National Comment Comment

We’d be happier in lockdown without talk of self-improvement

There should be no pressure to significantly change yourself because of our time indoors

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One of my biggest gripes at the moment is the general pretense that characterises the discourse of how we live during lockdown. I am talking about the concept of ‘self-improvement’, which is annoying at the best of times, and in the current situation imposes an undue amount of guilt at an especially inappropriate time. Of course, I don’t mean that people shouldn’t be passionate about trying new hobbies and skills, but the way these things are discussed seems guided by the cultural idea of ‘selling yourself’—adopted from the Market™ (see also: ‘upskill’, etc.)—which creates in people a compulsion for cultural competition, as if they were participants at neoliberal Crufts.

As it happens, I think that a greater number of people would be learning more, trying out arts and crafts and cooking foods they have never eaten if these activities weren’t implicitly signposted as virtuous and worthy. This can be taken to extreme lengths, too. Yes, I am fully aware by now that Shakespeare wrote King Lear in quarantine, but knowing that doesn’t make me want to write more, or to be more productive. I like writing, reading, cooking, and exercising because these things bring joy in themselves. They don’t need to be placed within a scheme, a project, or a career path to be worthwhile. If anything, lockdown illustrates that more time in our lives can and should be allowed for things that are rewarding purely in themselves. For those who do not have as many work commitments as usual, this can be a time to think and act more slowly, to distance ourselves from the quotidian cycle of the inane tasks that we refer to as normal.

Numerous ‘self-help’ pieces have surfaced over the last month, showing how easily this discourse can slip towards subtle shaming. ‘This is a great time to reconnect with family and friends in a meaningful way,’ says Forbes Magazine - okay, sounds lovely. But the article goes on to say: ‘use this time wisely to lift yourself up intellectually’ and, ‘start an exercise routine [...] Think of how great you’ll feel returning to work looking fit and buff while your other co-workers packed on an extra 10 pounds from sitting on the couch eating ice cream all month.’ This is an especially irritating example of the toxic core of much contemporary ‘self-help’ rhetoric; the framing suggests that feeling gratified relies on the inferiority of others. This is not a sustainable or healthy way of conducting ourselves, and it will make us miserable if it is followed through.

The other side of the coin is the kind of discourse which berates people for certain activities, usually because they are seen to be partaking in a trend deemed to be irritating. This tends to occur when it becomes apparent that fun has entered the equation to an unacceptable degree. Recently, I saw a tweet where a middle-aged man poked fun at the ‘hipster’ lockdown trend of making sourdough. A helpful response to the tweet pointed out that preparing bread has been a completely normal activity for thousands of years, but corporate advertising has done its job so well that some people have forgotten this. While it is apparently good and worthy to learn new skills, some activities are not worth doing because there is a faster and therefore more productive way of getting the end result. This kind of thinking breaks people’s brains and distorts how we see our lives.

The notion that spending quarantine doing non-‘productive’ things suggests a lack of discipline, or laziness, and that as such certain people do not deserve the privilege of opportunity. This speaks to the innate cruelty that underpins a culture obsessed with and defined by the demands of the market. In ‘normal’ times, the majority of people spend most days working much harder than they should have to, often with extremely meagre rewards. Lockdown has proven for many people that their usual working conditions are not necessary - that they actually can work from home, or work fewer hours. For those in ‘low skilled’ jobs, it is clearer than ever just how vital their labour really is for public life to function effectively. There is also a crisis of mental health to consider - various reports of a rise in suicides during lockdown are a grim testament to this, meaning that learning Italian or networking online will not be at the top of everyone’s list of priorities.

In short, quarantine is not a gift of free time for everybody. This view is damaging in that it shames people who do not have the luxury of working on horizon-expanding projects, potentially discourages wholesome and rewarding experiences, and stifles a conversation about how the status quo might be scrutinised for the better. So, if you do have a project, great, and I hope it brings you joy in a time which is otherwise terrifying. If you don’t, then try not to worry—you’re a lot more important than your career prospects, or your list of virtuous and creditable hobbies.

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