Welp. Nothing burns up mental bandwidth like being stuck at home with no end in sight and watching everything you’ve spent a long time building disintegrate in slow motion while being utterly powerless to stop it.
It’s also hard to focus on anything else.
When your livelihood is at stake and shelter might follow, you pick yourself up off the floor every morning and dive in head first into an unknown that looks both familiar and threatening — every morning is one day closer to next month’s rent and perhaps you’re not sure where it’s going to come from.
Perhaps you’ve been furloughed, fired, or you’re a freelancer whose livelihood is so precarious it might as well not be there anymore, the latter a very particular form of professional torture. On the one hand, you’re working as much as ever if not more to make up for the shortfall and on the other, you’re also earning less than ever so it hardly seems worth doing anymore. For example, projects you’re involved in made of many moving parts seem to drag on forever.
Then again, working from home while looking after kids is proving overwhelming for some parents so all you can do is put out fires, flag mistakes, and keep your fingers crossed while remaining helpful, supportive, and understanding toward the rest of the team. Quitting isn’t an option, frustration is counterproductive — you adapt because you know you’re not the only one struggling.
Many people are but many more refuse to talk about it for fear of losing face, clients, or reputation. This isn’t helping anyone, only those who are quick to exploit the desperate, like third party website who send you a gushing email about your work and offer to syndicate it to a wider audience without offering payment. It’s extraordinary how quickly interest dissipates the minute you dare ask about republication fees, which are common in the trade.
Here’s the thing: Exposure and eyeballs don’t pay the bills, money does, and pointing this out isn’t crass, only fair. It takes uncommon hubris and disdain to request free work, especially when those who do are bona fide media organizations with a budget. If you’re an editor on a salary who reaches out to pros requesting free copy without any form of compensation, how would you feel if your publisher asked you to work for free? This isn’t to say I’m not open to other forms of collaboration and compensation but when it comes to working without payment for a very, very long time, I’ve already paid my dues. As a side note, that was in the name of public media in a very specific context and I have no regrets because vocation.
All the same, it’d be hypocritical of me to perpetuate that which I’ve been fighting ever since.
For now, I continue to focus on keeping my skills sharp and thinking about an alternate future when freelancing isn’t such a crapshoot anymore and I’ve diversified, added a salaried job, or gone down the ‘solopreneur’ route, whatever that means.
When words are your stock-in-trade, credibility comes from being exacting with them, not hyperbolic despite the current trend in stripping words of their dictionary definition. In a world where people like Alex Jones claims being honest as his superpower and Trump continues to plunder the English language, the survival of meaning isn’t guaranteed.
With a little defiance, you can make inroads into enthusiasm though.
If adults aren’t that prone to excitement at the best of times, kids are. Perhaps you are at home with one or more little ones, they can probably teach you a lot about joy.
I live on a square flanked by two schools and watching the kids play outside tends to have a regenerating effect on my harried brain. Kids live in the present, are easily delighted by the simplest things, and can let their imagination run wild for hours on end while disappearing into narratives of their own making.
We adults aren’t so good at this anymore. We tend to let hindrances, limitations, and adversity get the better of us, even when they’re still at the fear stage rather than a reality. Our perceptions are like an armor that shields us from joy. We’re so busy paying attention to the tricks our mind is playing on us we forget to focus on what is and what could be if only we chose to look at our current situation differently.
Sure, summoning your inner child in the midst of chaos is as counterintuitive as writing about joy in a time of crisis but there’s no greater emergency if you want to make it through the other side in one piece. I’ve been tangling with chronic depression for many years so my mission is to turn my armor of dread into a sieve so joy can find its way into my life else I’ll start thinking about dying again.
Because needs must and the human spirit is fierce, defiant, and creative to a fault as long as you nudge it into seeing life under a more hopeful light.
So I collect small, simple, and spontaneous happenings and assorted nuggets of joy, be it a magpie flying from roof to tree to roof, a cat roaming the streets, a pistachio, a raspberry… Whenever possible, I share them, too. My parents in Paris are now familiar with all the cats roaming the rooftops in my buurt (neighborhood). They’ve also heard my neighbor’s chickens because it’s cluck o’clock at least twice a day, even in the middle of town and despite the large feline population.
I treat joy like water, a necessity rather than an option, so I’m pro-active in securing my daily injections of joy.
To this end, I keep a tally of all the cats I spot from the window or meet on the street. It can go from single to double digits, depending on the weather. There’s an ever-expanding list of things I can rely on to feel better, like music, sky gazing (clouds around here often look like they’re straight out of a Simpsons episode), fresh air that smells like the ocean because we’re so close to the coast, seagull squawks, homemade soup, hugs, and of course words, the ones I edit and the ones I write.
Hunting for joy keeps me level-headed, capable, and sanguine about the future.
Most importantly, this joy doesn’t require money or doorstep deliveries, only observation and the willingness to tell yourself better stories than those preying upon your insecurities.
This is how you safeguard your mental health regardless of means.
Fear, anxiety, and panic are as much viruses as COVID-19 and they spread just as fast. To this end, you may want to adjust your media and social media diet until you find a healthy mix that makes you feel capable.
Wallowing in a cesspool of sensationalism, fake news, and marketing copy designed to trick you into financially supporting that which neither benefits nor serves you is, to quote George Carlin, is all bullshit and bad for ya.
Remember that joy is within everyone’s remit and nothing is too small to celebrate, starting with life itself. As the pandemic reminds us all daily, it isn’t always a given. You too can become the instrument of small victories, something I learned through observing my father and how he and his wife navigate the ever-changing reality of stage 4 cancer.
If your day looks like a dispiriting expanse of nothing much, break it down into manageable chunks whose outcome you can control. Even if you’re out of work, there’s always something you can derive satisfaction from. Don’t ever underestimate the power of a fresh towel, clean bed linen, or simple homemade food even if you have very little.
Also, attributing meaning to seemingly meaningless tasks can help you turn your day into an adventure. Once you start looking at all the things that make up your typical day, you’ll soon find ways to jazz some up. Why be annoyed all the time when you can have a laugh? If you have a pet, take your cue from Mr Whiskers, Fido, or Gerard the gerbil. They too live in the present, love to play, and enjoy their food so go back to basics and force yourself to do that, too.
Some amount of dread and discomfort is inevitable but it doesn’t have to contaminate your every waking moment unless you let it. We humans are an inventive bunch.
Small things can and do carry us.
Why deny yourself a moment of joy when the sunset is begging for a chance to wow you, when the shower is begging for a chance to make you feel better, when the words you dare not write are begging for a chance to get out?
The world we left behind and the metrics we used to abide by no longer apply so here’s our chance to come up with better ones that empower rather than discourage. Not everything is as miserable as it feels or appears.
You’re alive, you can choose to cram every moment with heart and guts instead of despondency. It feels impossible but the more you try, the more you succeed, often against all odds. If you look hard enough, you’ll find joy in anything while acknowledging that however hard everything is, it’s also temporary. One way or another, we’ll get through this so we might as well try and make it as tolerable as possible, whichever way we can.
Enthusiasm always starts out as self-directed before it ripples out to others and gathers momentum. So dare to imagine a joyful, gentler, and more compassionate future because that’s the first step toward creating it, individually and together.
Today doesn’t have to be as daunting as tomorrow feels.
Joy is a feedback loop.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor now based in the Netherlands. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.