I’m worried I haven’t used this time well. So many of my friends have used the last two years to do amazing things, like have a baby or train for a new career, or buy a flat, while I have stayed exactly the same. No, that’s not quite right – I’ve got older! I can’t stop thinking about what I could or should have been doing while working from home. I haven’t got fitter, I haven’t been looking for a better job, I haven’t improved any of my relationships, or got into pilates, or even learned how to properly blow-dry my hair! I’m so disappointed in myself I could cry.
I know this feeling. I know the shape of it in your throat, a sour lozenge, sharp and unswallowable. Sitting on your bed as the light fades, your phone fully scrolled, your failures appear like ghosts, the things you could have done, the people you could have been. I think the pandemic’s been bad for this – these great beaches of time, littered with loneliness and doubt, people plodding emptily along with only their disappointment for company.
Of course there were the people who didn’t just survive but thrived, who made their first million in lockdown by doing something painful with computers, or trained for a marathon or built a shed or something equally bloody showy. There always are. Far more of us, though, were simply: having quite a hard time. We weren’t looking for teachable moments, or even opportunities to grow; we were doing our little walks and holding onto our little relationships and trying not to let anyone die. In the same way that I hate the idea that cancer is “sent” to us to “battle”, I find the concept of a pandemic as a self-improvement opportunity rather than simply an awful trial quite rotten and telling. Telling in that it illuminates how ingrained the story that we must be perpetually upgrading is in our culture, and our terror at being seen to stand still. Because, if we aren’t trying – if we aren’t finding a way to monetise a situation or better ourselves – then we are less worthy of care.
But even if we were not still standing in the low tide of a pandemic, isn’t the idea that we should all be focused on constantly improving ourselves a very damaging one? Where is the pleasure in a life grounded in the knowledge you’re not good enough? Sure, sure, some people enjoy the pressure, the constant agony, but lots do not – lots feel angry at themselves, lots feel like you, as if they could cry with disappointment, at their tiny daily failures, at the things they haven’t done. Lots feel so anxious or frozen that they cannot see the decent moments, the good bits.
What if we stopped working so hard to be fractionally smarter, or richer, or thinner, or more adorable? What if we accepted that this is who we are? If we realised that age is a trick – that there are times when our simple bodies are able to adapt and move and there are times when they are able only to sit under a blanket and watch Love is Blind with a mug of hot Ribena, but that soon the circle rolls back round. The aim is not the achievements – the baby, the career, the flat – the aim is contentment, satisfaction. The ability to hold your own hand and feel happy there, as you are.