Life in the time of quarantine: grieving projects & telling new stories about ourselves.

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I want to speak about grief. Not the grief we feel at the loss of a person or relationship, but the grief we feel for projects, plans and visions of the near and middle future. Loss felt when a relationship or job is taken from us without our consent is felt more keenly, and is, I think, what many of us are experiencing now. If we are fortunate enough to be well and untouched by the virus trampling the modern world, we will be letting go of schedules, goals, outcomes, acquisitions, recognitions, platforms, opportunities and mental vistas made of these specific things. That’s not to say that they won’t appear wearing different hats and guises but even when trying to imagine this new crowd, we want to know:  who, what, where, why and (excruciatingly) when?

There’s not only a need for the sort of new, up-lifting stories organisations and individuals are consciously sharing online, but vitally – in the death of old habits, we need to tell new stories about ourselves, to ourselves. Is this really necessary? I hear…from the version of me content to incubate into my parents’ rural home and watch the Alien trilogy. Rather like a society that pretends to have the answers, only to see them ravaged by bat poo (see the poss’ origin of ‘Covid 19’), if we dismiss the need for new personal stories, it will come back to bite us. 

Am I buying into the perspective of self-development culture? Yes, a bit. But it comes from winning stripes in the area of putting old identity stories in the bin. Over the past 18 months, I’ve let go of two office roles where I could neither make an impactful contribution or be supported to thrive. The grief surrounding these little deaths was not only about money so much as identity –  and not even identity attached to a title, but rather one attached to generational values – of sacrificing one’s potential for stability and thereby, not to being a burden to others. I’ve since replaced this culturally entrenched story with the maxim that I’m of little use to society if I can’t use the experience, skills and talents peculiar to me in ways I feel confident and safe. If this means profound lack of resources at any point, this is my chosen sacrifice. 

We have encountered a terrible social-economic leveller in ‘the virus’ –  we can’t define ourselves by our work or income if it has been taken away…or if bigger, overshadowing things (like life) are at stake. If we are no longer deriving self-image from the people, places and things we usually encounter, where does that leave us? The ego wants to feel useful or significant, not happy. Amendment –  the ego sees usefulness and significance in the eyes of others as a fast-track to happiness. 

Is the opportunity here just to find new ways of working and connecting with others? No, I don’t think so. Self isolation (I humbly suggest) is an opportunity to experience self-value as something separate from how others relate to us. Other people are often unreliable mirrors. Indeed, sadly, it can suit other people to try and make us doubt how: valuable/useful/pleasant/attractive/talented/successful/competent/accepted we are. So here’s a notion I’m twiddling with –  how about doing away with the word ‘career’ during social distancing and thinking about ‘vocation.’ I don’t mean cassocks. I mean, what motivates you? Or as Lee Strasbourg might say ‘what’s your motivation?’

A few months after drawing a line under being an ‘employee,’ I woke up with a strange bubbling sensation in the pit of my stomach. It was desire to do something. And the feeling was there because I had committed to filling days with what I’m compelled to do – writing and producing. Fast-forward to a country in quarantine and my plans and projects are looking distorted and taking on new dimensions. I grieved their elegance and imminent wins for a day. 

What remains is the desire to write regardless of immediate financial reward, and to produce, irrespective of confirmed timelines. I’m doing these things because this is who I am and what I have to offer. This particular creative matrix is my vocation. I know from the experience of being brought back to life by this vocation, that I cannot lose my sense of identity or grieve plans for too long if I stick to it. However, this isn’t my isolation story. We have a choice as to who we want to be in these unprecedented circumstances. I want my new story to be about actioning strengths and passions irrespective of feedback and while appreciating the people around me. I can only guess that divorcing vocation from external incentives will incur great emotional gains rather than losses. I’m not suggesting that if you are a food engineer, you should start experimenting with your pet’s diet or that if you are a hairdresser, you should gift your family cuts while they sleep. I am suggesting that the latent motivation behind those activities is worth exploring…

I write this while acknowledging that not everyone will have a luxury of time to explore what truly motivates them, especially parents of young children. But I hope that you will find solitary moments to choose a new story at this pivotal time without the influence of an echo-chamber.

Image: Bisbrooke village, Rutland.


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