On Productivity and Fear

No one is writing the next King Lear during the pandemic, but doing nothing doesn’t feel like enough.

By Study Hall staff writer Allegra Hobbs 

As I’m sure you’ve heard, Shakespeare wrote King Lear while under quarantine during the Bubonic plague. Musician Rosanne Cash tweeted out a reminder of this fact on March 14, just as the practice of social distancing was beginning to intensify and people began confining themselves to their homes, days before New York City mayor Bill de Blasio would order the shuttering of bars and restaurants citywide, and still roughly a week before what is effectively a shelter-in-place order came down from the Governor’s office. The concept of being trapped mostly indoors for the foreseeable future was fresher then than it is now; the terror of the reason for a state-mandated quarantine hadn’t fully set in. But even now — the novelty worn off, the terror all around us — there is a certain type of person who is inclined to view the grim prospect of continued quarantine as an opportunity. Or, rather, two types of people: goal-oriented productivity fetishists and believers in the creative potential of tragedy. 

I am neither. I have never measured my life in output; I have very few tangible goals; checking off a list of tasks doesn’t give me a sense of fulfillment. As for the creative potential of tragedy — the idea that a plague-induced Broadway shutdown could ultimately inspire great plays about human frailty and decline, à la Shakespeare — my response is more or less the same. So what if someone wrote a great play surrounded by a sea of dead bodies? Great art comes from all sorts of circumstances and is hardly a balm on large-scale loss of life. I tend to be an anti-literary killjoy in this regard, given my steadfast belief that the bad things that happen to you and those around you are not a narrative to make sense of or build upon. They are what they are. 

The backlash to Cash’s King Lear tweet took the form of very funny, mocking memes and earnest opinion pieces imploring us to resist the pressures of increased productivity during a pandemic. The New Republic made an argument for resisting voices telling us to optimize our time in quarantine. The New York Times urges us to “stop trying to be productive.” “Let’s be gentle with ourselves during this time,” insists the subhead of a Huffington Post piece by Monica Torres (which offers sound, applicable advice to those who do feel the pressure to produce a King Lear). But how gentle? As I flip through Instagram stories, a tattoo artist I follow tells me that if all I do all day is get out of bed, that’s enough. “Is it?” I think. Speaking for myself, I don’t think it is. 

I am finding the line between forgiving myself for my anxiety-induced paralysis and holding myself to a standard, even if it is a gentler, plague-conscious standard, which I have yet to define. Carrying on with normal life in the face of a pandemic seems absurd, but normal life does go on — mundane inconveniences, professional obligations, relationship strife. They all go on. I’m so turned upside down by the surrounding calamity, I don’t know what to make of these mundanities, how I am to act in relation to them; what is reasonable to expect of myself; and which of the feelings I’m having are normal, which are helpful, and which are disastrous. 

I was already an anxious person, prone to catastrophizing and obsessive thoughts of death, but now those tendencies haunt my every waking moment. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. I watch the number of virus cases multiply by the thousands and I imagine it will come for me or someone I love. I am nauseous most of the time; I feel a weight on my chest and like I can’t suck down enough air, a classic anxiety symptom I’ve experienced since childhood, and I tell myself that’s all it is. I frantically text any friend I haven’t heard from in several days to make sure they’re still healthy. I think about my parents and tell myself I’ll see them again when this is all over, but intrusive thoughts tell me that isn’t true, and that I effectively abandoned them when I left my grandmother’s home in Fort Worth in early March. 

And through all this, even though I often feel barely functional in a fog of terror and dread, I send emails that have nothing to do with the larger crisis. I usually do it from my bed and don’t shower until late afternoon. I wonder if I’m doing ok, if I’m doing enough. But when I wonder if I’m doing enough, it’s not because I glorify productivity or measure my worth in output. It’s more that I don’t want my life to grind to a halt in a time of heightened anxiety. To the extent that I can prevent it, I don’t want to mentally and emotionally deteriorate. I’d like to resist setting my life on fire while everything around me goes up in flames.

I don’t know when stubbornly pursuing normalcy crosses the line from healthy and resilient to oblivious and deranged. I don’t feel any pressure to produce a work of genius, or even to be more productive than usual while locked indoors. I also know that if all I do for a month is get out of bed and get back into bed then I’ll totally unravel. I feel it happening already, as remnants of normalcy slip away and my will to fight for them ebbs and flows from hour to hour. I’ve more or less lost the ability to maintain focus for prolonged periods, to become absorbed in a book, to enjoy a walk. When I step outside my apartment, my heart beats faster, and I make it a few blocks before turning back. 

“Doing something” feels increasingly distant, either tainted by foreboding or requiring some kind of fortitude I lack. But “doing nothing” has lost all its lightness. I wonder if that will change when all this is over, whatever that means — I kind of doubt that it will. But for now, I have to strike some balance between something and nothing and figure out how to get through the day. Maybe I’ll go through the motions of a normal life — or just a life, any life — while the sirens get louder and more frequent outside my window. Tomorrow I’ll check the news, get out of bed, and I’ll go through the motions again. 

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