Without wanting to sound tedious (vain hope given my quarantine started on March 9th), I’ve spent a significant portion of my time in isolation, when not staring vacantly into the fridge, reflecting on my privilege. Now me, my partner, and it seems most (though not all) of my family have recovered from the virus, my focus has shifted, or expanded, from feeling lucky my family are still breathing, to feeling lucky I have family. How quickly that transition can happen when one more basic need is met, makes me think of the little triangle associated with Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’. For those who aren’t familiar, this is Abraham Maslow’s psychological theory (usually presented in triangle form) which states that people are motivated by five basic categories of need. At the foundational level, there are ‘physiological’ needs (breathing, food, sleep etc), above that ‘safety’ (health, home, employment etc), then ‘love’ (intimacy, friends and family, connection), then ‘esteem’ (freedom, respect, recognition), and, at the pinnacle, something called: ‘self-actualisation’.
The latter refers to personal fulfilment - the feeling that we are living up to our potential. This will mean something different for everyone, from helping others to artistic achievements. According to Maslow, achieving self-actualisation is relatively rare, and his examples of self-actualised individuals include Albert Einstein and Mother Teresa. While it would be totally understandable to be lying prone somewhere between the middle and the base of this triangle right now, floored by illness, shock, grief, or fear, it’s surprised me how many people (albeit via performative platforms such as social media) appear primarily concerned with self-actualisation and how to optimise personal productivity - far beyond the financial need to make ends meet. Often they are moralistic in tone, implying some kind of divine judgment will befall us if we don’t master a complex new skill by the end of confinement. I haven’t seen many posts like this on my own feed - another reason I count myself lucky - and I’m not talking about key workers of course, who have little time to spend on social media, but the well-meaning Type A personalities who think the coronavirus outbreak is an opportune time to bash out that novel or embark on some seismic self-improvement. They seem to view all the exponential virus graphs as a challenge to accelerate. As a recent New York Times article by Roger Cohen put it: ‘A stilled world may open a space for individual growth.’self
Maybe lockdown is breeding virtual presenteeism, and there’s enough preaching and police-drone snitching going on, so please don’t think I’m shading those who can be productive at a time like this. If it helps you assuage anxiety or you genuinely have the urge rather than feel pressure to keep up, then by all means continue - but it saddens me when so many of my friends are berating themselves for having ‘so much time’ and being ‘so unproductive’ with it. I’m sure a part of what fuels this is the nagging sense that what we normally think of as productive is currently rendered futile. Everything is weightless. The future is suspended.
If this ‘stilled world’ does open up a space for something, I would hope it is communal in nature. I hope it separates the value of living from capitalist notions of productivity. Johanna Hevda has written of her belief that illness and revolution have more in common than able-bodied, non-chronically sick people might think. Maybe ‘doing nothing’ is the revolution. Re focusing our energies from self-optimisation to communal maintenance. As Jenny Odell writes in her prescient 2019 book ‘How to Do Nothing’, repurposing the American order to ‘shelter in place’, ‘To resist in place is to make oneself into a shape that cannot so easily be appropriated by a capitalist value system. To do this means refusing the frame of reference: in this case, a frame of reference in which value is determined by productivity, the strength of one’s career, and individual entrepreneurship.’
It’s a totally legitimate response to a pandemic not to feel motivated, nor to tick anything off your list except ‘wake up’.