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Monday, 23 March 2020

HOW AM I FEELING?

The first thing to note is that this is a selfish blog post. At this time there are people all around the world doing amazing things: saving lives, looking after the most vulnerable, alleviating suffering and generally keeping things ticking along. Writing a blog post about how I am feeling seems more than a little self-indulgent. However, I feel unable to do too much else at present.

Basically I feel scared. I guess that's what a pandemic will do to you. I even feel scared writing this blog post. I feel under pressure to come up with something unique and interesting, and to express myself in a way that resonates profoundly with other people. I feel pressurized to create content that is going to go viral, and I am disconcerted that this should have taken on such significance for me. My primary way of interacting with the outside world is now via social media, and I can already feel myself starting to measure my self-worth in retweets and likes, and even to kid myself that these are valid substitutes for actually earning the money that will enable me to pay the bills.

Of course, I am worried about paying the bills as well. I am scared that the career I have built up over the last decade is unraveling in a way I cannot control. Furthermore, I look around and I see other writers, performers and freelancers seemingly starting to do interesting, innovative things involving the internet and technology, and I feel angry at myself for being unable to pivot in this direction at the drop of a hat. My career as a visiting poet in schools is supposed to be based on nothing more than my voice and my pen, and it began as a very slow-burning affair as I built up contacts and a reputation, and developed my writing. Now it feels like I am expected to change my whole approach overnight, and this feels scary. Normally I am pretty good at not comparing myself to others, but at this time it feels impossible not to, and I feel like I am being left behind, choking on mouthfuls of seawater as others surge ahead on speedboats. I have no idea how I am going to make money over the coming weeks, months and, dare I say it, years, which makes me feel anxious, and the more anxiety I feel the less able I feel to be creative and entrepreneurial. It is a vicious circle. I have always let my career develop somewhat organically, not thinking too far into the future, and I have been lucky enough that the quality of my writing and performance has propelled me in a direction that has enabled me to make a living. No more, apparently.

And of course I feel scared that people are becoming ill and dying. I am scared for my grandparents and mother-in-law. I can see society changing, and I have never felt comfortable with change. I can also see society refusing to change, which makes me angry too. I feel that the current situation is bringing out both the best and the worst in people. From the nurse working a twenty-hour shift to Karen and Susan stockpiling hand-sanitizer; from people volunteering to deliver shopping to elderly neighbours to morons in collective denial and arrogance gathering in pubs, restaurants and parks. I am angry that people are not following the government's advice, and I am angry that the government, up until very recently, have not been providing particularly clear directives in the first place. And it's not like I'm a doctor, nurse, delivery driver or shop worker. I don't do anything nearly as productive or useful. There is nowhere for this anger to go other than into what you are now reading, and the more anger goes into it the less coherence, elegance and profundity emerges, which makes me feel even more angry. Another vicious circle.

With all this in mind, I have heard a lot about the impact of Coronavirus on people with pre-existing health problems. What I have seen much less of is discussion about its impact on people with pre-existing mental health problems. The aforementioned anxiety and anger are to a large extent natural corollaries of the current situation, but they also bespeak my particular pre-existing mental health concerns. In addition to this, the nature of my OCD, with which I have been suffering intermittently for the last few years, is that it latches onto entirely irrational worries. This hasn't gone away: what has happened is that the real and the unreal, the rational and the irrational, the appropriate and the inappropriate, has blended together and churns in my mind like streaks of coloured paint swirling around in choppy water. One minute I find myself worrying about something understandable (like where the mortgage money is going to come from, or whether there will even be a job to go back to once this is over), the next I find myself ruminating on something really esoteric and weird. And it just keeps oscillating and swirling. I always thought that my OCD was something like a defence mechanism, stopping me worrying about real-life concerns. I had this fantasy that, were something of truly monumental global significance to really happen, I would be snapped out of my OCD. Not so. One does not cancel out the other; the sum total of anxiety simply increases, and the circles get ever more vicious.

So far so self-indulgent. However, in amongst all the anxiety I do sense a subtle yet very real shift, somewhere deep inside me. The famous Rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, states, "when I was young, I used to admire intelligent people; as I grow older I admire kind people." This quotation captures something of what I have in mind. I don't know if it was inculcated in me or if it just simply happened, but I grew up viewing intelligence as the apotheosis of all human attributes (I just used the words 'inculcated' and 'apotheosis' - go figure). I also grew up thinking that the more high-status one's job, the more worthwhile that person somehow was. I don't think this was a conscious thought, but it was always latent within me. What is going on now has forced me to change perspective. We are seeing small acts of kindness every day, acts which make a real difference to human lives and which do not depend in any way on high levels of intelligence or formal education. We are also seeing how society cannot function without those who do the jobs that people such as me tend to take totally for granted, and usually not even notice. We are seeing that shop workers, delivery drivers, mechanics and mail workers keep our lives afloat and therefore deserve far more credit (and no doubt money) than we usually give them. Just one of these people is worth more than twenty stockbrokers or hedge fund managers. Maybe all this is not news to anyone else, and I suppose I always knew it in an abstract sort of way, but now is the first time I am really experiencing it first hand. We are basically seeing that what counts is not status or Intelligence Quotient; it is dedication, determination and Kindness Quotient.

Perhaps in time I will come to see this realisation as an unexpected gift bestowed on me by the pandemic.


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