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My first week in self-isolation was a flurry of enterprise and initiative. I don’t mean to boast, but it’s astonishing how much I managed to get done.
My biggest achievement? I watched almost half a season of the hit Australian competitive-cooking, reality-TV show My Kitchen Rules , a dozen 60-minute episodes, devoured as ravenously as a vegemite buffet. Of course, this demanded commitment and intractable resolve, and there were more than a few evenings when, howling at the screen in agony as Manu Feildel lambasted another auspicious dish for being served without adequate sauce, I seriously considered abandoning the endeavour.
But this is an extraordinary moment, and the last thing I want, emerging on the other side of social distancing, is to feel I could have done more with my time. And My Kitchen Rules has 11 seasons.
An unexpected consequence of the coronavirus pandemic is that we have suddenly been endowed with a colossal surplus of time. More daunting than the time itself seems the continuing prospect of it — the huge expanse of unused time still to come, stretching out ahead like a collective sabbatical.
We’re now being advised that social distancing measures, such as the closure of non-essential businesses, could persist in something like their current form for as many as eight months, which means we might have to spend the rest of the year sequestered in our apartments, forbidden to leave except to pick up groceries once a fortnight. In the absence of bars and restaurants, without concerts or cinemas, deprived of parties and dates, we are facing a period of superabundant leisure. The spare time is ours to use. Or to waste.
Without a doubt, you’ve already been alerted to this. An estranged second cousin, two since-married ex-boyfriends or maybe the cheerleading captain who was mean to you in high school has probably helpfully announced on Facebook, soon after social distancing protocols were enacted, that when London was ordered under quarantine in the early 17th century as a result of the plague, Shakespeare used the sudden profusion of time to write Macbeth and King Lear . As a pertinent history lesson, we’re meant to be inspired by the Bard’s industriousness.
We’re supposed to be inspired by his prolificacy to capitalize on this months-long respite from work and social obligations. Indeed, in the days following the earliest business closures and self-isolation measures, this point became an inescapable internet meme. Don’t think of social distancing as a holiday, the meme enthusiastically urges. Think of it as an opportunity to do something great.
You probably won’t use your time in self-isolation to write King Lear . But maybe there are other aspirations you’ve been deferring — ambitions you’ve always wished you’d had the freedom to pursue, dreams you might have realized had you the freedom to see them through. The prospect is hugely appealing. We all have things we’d like to accomplish someday, and we’ve all privately harboured the suspicion that we could achieve greatness in some field or another — if only we had the time.
Well, now all we have is time — and the creative possibilities are infinite. The career copywriter with a half-finished future bestseller in his drawer might finally complete that opus. The avid movie buff with a vision of a blockbuster thriller may at last hammer out that script. It doesn’t matter what you want to create — a true crime podcast, a chapbook of light verse. You simply have to get something done.
Almost as soon as social media’s self-elected motivational speakers issued this call to creative action, the skeptical and indignant retaliated with a campaign of scathing disapproval. Counter-memes promoting idleness went viral overnight. Our priority under quarantine ought to be our well-being, these posts argued, not our tenacity or our hard work.
Shakespeare may have written Macbeth and King Lear in the midst of the plague, but you don’t have to meet that standard — you don’t have to write your novel or record your podcast or come up with an elevator pitch for a series for HBO. You’re entitled to spend this time eating double-stuffed Oreos and watching the entire Fast and Furious franchise, if that’s what you feel inclined to do. Global pandemics are frightening, and mental health can be precarious, and we’re all just doing our best to get by.
You have permission to relax. You have permission to squander the quarantine. You have permission to abandon your routine. You have permission to let yourself go. But while it seems self-evidently admirable to promote mental health, it can be difficult to actually heed this advice and loosen up, at least without commensurate guilt.
To an intractable overachiever, calls to take it easy sound like propaganda from people who want you to fail. I find it hard to slow down and simply enjoy the free time, knowing there are others out there right now who would never. Someone is bound to be using their time in quarantine as productively as possible, and whenever I think of what will ultimately be accomplished by the hardest-working among us, it’s impossible for me not to imagine everything I might — or might not — do.
This is not a matter of productivity. It’s a matter of resolve and determination — or of shame-management.
It’s up to each of us to decide what we are capable of striving toward while maintaining our wellbeing and sanity, and perhaps as crucially, what we will be comfortable with having done when this over and life returns to normal. (If it ever does.)
We are under no obligation to produce anything during this period of both extreme and extremely unusual circumstances, a period when, it’s worth reiterating, thousands of people are dying and millions more are in jeopardy. Survival, after all, is its own accomplishment, and getting through coronavirus with minds and bodies still intact matters more than landing a publishing deal or composing a perfect sonnet. My own ambitions for the coming weeks continue to fluctuate, and I have hopes I realize may not become reality.
Still, there’s always reality TV.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020