These Are Not Conditions in Which to Thrive

I wake up most mornings feeling like life is at a funny angle, tilted just a few degrees to the left. It’s as if we got out of bed one day in an alternate universe. We are living in a fundamentally different world than we were a few weeks ago, and we can’t pretend that nothing has changed. The time for pep talks has come and gone. I’m not going to motivate you to be your best self. Forget about chasing your dreams. Forget about fighting your fear and conquering the world. Our old notions of productivity and individuality don’t belong in this new abnormal. They won’t help us get through our dread.

These are not conditions in which to thrive, not for any of us. This is a time to survive. Your only responsibility is to get through today.

I understand the impulse to reframe this moment as an inspiring opportunity. Wouldn’t it be nice if this pandemic — this period of social distancing and shelter-in-place orders — was a no-strings-attached gift of free time and focus? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could take all that time we spent commuting and attending obligatory social events and instead use it for ourselves? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could prioritize our true purpose: our creative ventures, our unlaunched hustles, writing our King Lear?

That would be nice. But that’s not where we are. We still get to live with all the bullshit we dealt with before, only now there are more layoffs, fewer healthcare benefits, more push notifications, less safety for our loved ones. Rent still needs to be paid. Debt payments still need to be paid. Groceries still need to be bought. We live with more uncertainty, more danger, more grief. This is not a #coronacation, it’s a psychological onslaught.

Just get through the day.

As our minds struggle to process this new normal, our muscles tense up and brace for the unknown. Our bodies throb with stress hormones as we live in a state of constant hyperarousal. All of that stress builds up in our bodies until we release it through exercise, which is easier said than done when we’re trapped inside our homes. If you’ve broken down in sudden caustic sobs, that’s your body searching for an outlet for all that cortisol.

conditions in which to thriveWe are not going to be as productive as we were before. Anyone who urges you to keep striving has a product they’re trying to sell. Our energy is pulled in too many directions: watching the kids, worrying about our parents, flinching at the thought of our bank balances. Our bodies are operating with less. This is not weakness; it’s biology.

Social distancing and shelter-in-place orders also cut us off from crucial parts of our identities. We don’t get the office chatter, the weekly dinner with friends, the daily coffee from the bodega down the street. As my friend Bruce King put it, “Finding meaning and purpose is now up to each of us more than we have known in a very long time. So much of what has defined us has disappeared or at least been put on hold.”

That project you’ve been working on for months, the culmination of which was going to be the highlight of you career? That’s suspended. The apartment hunt you were in the middle of? Postponed on account of pandemic. We need to recognize how much that sucks, and then we need to mourn the lives we knew. Hopefully we’ll get them back, but we may not know them for a while.

“We are all grieving our lives as they once were,” Anne Helen Petersen wrote in her March 22nd newsletter. “It’s already clear that those lives will not return as they once were: there will be no all-clear signal, no magical reversion to 2019 day-to-day-life. What happens over the next few months will affect how we think of work, and domestic division of labor, friendship, and intimacy.”

One part of life pre-COVID19 that we need to throw out immediately is the portrait of heroism we know best. There is no time for the office overachiever or the “move fast and break things” entrepreneur. Heroism now looks like the stranger who pitches in to help his elderly neighbors, the student who skips her spring break vacation, the manager who cuts their employees slack. Heroism is the parent trying to homeschool his kids. Heroism is the local journalist covering hospital updates from her living room sofa and the White House correspondent pressing the President on his lies. Heroism is embodying the spirit of our parents and grandparents who lived through World War II, keeping calm and carrying on.

The truth is this moment isn’t a gift. It’s an unwanted trial. It’s this era’s international crisis that we must rise to meet, the likes of which we haven’t experienced in decades. For many of us, it’s our first in living memory. If this is an opportunity to unlock an elevated version of ourselves, it’s as generous and responsible citizens who sacrifice for the common good.

There’s a meme floating around that says, “Our grandparents were asked to go to war, we’re just asked to sit on the couch.” But this moment demands a lot more than sitting idly at home. Our homes are not always safe places, especially for domestic violence victims. Home isn’t safe for those of us who fight a personal war against mental illness, struggling to keep the darkness in our minds at bay. Home may not exist for the suddenly unemployed if our elected officials fail to push for a rent-freeze. Home doesn’t exist for the hundreds of thousands who live on the street and are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19.

This is not going to be inspiring or invigorating—it will be terrible. It already is terrible. Here in the United States, it’s a totally predictable worst-case scenario come to life during a corrupt and incompetent Presidential administration. This will fundamentally change our world, and in the short term, that change is for the worst. People are already dying. The economy is tanking. Families are fighting and grieving and separated and afraid. A billion little tragedies play out behind closed doors every single day. It is too much for the human mind to process and too much for the heart to handle.

These are not conditions in which to thrive. Just get through the damn day. If that’s all you accomplish, that’s enough.

I’m proud of you. Stay well.



Did you appreciate this essay? Please help support my writing by leaving me a tip here.


(Photo by visuals on Unsplash)

Posted by

Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.

16 thoughts on “These Are Not Conditions in Which to Thrive

  1. A Facebook friend shared this earlier and I finally had a chance to read it. Coincidentally the timing was perfect: I’m a public high school teacher of senior English in California and Gov. Newsom just announced we will not return to the classroom this school year. There will be Distance Learning but no end of the year events like prom, and graduation. I’m still in shock but wanted to thank you for your thoughts. Distance Learning seems “easier” but I’m pretty overwhelmed learning new technology and try to maintain continuity for my students. I hope it is okay with you that I share this with my students. I know that they are also overwhelmed.

  2. I realize I may not be the target audience for this, but for me, fundamentally, all the shelter in place thing has done is make other people get a taste of what my regular life is like. I am disabled, I have literally no social contacts other than a tiny number of problematic family ties, I already spend most of my life indoors too depressed to do anything and with severe anxiety about getting sick from other people’s germs. I already wash my hands until the skin cracks, with or without a pandemic. (And this is with over 15 years of therapies and medications.)

    Those other people get to quit doing it in a month or two, I am stuck with it for life, and to be honest, I resent the big ado that is being made about “it’s been three days inside, I miss hugs” or whatever. I don’t get touched by any living thing for months at a time these days. I never had any of those luxuries and all I get to see is people feeling sorry for themselves for having to temporarily cut down on things. I don’t have “the office chatter, the weekly dinner with friends, the daily coffee from the bodega down the street”. I never had those, and never will have them.

    What are people like me supposed to feel about this situation? It feels like I am being told that the reality of my life is the worst case scenario one can be made to live through, and that it’s a terrible, life-changing burden to have to go through for only a few weeks already.

    That said, I’m sorry if it seems like I am picking out your post in particular; I’ve just read so many takes about what this quarantine situation should/should not mean to people, I just could not stay silent any longer. I’ll understand if you choose to not post this comment, or delete it after it posts. Like Lili, I guess I feel overlooked in all these things, though of course in a different way. Lili, thanks for what you do. I know it means very little, but I do appreciate the people who keep things running.

  3. Ella, sometimes we have to let the past go. The good old days aren’t coming back. I think we can do more than just get through the day.

  4. This article makes me feel like something is wrong with me. Why don’t I apparently feel the way the rest of the world is feeling. I’m finally getting rest, catching up on work and things around the house which I haven’t been able to do in 17 years of being self-employed, checking in on loved ones and friends more than ever, helping my parents and loved ones get supplies they need and being able to have time to be of service. Well I realize the things going on in the world are very sad, they are out of my control and all I can do is do my part to stay home and try and help people from a distance. Why don’t I feel sad? My husband is a physician in the hospital and I’ve had to close my business but I am not sad. I just feel like Im not worrying about things outside my control and live in the present. I don’t understand why there’s something wrong with me because of that. And why I should be worried about all these things outside of my control. I hope this isn’t come off wrong this is my honest feeling and I would love someone to explain to me why I feel this way when most others don’t.

    1. Yes I agree with you. I feel the same way as you do. I worked hard all my life. Now feel I have time to do things that, I had put on my back selves. I am having time to realize what my life has truly being missing. That is doing what I want to do verses what I felt I needed to do. This has played a big roll in my life am happy to be where my heart is fill with love & joy rather then stress and anxiety to be in such a busy life no time for myself and my love ones.

    2. shes not saying something is wrong with you, she is talking about those who are worried, trying to help calm the panic. It sounds like you might just have a healthy mind when not all of us have that luxury. So no there isnt anything wrong with you she is literally talking about those who don’t have it so good, those who arent capable of feeling calm because of mental illness, and abuse and the many things that are wrong with us as humans. You sound like you are doing perfectly fine, and I honestly don’t understand why you felt the need to even say comments. So no sir, you have it together enough and you are VERY FORTUNATE to not be feeling the fear that those like me with severe anxiety and depression out of my own control, or those who are stuck at home with abusive family members and cannot get away. So good for you that you managed to stay calm thru all this, but no sir something isnt wrong with you, something is wrong with me.

    3. I think you’re one of the few lucky ones who have found keys to happiness and embrace them. I believe Ella is addressing the mass majority who are struggling and telling them that it’s okay, but I think that you know it’s okay to be happy, too. Addressing a problem in any way that you can, and then letting it go (as you do), keeping a list of all of the things I’m grateful for, smiling all the time, living in the present, are some things that keep me happy always. I can especially appreciate it, because I have spent time in my life with major chronic depression, and before that, severe anxiety. But no matter how you get there, being happy is always okay and there is clearly nothing wrong with you.

    4. I think you’re one of the few lucky ones who have found keys to happiness and embrace them. I believe Ella is addressing the mass majority who are struggling and telling them that it’s okay, but I think that you know it’s okay to be happy, too. Addressing a problem in any way that you can, and then letting it go (as you do), keeping a list of all of the things I’m grateful for, smiling all the time, living in the present, are some things that keep me happy. And I particularly appreciate it because I once had major chronic depression, and before that, severe anxiety. No matter how you get there, there is nothing wrong with being happy, and there is nothing wrong with you, Rachel.

  5. Ella, I really enjoy your content, and I too am tired of seeing people trying to turn this tragedy into “good news”. I think it is absolutely indecent to be rejoicing about any of the consequences of this crisis. However, may I point out that you seem to be writing as though everyone is actually not working / working from home, that everyone is actually at home. As someone who works in a small-town food shop that is currently under a huge amount of pressure, I am working more than ever, half my team is sick and quarantined, my customers are scared, it is very difficult to have the mental energy to handle all the new logistics + the anxious atmosphere, and I too am scared to get sick, or get my family sick. And so are all the people who work in factories, postal services, amazon warehouses, delivery, pharmacies, cleaning, and above all healthcare workers. We are all leaving home everyday to go to our unsafe, contaminated, overloaded workplaces. I agree with everything you said in your post, but the voices of people who still have to work outside of the home need to be heard in this time too, we too have had our lives dramatically altered, but we do not have the time to write about it.

Leave a Reply to Ruby Dhaliwal Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s