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Please Don’t Conflate A Pandemic With A “Creative Retreat”

Getting by is 100000% worth celebrating — even without freshly-baked sourdough or a new blog.

Call it optimism or naivete (or some combination of the two), but when COVID hit and I escaped the frenzy of Manhattan for my childhood home in the suburbs, I thought it was going to be for a month, maybe two. Considering the fact that there was no playbook for this, I’m not sure where my confidence stemmed from when I asserted that I’d definitely be back in the city by Memorial Day — as if the arbitrary start of summer would somehow align with the public health forces that be. Alas, we all know how the story goes. 

In an effort to retain some semblance of normalcy in my life (and avoid rolling out of bed and onto Slack), I vowed to go for a walk every morning before work — just as I once did in the city, trekking 45 minutes from the east side all the way west to Hudson Yards. But as the days and, eventually, weeks began to blend together — muddled by an oppressive sense of mundanity — I found it harder and harder to get out of bed. Whereas I once relished the early-morning hours, I was now laying awake for 30, 45 minutes, an hour either passively watching Instagram stories or doomsday-scrolling through the news. With the world changing at a frighteningly rapid clip, time was marked by nothing but death — and that’s what I woke up to every morning.  

When I would eventually drag myself out of bed, a cloud of frustration would hang over me all morning. I knew that it was anything but a productive way to wake up, and yet I was doing it anyway. My energy was MIA, and when I thought about everything I crammed into a typical day in NYC (workout! walk to work! work! walk home! cook dinner! read! bed!), I felt a paralyzing wave of unproductivity — not just in the mornings but throughout the entire day. “Focus, Jacqueline,” I would tell myself, every time I stopped working to check the live COVID updates on the New York Times for the umpteenth time. “FOCUS.” 

I kept this uphill mental battle to myself because, really, who was I to complain? I had the luxury to still have a job, to be able to work from home, to have people around me, to have my health. So what if I was feeling “meh” and having a hard time concentrating? I neatly packed up all my feelings and tucked them away in the “it could be far worse” box. In the hierarchy of human suffering, I was ALLLLLLLLL the way at the bottom, I reminded myself. Plus, from the looks of it, everyone else in quarantine was doing, well, fine. People were baking sourdough and banana bread. They were starting blogs and buying art supplies. They were quote-unquote “taking advantage” of this time for creative pursuits — a message that communicated to me in no uncertain terms that I should be able to do the same. So why couldn’t I? 

Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman was one of the first to propose that attention is a limited resource, defined (in science speak) as “a reservoir of mental energy from which resources are drawn to meet situational attentional demands for task processing.” In other words, attention isn’t passive. It’s the very real work of expending limited resources. And when you throw anxiety into the mix, research shows that people will disproportionality focus their attention on the stimuli associated with the “threat” — which is understandable. When you’re nervous or anxious about something, THAT is where your mind goes. Given the fact that attention is finite, it makes sense why I had a hard time focusing on work during the middle of, ya know, a pandemic. I was trying to do everything that felt “normal” in a world that was anything but. No wonder it was hard. 

People are talking more and more now about the baseline level of anxiety that has become normalized over the past year (coined “languishing” by sociologist Corey Keyes), but at the time — when “social distancing” was the new phrase du jour and toilet paper was rapidly disappearing off the shelves — that conversation had yet to enter into the zeitgeist. 

In theory, I knew better than to fall into the comparative trap — a trap that would convince me I didn’t have the “right” to feel the way I did. And I definitely knew better than to trust the pretense of social media. But the haze, uncertainty, and paralyzing fear of COVID was clouding my vision. Ahh, hindsight. 

So for anyone who needs a reminder (as I often do), let me say this.

A pandemic is not a creative retreat. If you happened to pick up a new hobby or side hustle over the course of the past year, amazing. All the more power to you — especially if it helped you cope with what was happening in the world. But if you just got by and didn’t “produce” anything or “create” anything or become some sort of multi-hyphenate writer-sourdough baker-artist-blogger talent, that’s fine too. It’s great, actually. Because when the world throws curveball after curveball (after curveball) at us, it takes strength and resolve to power through. To keep on keepin’ on, buoyed by the hope that there will be a light somewhere, somehow, eventually. And THAT, my friends, is worth celebrating — even without freshly-baked sourdough or a new blog.

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