Like many people as of late, I recently began re-reading Little Women. The 2019 “Little Women” movie quickly became one of my favorite movies, and to essentially prolong the feel-goodness of the film, I decided to revisit the literary edition.
The bit that I read last night felt erringly timely, given the coronavirus pandemic, the moral of which can be nicely summed up with a bit from Marmee: “Work is wholesome, and there is plenty for everyone; it keeps us from ennui and mischief, is good for health and spirits, and gives us a sense of power and independence better than money or fashion.” The girls had all done a little experiment, in which they simply did as they pleased, and stopped doing chores and their daily tasks. Results? Feeling out of sorts, temperamental, and altogether not sure what to do until they realize that they like their chores and work.
This left me feeling both seen but also with a sour taste in my mouth. Apart from being a pretty good snapshot of American nineteenth century values, it was also a fairly good snapshot of the effect of social distancing. Not used to not idle hands, many people have been wading through our coronavirus-induced social distancing with excessive amounts of toilet paper, crazed boredom and dazed confusion, all while adapting eating habits better suited for a hobbit.
I know that I am somewhat guilty of this. Like so many people, I’ve felt a bit confused and unsure of my day-to-day schedule (not to mention relatively anxious and nervous about the virus itself). I’ve long been fairly good at maintaining small, daily routines that are good for my emotional and mental health. But now, I’m finding that the need to be “productive” and not let the day go to waste have seeped into my way of thinking. I’ve thought that this is the time for me to be able to do all the things I do anyways, or that I always plan on doing, but increased by tenfold; writing and reading, yoga and exercising. Finally settle down to formally learn Spanish. And if social media and talking to co-workers and friends are any indication, I know I’m not the only one.
So why is this important? Why shouldn’t we take the time that we would normally be commuting, socializing, or working to get something done in a different way? Besides, the next great American novel isn’t going to write itself, is it? One could say that this moment in time is actually serendipitous, in the sense that many of us (but not all – thank you service and health workers) now have ample amount of time to self-improve, work on pet projects and side hustles, and to establish a strong workout game.
Which I fully understand, and up until reading Marmee’s little sermon, I was happy at the prospect of social distancing and quarantining. Because the devil comes to play when there are idle hands? Well, no. We’re part of a system which upholds the working, constantly busy person as the only life worth living. Even the whole simple living movement on social media still thrives on productivity. Instead of seeing this as an opportunity to write that book, start that podcast, or whatever, maybe see this as an opportunity to slow down. And to actually be okay with slowing down.
I’m not saying don’t write that book, or don’t meet your goal of 200 squats. Even while in the middle of writing this, I took a little break to organize my room, and soon felt guilty about not writing. This is an unique chance for many of us, and a good time to potentially be more busy with our personal goals than usual. But on the other end of that same spectrum, there’s also an equally significant opportunity. Many of us participate in vegging and chilling out with very little intentional awareness behind it, and is usually a result of being fatigued or exhausted from work, kids, and life in general. What if a part of each day – or even whole days at a time – were devoted to your version of nothing: breathing, sitting, walking, reading, coloring, cooking or baking, talking with friends and family, noticing plants (yours or maybe some on a walk), playing games. Doesn’t matter what – just do nothing with no particular outcome in mind.
Don’t do it passively or in a trance-like state, but with that intentional awareness. Maybe it’ll bring a strong sense of, not necessarily joy (because not everything needs to spark joy) but at least contentment. Doing things simply because you feel like doing them is valid. You don’t have to do anything, nor should you be doing anything particular. We’re all stuck in stasis right now. Maybe finding stillness and being intimately connected to your close surroundings and self will end up being just as fulfilling as writing that first draft of your first novel.
But what’s key to remember is that there are two totally different ways to approach and experience this new social-distancing-normal; one isn’t more valid than the other. Marmee of Little Women is on point that work is good. But no work doesn’t mean boredom and troublemaking. It’s just a side that many of us in our workcentric society haven’t had a chance to play with. So, let’s go ahead and experiment with it.