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If You’re Looking for Permission to Do Nothing, Here it Is

The past month and a half has been a rollercoaster. In such a short period of time, it feels like we’ve collectively been through all of the emotions known to man, including some we didn’t even know existed before this. How can the world be “normal” one day – continuing on in a steady (if concerning) trajectory – and then completely halted the next?

I wish I had the answer.

This would all be easier if someone had an idea of what to do. The general population’s lack of experience with global pandemics, while a testament to the advancements of modern medicine, is, frankly, alarming. The barrage of (often conflicting) ideas about how to handle it is anxiety-inducing, to say the least. A recent poll done by the American Psychiatric Association showed that 36% of Americans feel that their mental health has been “significantly impacted” by the pandemic. So, over 100 million people. That’s a lot.

With an increase in people struggling, however, there has also been an uptick in people being willing to share what they’re going through. I’ve seen countless articles and social media posts of people urging their readers/followers to check in with themselves and their friends, which is a lovely sentiment no matter how often it’s repeated (we could all stand to do more of this, pandemic or not.)

And then there are the lists. It seems like everyone has some sort of advice to give about how to keep busy / stay calm / stay healthy. If you’ve read any of my articles on hercampus.com or theodysseyonline.com you can see that these are probably my favorite kinds of pieces to write: advice for managing periods of transition, tips for making life more manageable and more rewarding.

I’ve been thinking for weeks now about what I wanted to write in response to this sudden turn of events. My first instinct when faced with a new challenge is always to write about it, but this time I’ve been struggling to find the right words.

In the first few weeks of quarantine, I drafted my own list of ways to stay productive “during these unprecedented times.” It felt like the natural thing to do, to try to maintain some sense of normalcy until everything blew over. For some reason, though, I let it sit in my “drafts” folder and never posted it.

Since then, I’ve read countless articles with the same goal, and have actually implemented a lot of the advice in my own life. I’ve tried meditating, I’ve tried yoga, I’ve journaled, baked bread, called friends. It has all succeeded at filling up the seemingly endless days (to an extent,) and it’s comforting to know that thousands, maybe millions of people are going through the same motions.

Despite these small pockets of activity, however, most of my day is usually spent aimlessly, wandering from room to room, opening and closing Internet tabs, feeling like I’m drifting untethered in the sea.

I’ve heard this same sentiment expressed by basically everyone I’ve talked to in the last few weeks – an overwhelming sense of purposelessness that seems to get stronger as the days go by. There are only so many loaves of bread to bake, only so many friends to call. Each activity offers a welcome but short-lived reprieve from the day, but in the end it’s only a distraction. What larger purpose am I moving toward? I ask myself as I come home from another run or take another baked good out of the oven.

The current answer: I don’t know.

Most of our lives had a fairly set structure before all of this that has been completely upended. If you’d have asked me two months ago, I would have told you with complete certainty that my future included finishing up college on campus with my friends, attending graduation, and looking for a job. Flash forward and I’m completing college virtually from my family home away from all of my friends, and trying to navigate a world where most companies have stopped hiring.

No matter your situation, life looks different now than it did at the beginning of the year. Every industry has been impacted in some way, whether it’s due to layoffs, work from home, or intense and dangerous essential work (huge shoutout to all of these people who put their lives on the line to help others.)

While this experience is global and collective, it is also deeply personal. Each of us is affected in our own way, and needs to handle this differently. That’s why I’m hesitant to offer any advice on “how to make it through,” because the reality is that “making it through” looks different for everyone. Some days all I can do is get out of bed, some days I don’t get up at all. One week I get outside every day, another only once or twice. There is no guidebook for how to do this. And that’s terrifying.

But what this experience has offered me is the time to get more in tune with myself, sometimes purposefully and other times by accident. I’ve found that I’m more able to recognize when a run will help me get out of my head, or when what I need is to mindlessly watch hours of mediocre television. My purpose right now is to get through each day, and nothing else. I try to focus on gratitude whenever possible (which isn’t always easy); gratitude for the health of myself and my family, for the roof over my head, for the essential workers who are keeping us safe.

Will I write the next great novel right now? No. Will I become a master baker? Probably not. There are so many things I would love to do with this time, things that I feel like I should be doing. American culture is all about progress and forward motion, and it’s been nearly impossible to shake the voice telling me that I should be doing more, that I’m wasting time.

So here I am to tell myself as much as you that the answer to how to get through this is that there is no answer. Frustrating, I know. But also strangely calming, if you think about it. There are no rules. No one’s expecting you to be performing at the top of your game. You get to define what your life looks like, and if what it looks like is wearing the same pair of sweatpants for a week straight, that’s okay.