I haven’t yet written a comprehensive, illuminating blog about these Days of the Coronavirus, partly because many other people far wiser than me are already doing it far better than I would, but also because I am still trying to make sense of it all. So instead I have decided to do something counterintuitive, and write a blog that I really hope you won’t read, because its intention is that that you might instead use the time you would have spent reading it to close your laptop screen and go and do something else instead.
These are days, perhaps even more than before coronavirus arrived in our lives, when there is so much going on online that we feel as though to leave our computers is to do our potential self-improvement a huge disservice. We can start our day with excellent online meditation classes and yoga, then do Joe Wicks’ workout, then, once we’ve stopped sweating, attend hastily-transferred-to-Zoom conferences or workshops, festivals even, possibly a meet-up of people in movements we are part of.
Then we might log on for some online stand-up comedy, some live theatre, sets by our favourite DJs, some virtual gigs by artists we love. Amid all of this we also have to try to keep up with the news. It almost feels like a patriotic duty in these times of national emergency not to miss any of this stuff as so much time, care and creativity is being put into offering them. And then of course there are the never-ending lists of ‘must-watch’ series on Netflix that nobody should be without. It’s exhausting!
And then of course we need to keep up with work, a steady stream of Zoom meetings as work teams figure out how to have good meetings online, and try to reorganise what would have happened in an office so that it now all occurs online. In just over two weeks, millions of people have become familiar with Zoom’s breakout groups, the ‘Mute’ button, as well as that slightly awkward moment when you press ‘Leave meeting’ and then have to hang around for a few seconds before you actually leave having already said your goodbyes. I called round to a neighbour the other day, who answered the door dressed in a smart shirt, clean-shaven, but still wearing his pyjama bottoms. “Just been on a Zoom meeting”, he said.
All of these things are, of course, wonderful. Zoom (other platforms are available) enables organisations to do amazing things without flying staff around the world. It enables trainings and all sorts of vital things to continue through these times of social distancing. It enables me to keep in touch with my son in Australia. In many ways they are amazing. Yet the other day I spent the afternoon teaching, as part of a larger course, through Zoom. By the end I felt absolutely exhausted, drained, like my brain had been replaced with custard. I never feel like this after an afternoon’s teaching in person. Is it just that the wifi where I live leaves a lot to be desired and my brain had to compensate for all the glitchy bits? I don’t think so.
I found that the thoughts of Gianpiero Petriglieri, a management professor at INSEAD, really resonated with me. He talked about how one of the ways we are coping with this pandemic, and its awful possibilities, is through “panic working to numb ourselves”, a feeling that because we aren’t working together in person, we need to showing up online even more enthusiastically. He explores why it might be that so much time in online meetings leaves us feeling so frazzled. He tweeted:
I spoke to an old therapist friend today, and finally understood why everyone’s so exhausted after the video calls. It’s the plausible deniability of each other’s absence. Our minds tricked into the idea of being together when our bodies feel we’re not. Dissonance is exhausting.
— Gianpiero Petriglieri (@gpetriglieri) April 3, 2020
He went on to reflect “it’s easier being in each other’s presence, or in each other’s absence, than in the constant presence of each other’s absence”. He describes how many different sensory aspects of actually meeting in person are closed down when we meet online, which he likens to being blindfolded. “We sense too little and can’t imagine enough”, he writes.
When I teach, it is an interactive experience. I get to engage in eye contact with my students, we laugh, we play games. We get up, we move around. We can see, touch and smell each other. The mental energy to try to keep people engaged online whilst in reality being sat on my own talking to my laptop is actually, for a teacher, a pretty lonely place to be, I found. While these tools and these platforms can be wonderful, and are keeping many organisations, movements and vital services alive, and while they are playing a vital role in enabling us to keep connected to loved ones and work colleagues, might we be over-using them?
While I am not for a moment suggesting that we stow our laptops away during lockdown, I would like to argue for us consciously choosing creative time offline as well as taking advantage of what the online world can offer. You could take time to read a book, to rediscover the blissful connected solitude of sitting and reading, being absorbed and lost in its pages – not an experience that being online can offer us. Or set your alarm clock and get up early so you can hear the dawn chorus and see the sunrise. Bake some bread. Make some custard tarts. Draw something.
Do 64 Million Artists daily creativity challenges. If you need to chat with someone, why not just phone them and allow your imagination to conjure up what they look like? Keep a journal. Make fresh pasta and make tortellini. Bake bread. Write a song. Raise some seeds in window box. Get some of those jobs done around the house that you have been putting off for ages. Contact a neighbour and see if they might be up for a face-to-face chats over the fence or sitting suitably distanced from each other at their front door.
I am reminded of the Nature Prescriptions project being run by GP practices in Shetland in partnership with RSPB Scotland. When people present at the doctor’s with depression, anxiety, being overweight or similar ailments, they are prescribed nature connection. They are given a leaflet with activities for each month, including “bury your face in the grass” (May) and “follow a bumble bee” (June). How about at this point in the lockdown creating such a list of possible activities for yourself? Online meetings can be great, but let’s keep them in perspective.
Nick Cave, who says that “my response to a crisis has always been to create”, recently wrote, “in isolation, we will be presented with our essence – of what we are personally and what we are as a society. We will be asked to decide what we want to preserve about our world and ourselves, and what we want to discard”. While I am not for a moment suggesting that Zoom is something we discard, I am suggesting that an honest, quiet reflection as to what it is that we want to preserve about our world and ourselves will most likely lead us to conclude that some of those things will only be found offline, and in spaces that we intentionally create and curate for ourselves.
* Drawing: my own drawing of my kitchen table, last summer.