In the early stages of the pandemic, the issues came out of a fire hose. In a sense, this was just a more dramatic version of what life is like on a regular basis. Things come up. Sometimes they're especially tough. You deal with them. In this way the early stage problems of the pandemic were acute: What is going on? What should I be doing about it? How should I get up and running with these new constraints? These are problems that demand something be done. And though they were certainly distracting, they elicited a response.

But as the months wore on, the problems became chronic. For me it was a sense that the worthwhileness had been drained out of life's activities, an overwhelming feeling of the stalled inertia of neither going anywhere nor having the desire to do so. It was new kinds of loneliness, experienced under different shades of isolation. It was the slow death of every habit I've ever built up, besides the one dedicated to binging shows on Netflix. None of these inspiration in me a sense of counteraction. It felt like there was no way to combat what was going on, only to sit through it. Which is exactly what I did.

Whether or not mine was a "good" or "successful" response to the pandemic, I don't feel the need to say. But my inability to cope with everything that's happened over the past few months did a lot to articulate all the ways in which I've built up for myself an environment that coddles my productivity and my wants and a certain kind of lifestyle. While in that habitat, it's easy to cultivate the sense that you've got it goin' on. Over the past few months, I've been made painfully aware of all the areas in which that's not necessarily the case.

As far as my own self-image goes, I think this has aroused in me a greater sense of what the general population calls "humility." This has not always been my strong suit. As far as the way I think about others, it gives me a more nuanced appreciation about how unseen factors in someone's personal life or social environment can affect their behavior and their work. Even with everything that's happened, my life was still pretty damn good in the grand scheme of things. And yet I couldn't deal with it. How much more difficult is it for people who have even more challenging, even longer-lasting situations -- from the subtle to the dramatic -- which affect the way they operate in the world. I'd like to think I'm ever so slightly more empathic when it comes to appreciating just how significant the impact of those variations in environment can be, and I hope I can internalize that understanding for the long-term.

A related point to the appreciation of just how much I can be affected by circumstances outside my control is a strengthen ability to sit with suboptimality. My natural response to life's problems is to fix them. Something knocks you down. You lay there for a minute. Then you get up and figure out how to fortify yourself so you'll be better prepared next time around. But the chronic problems of the pandemic did not admit of any such solutions. At least none that I was able to come up with. Week after week, I tried to switch things up. I tried to tweak things to get back on track. But any improvements were only temporary. I found myself consistently getting more idle, less productive, and for a long while less happy. There was no recourse to a different strategy to make things the way I wanted. I simply did not have the ability to arrange life to my own liking in the way I normally do. I didn't find a way to be especially productive. But I did find a way to be happier.

It had to do with releasing myself from the responsibility to shape life in the mould of my own wishes. The moment my mental health started to trend upward was the moment I gave myself permission to do nothing, to relinquish the usual regiment of work I put on myself. That didn't exactly solve my work problems. But it did help me to adapt myself to a greater range of circumstances. And I've found myself able to get back into a much healthier headspace than I previously was in. I couldn't fix things. So I got better at accepting them as they were. It sounds like a simple and obvious solution. But I'll tell you what. I tried my damnedest not to implement it for quite a while.

Above all, what I've developed over the last few months is a recalibrated sense of what matters and what doesn't. In the normal goings-on of life, there's a lot to get caught up in. In the moment these things seem like a big deal. But in the much slower existence of my current days, I've been able to gain some critical distance on, well, everything. In some cases, too much critical distance. Part of why I've had a hard time doing research and writing is because a lot of the things that seemed urgent and important in pre-pandemic life don't quite seem all that pressing anymore. But the positive side of it is that the small things that are all too easy to get wrapped up in no longer hold much sway over me. The list of things that are really necessary at the end of the day is a short one. As far as I'm concerned, the rest can come and go as they please. In fact they will.

So as fall begins, my next stage is to return to work in earnest. I've done well enough to get a handle on mental health. I want to keep that up. But it's time to dig into things again. Not back to "normal." But to things on new terms. And, in the areas for which it's possible, to a better, healthier version of things.

For me, the biggest opportunity I have right now is to build my work habits from the ground up. Any sense of continuity, of habitual progression has been completely obliterated. As with my point above about the effects of environment, this also gave me an appreciation of just how much I'd done to build up a strong base of work habits, strategies, and routines. The delta between where I have been recently and where I was at my peak is huge. And I think that's encouraging. No matter how efficient one may be, it's always tempting to feel like it's not enough. That feeling will probably return to me in some guise in the future. But I've at least glimpsed a more realistic picture of what my productivity at usual levels looks like. The best case scenario is that this lends a stronger footing to "self-acceptance" in the ever-present tension between self-acceptance and self-improvement.

More directly, the opportunity is to keep the good habits and eliminate the bad ones. Usually any targeting of bad habits requires breaking them down. For me, that obstacle has been removed. I don't have any habits to break, good or bad. So as I try to implement many of my old work routines, I'm trying to be explicit about what I want to include and what I don't. For example, I usually employ a pretty strict time management regiment to make sure I get done everything I want to do. Some of those time management strategies are effective. But some of them are overkill, unnecessary, or even detrimental. Instead of having to do the hard work of breaking those habits, all I have to do is not relearn them.

And so all of these considerations are in service of the project of rebuilding life around what matters. As with not relearning the bad habits, it's about putting things in the proper place. The things that are more trouble than they're worth, that are more a source of anxiety than a fount of inspiration -- those aren't going to get centerstage. This is where that critical distance helps. Having gone through a pretty of leaving out pretty much everything I normally do, I see which ones I was fine without and which ones I wasn't. I've always been unrelenting in my refusal to engage in things that don't matter. But now I have empirical evidence of what life would be like without seemingly-important activity x. Some of the omissions really hurt. But many of them didn't. And those ones aren't getting let back in.

So what matters? In the short term, sitting down to a good meal with the people you love. In the long term, doing work that builds toward something meaningful and larger than oneself. There are variations on these themes worth including, but that's the main stuff. Everything else is expendable.


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