When the pandemic got really bad and I started working from home I treated it like New Year’s Eve. I figured with all this extra time not commuting to work and school, I could accomplish the things I’d been meaning to do. I pulled out my journal and wrote a list: start writing again and get published. Prepare for the LSAT. Wake up early every morning for breakfast. Read more. Exercise for at least an hour.
My resolutions failed, just like they always fail that first month of January.
These extra hours we were given came with a price of their own. The energy I saved getting to work became energy I spent dealing with emotionally taxing situations throughout the day.
I worked at a credit union, and when the pandemic hit, I began taking customer service calls from home. I saw many people suffer. I observed accounts that once flourished, go into negatives. I talked to people who were living on CERB. I saw people’s businesses destroyed. An older lady once told me that she felt as if I was her therapist. I had spent nearly an hour on the phone with her because she couldn’t figure out her online banking without her son helping her. I laughed at the time. But it’s sad to think about now, how many people I became either a therapist to, or a punching bag. I was a therapist for the granny who was quarantining alone and had no idea how to use her computer to pay her bills… or the father who’d been robbed but had to pay for his son’s funeral… or the boy who was my age who was getting caught up in a bitcoin scam but didn’t believe me when I tried to tell him so.
I was there talking to people about their financial security, one of the most important aspects of our lives (especially during a pandemic) and I felt completely useless. Half of it stemmed from not being able to do more for the people who were struggling, and the other half was that I had no energy to be productive after my exhausting workday.
When I got off work, I would walk the one metre from my desk to my bed and pass out. I worked the whole day and somehow, I still felt unproductive. The feeling of uselessness and worthlessness would not go away. It was like an itch I couldn’t scratch.
My anxieties were further fueled reading think pieces about how we should be optimizing all this extra time. Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a quarantine. I watched endless videos on top ten tips for productivity in the pandemic.
Having more time to mindlessly scroll through social media didn’t help either. It felt terrible seeing so many people use their time to satisfy their creative needs and put out amazing content on TikTok when I wished I could do more creative things. With each day of the pandemic, the disappointment of not doing anything productive and the anxiety of failure continued to weigh down on me. Why was I not optimizing all my time like the girl bosses and tech bros were?
I realize that the things I was lacking, that so many of us lack, is not time but energy.
I never paused to reflect on the toll the pandemic was taking on my mental health. I kept searching for what was wrong with me instead of letting myself off the hook that I was doing my best, given the circumstances.
Our government was clueless, people were dying around us, while some continued to fight COVID-19 mandates at everyone’s expense. The world was in chaos like I’ve never seen before, and I’m beating myself up over not waking up early?
What I eventually came to realize, is that the problem in our society is that our value as individuals is inherently tied to the work we do. We are all in a rat race to improve ourselves in an increasingly hyper-competitive market. I have internalized this mindset to the point I can’t even watch Netflix without feeling like there is something more productive I should be doing.
This is not a new problem. Capitalism has existed for eons and will probably always exist. But sometimes I just want to shut off my mind and be ignorant to the multitude of things I need to do to be considered a valuable member of society.
Resting when you’re constantly oriented towards productivity should not come with a heaping scoop of guilt. When I think about all the writing I haven’t done yet, all the studying I need to do, or the new books I bought that are just collecting dust. I realize I’ve become fixated on being productive to the point where I can’t even enjoy the things I want to do without feeling as if they’re a chore.
Now, two years into this pandemic, I realize that the things I was lacking, that so many of us lack, is not time but energy. Even with this self-awareness, I still haven’t been able to fully unplug myself from this mind-numbing obsession. As long as I remain an individual who has to work to be of value to society, I’m not so sure I can untangle myself from the grips of toxic productivity.