This week, a friend I haven’t seen for a while said to me over lunch, ‘We just don’t seem to have our routine back yet.’ He and his wife had a third kid recently, and moved to a new area. They’re tired, and everything just feels a bit harder than it should, like the treadmill’s accidentally been set to an incline.
It’s been growing like a refrain, like a consensus, these past few months. Almost everyone I talk to tells the same story of feeling overwhelmed, of not quite coping – or nowhere near coping.
Actually, they all tell different stories: illness is a common theme, obviously, but also accidents, relationship breakdowns, workplace dramas, flood damage, mental health flare-ups, and on and on. All of us telling ourselves that the current circumstances are an exception, that things will ease off soon. Surely!
My personal configuration of not-coping includes a bout of glandular fever succeeded by tonsillitis and then Covid, plus an imminent wedding and interstate move. I’ve gotten off comparatively easily with all of it, to be honest, but also … I couldn’t exactly say I’m coping. I can’t even get it together to write that most soothing of panaceas, a to-do list. Instead, scraps of paper crammed with wild jottings litter my living room like the scattered leaves of the Cumaean Sibyl.
Do most of us, post-lockdown, mid-2022, feel a bit like a plane teetering around and around the runway, not quite getting off the ground with each attempt? Like butter scraped over too much bread, say?
Last week I had a dream where I was cooking potatoes for many many people and very very badly. I kept dropping the potatoes on the floor, or forgetting about the potatoes, or plainly not having any idea how to cook potatoes. Subtle, brain. Subtle. Even my subconscious is phoning it in these days.
‘I am lying on the floor SURROUNDED BY POTATOES,’ I wailed to my fiancé on speakerphone (I was literally lying on the floor, exhausted, at the time. The potatoes, you understand, were metaphorical and also possibly spiritual).
Here is the paragraph where I’m meant to shift towards some form of solution/epiphany. Sorry to disappoint (consider it just one more inadequately cooked potato), but I don’t have any answers to what I increasingly see as our collective late-Covid (mid-Covid?!?) funk.
I will say that, for me, the healthiest thing about the whole experience of not coping has been the reminder of my own fragility and my dependence on other people, including on their forbearance and forgiveness when I let them down. The blow to my pride – my self-conception as someone reliable, resilient, competent, productive – is probably (begrudgingly) salutary.
A decade on, is not coping the new busy?
I knew this already, in theory. My go-to manual for ‘potato-cooking’ (and everything else) is the Bible, of which human weakness is a major theme. The Apostle Paul, tired and overwhelmed, enduring shipwrecks and beatings and imprisonments and illness, describes humans as ‘jars of clay‘ – containing a great treasure. Feeling especially clayey right now, his words resonate more loudly than usual.
In his 2010 book Hamlet’s Blackberry, the writer and technologist William Powers tells the story of an immigrant friend of his who developed the habit of answering the question ‘How are you?’ with a huge smile and the answer ‘Busy, very busy!’ She had concluded from interaction with Americans that this was simply the default response – the ‘Fine, thank you’ of our time.
A decade on, is not coping the new busy?
The personal and political realities of mid-2022 raise plenty of thorny and necessary questions: about understaffing and overwork, about the allocation of resources (especially in fields like healthcare), about current Covid messaging, and much more.
We’re going to need to muster quite a bit of energy if we’re to address any of these questions. For just a moment here, though, why not join me on the floor, and let the potato chips fall where they may. They’ll still be there tomorrow.
Natasha Moore is a Senior Research Fellow with the Centre for Public Christianity. She has a PhD in English Literature from Cambridge and is the author, most recently, of The Pleasures of Pessimism. She’s not exactly coping right now.
This article first appeared in Eureka Street.