With another lockdown pending in England, and strict measures already in place in some English cities and the rest of the UK, I can’t be the only one feeling like 2020 is a write off and we should all just hibernate and hope for better news.
For many people, of course, the ongoing shitshow story of 2020 means what should have been personal milestones have been overshadowed by the pandemic: starting new jobs or new families, going to university, watching your kids start school. So many of us have also seen our hopes put on hold, sometimes indefinitely. The extension of lockdown measures can make it feel like we’ve lost a whole year, and that’s time we’ll never get back.
I work in the arts, which of course is a sector that’s been particularly badly affected. I’ve seen friends who were on the cusp of success they’ve worked hard for snatched away as their breakthrough shows, book launches, and film shoots were cancelled or postponed. Jobs, incomes, careers – these have vanished overnight, often with little communication and even less support. And hanging over it all for so many is the fear that this is it: we’ll never recover. If you’re my age – well, you start to wonder how many years you have left to achieve The Thing and wonder if you’ve run out of time already (in my own life, two sudden and unexpected family bereavements also induced a sense of urgency, a heart-breaking reminder that you never know how much time you have). If you’re young, you may be left feeling that the narrow window you have to make your mark on the world just got a whole lot narrower.
With opportunities in short supply and the advantages of privilege rendered even starker, there’s never been greater pressure to be productive or a greater need to hustle than now – at a time when many feel like even the smallest thing is a challenge, and when creativity, energy and productivity have evaporated faster than a politician’s promise.
Sure, there are exceptions – though we’d do well to remember that despite appearances, they are exceptions, not the norm. It’s easy to see someone’s smart pivot to digital and feel a failure because you can’t do the same; to feel inadequate because your timeline is full of people who seem to be coping so much better than you are. Some of this, of course, is illusion – the ones who you think are thriving are the ones crying into their laptops at 1am. Some is luck or (often invisible) privilege – I’ve seen plenty of acquaintances whose productivity is, yes, admirable, but is also bankrolled behind the scenes by their spouse or parents (easier to spend time creating when you’re not worried about paying the bills, or have sufficient connections and networks to know that when the industry comes back, so will you). Sometimes, people are just better at some stuff than you are. Raging at that fact will only add anger and envy to an already toxic heap of emotions.
Where I’ve found salvation is small actions. I naively went into this lockdown anxious about money and work, yes, but also optimistic: I’d finally crack on with all those projects that needed doing and that a busy life got in the way of. I have a book due (well, overdue, if I’m honest) and a whole load of other Big Things that I had planned – now was my time! Instead I found myself bingeing trashy TV (and not even new stuff, which took too much effort, thereby compounding my sense of failure: I couldn’t even keep up with the cool shows people were watching in lockdown!). My motivation went AWOL – what was the point of finishing a book if no one would have any money to buy it? If it might never see the light of day?
There were also practical problems. Time spent writing my book was time not spent looking for other, more immediately profitable work. And people often forget that while writing a manuscript is (mostly) a one-person job, producing a book is a team effort. With every person in my production process facing the same issues I was (or worse, such as health crises or childcare demands), delays were inevitable at every stage, and I struggled to find any motivation to produce something when it felt like it could take years to come to fruition.
So, I focused on small acts. Small acts of generosity – I can’t afford much, but I could manage to send a bar of chocolate or a card to a friend having a bad week. Small acts of kindness – I’m stuck at home and I don’t drive so I can offer little in practical assistance, but I can arrange a group Zoom and include a friend I know is feeling lonely and isolated. And small acts of creativity – I’m stalled on my book, but I can do a cross-stitch while I’m watching TV and look at the finished product and see A Thing That I Made, and remind myself that while one form of creativity might feel barren right now, others aren’t.
And when you start thinking in those terms, you can appreciate your own achievements much more, even when they don’t seem that important. Beyond the obvious MASSIVE successes (you are keeping yourself – and maybe other humans and animals in your family – alive right now) your life is likely littered with small triumphs, and brimming with more creativity than you realise. Baked a cake or some scones or, yes, a sourdough? What could be more creative and productive and self-sustaining than that? Carved a pumpkin for your kids’ Halloween or helped them draw an NHS banner for the window? Go, you! That’s art, that is. Did some winged eyeliner or put on lipstick for that Zoom? Well, that’s so damn extra I’m proud of you.
Yes, we need big dreams and big actions and big changes in the world. It’s admirable to strive for them, and it’s OK to yearn for them and miss them when you feel your life is stalled. But the one gift of this shitty, shitty time is that in making our lives (hopefully temporarily) smaller, we get to focus on the little things – and to see that added up, they aren’t so little after all.
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