Hamlet, our university cat, showing me what to do now some time ago … nothing.
The first two weeks were easy. Almost too easy. I was busying myself with helping everyone around me cope with a crisis situation. The third week turned out to be much harder – for me. I am not sure what happened; whether looking after others slowly started moving into the background, or whether slowly but surely, the anxiety that a crisis like Covid-19 creates got to me. I started feeling more anxious and stressed out by the smallest things, feeling like I wouldn’t be able to deal with the work and social obligation load that I started experiencing.
Let’s unpack this – or maybe not?
I always think of myself as pretty resilient, but I know that my combination of stepping back, thinking things through, compartmentalising away the things I cannot deal with, and then step by step working towards a solution has its problems. The main problem is that sometimes the boxes that I compartmentalise away into keep stacking up and I’m not always able to unpack them in a way that is good for myself and others around me. Imagine the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark; that giant warehouse in which all those buried secrets sit in boxes labelled ‘top secret’, filed, and then just put away forever. They may never be retrieved, and that can become a problem.
But I do what I always do when I’m dealing with a problem…
I do all the things that I think are best in the situation: I keep a routine, I train slightly more even than I would normally do, I eat well, I socialise – admittedly a lot of it is online now and I am more of a people person, but everyone has been really really trying to make this all work. So what was it? Even as I write this – I feel as if I’m already too late for some grand project that I’m supposed to have completed last week.
A video this week helped me, as it reminded me that this actually a perfectly normal reaction: it is normal to react with stress to a stressful situation, for example when we are all surrounded by a dangerous virus, a threat we cannot and that isolates us from most of the people we know and love. We might even miss those we don’t a little bit. IT. IS. NORMAL. It helped me understand on a cognitive level that my reaction wasn’t something I was supposed to fight, but to accept, and then find ways to deal with it without overcompensating.
Now that is the hard part, because I think I am one of life’s great over-compensators. Just like I compartmentalise things I cannot deal with, I over-analyse things I think I can deal with, play through a variety of scenarios, work on general strategies on manage each of them, and then wait for them to unfold. You see where I made my mistake? The mistake is that the challenge in this situation is to do nothing.
I am Major Kira!
I remember a deep space nine episode where a religious leader tells one of the main protagonists who has, for her own safety, been brought to a monastery where she can sit back, recover, relax and be safe from the forces that will threaten her. She tells him that she feels useless. The wise – and reasonably hot – priest tells her to change her perspective:
Major Kira: I’m useless here. Vedek Bareil: So? Major Kira: So? I… I need to feel useful. Vedek Bareil: It might be interesting to explore ‘useless’ for a while – see how it feels.
Deep Space Nine, The Circle
I’m very much like Major Kira in this exchange.
Doing nothing as an option
Reflecting on last week’s blog where I describe my Prussian Lutheran upbringing, I recognise there is no space for embracing inaction and uselessness within the belief system that I grew up in. I am not religious anymore, but my upbringing has taught me valuable lessons and I think this one is being tested now. Sitting and letting things happen is neither in my nature nor a part of my socialisation.
And this is, I think the challenge, for week four, and all the upcoming weeks thereafter: to remind myself that feeling anxious is the right thing to do in a stressful situation. I need accept that I’m anxious and that will make me slightly less productive. I will not write that novel I never wanted to write anyway. I will not master two new crafts. I will not finally break that anxiety I have about the social expectation that I am supposed to love sitting down and reading books. It is not the time to challenge my anxieties, but to learn to live with them. They are part of the natural reaction of what is going on around us. What I can do is share this experience and I think the lesson is to just embrace being useless for a while.
PS: I recognise that my anxiety is still really mild in comparison to what others may feel. If this affects you more than you think you can manage, please check out the NHS guidance on what to do. A lot of employers (like mine) also offer employee assistance programmes which may be able to help you, too. Remember, it’s OK not to be OK – seek the help you need.
I am writing this from my ‘annual leave’. The university asked us to stick to our booked annual leave, and rightly so, since we couldn’t restart the show on campus if everyone took a month off at the end of social distancing.
I was supposed to visit my ageing mother and play some RPGs in Germany this weekend, but since Lufthansa rightly cancelled my flight, and I wouldn’t want to be a hazard to my mother, I am, of course, spending it at home. I have the privilege to have a garden and so I am sowing and weeding, and weeing into the compost (look it up, it’s a natural compost accelerator) – and I am trying not to do the same things I do during the work week. It also gives me time to reflect on the reasonable adjustments I’ve made since starting to work from home.
First of all, my workplace is not a workplace – it’s a dining room table, and I’m sitting on a dining room chair. Unlike my Significant Other (henceforth to be referred to as the SO), I normally don’t work from home, so I’ve been adapting the place I work at now into a workplace. At first, a confession: after telling my team to start taking their equipment home every night, I – clearly on autopilot – locked mine up, together with my work phone on the last day before starting to work remotely. And there they sit in my locker at work, slowly and lonely draining their batteries. My team, on the other hand, listened to my advice, and are working away on their university devices. Go team!
But, as my mother always says ‘you are allowed to be stupid, as long as you can help yourself’ – I’ve set up my Chromebook and connected it to a cheapish screen I have knocking about for some online role-playing (Star Trek and D&D, if you must know), and started working on Monday morning, two weeks ago. I am pretty fit and have good posture, but knew after a few days I would start feeling my lower back, so I started making adjustments before this inevitability: The biggest improvement was – an empty Amazon box, propping up my external screen to sit above my Chromebook screen. I can touch-type without looking at my keyboard, and now my line of sight aligns with the top of the screen and I don’t have to tilt.
But then, I knew, I would have to invest some money to adapt more.
I invested into a wedge cushion and a lumbar support cushion – together about £35 on Amazon. I use the former to tilt my hips into a more stable position and enable my legs and feet into 90 degree angles; the latter supports my lumbar spine and keeps my lower back at its natural angle.
By mid-week of week one, I noticed that my voice was strained after sometimes pretty much non-stop MS Teams video calls. I admit it – I suffer from YUMPSV, short for Your Uncle’s Mobile Phone Shouting Voice – my SO confirmed this by coming downstairs to tell me to shout less. As there is only so much chamomile tea I can drink in a day to soothe my voice, I knew I had to address this.
I concluded that if I heard my own voice in my ear – or at least all others in the meeting, I would start speaking more naturally, and not end up sounding like Tom Waits by the end of the workday. The principle was sound, but here is where I made my first mis-investment: I bought a fancy-ish gaming headset with mic monitoring – it projects your own voice into your headset, so you don’t shout along like Rambo when playing Call of Duty at 3am (or whatever online gamers do). Turns out that this tech doesn’t really play with a Chromebook. Oh, if I had only listened to myself and brought the lovely Microsoft Surface laptop home with me – I’m sure it would have worked. However, the headset does help, and I’m shouting less – but I will not be able to have technology do the job of disciplining myself.
Having been raised in the Prussian Lutheran tradition – my father would only ever shower cold, except for Saturdays – I have been raised to believe in open windows and scoff at warm clothing; and that shivering could ever be acceptable from anger that it isn’t colder. I am so much less tough than my father was in this regard, but I have stood under a waterfall in the Japanese mountains chanting Buddhist chants. That’s short and shocking, but I was not prepared for the slow creep of the cold while sitting for days in the coolest room of the house. It’ll be great in spring and summer, but it sucked working like this. The SO and I had a discussion – and since I’m responsible for crawling into the roof space on cold morning to check the heating pressure, I qualify as the house’s heating engineer – I could convince both her and the cat that moving the main thermostat on to the ground floor would not freeze the rest of the house.
I keep’em. Almost ‘nuff said – since most of the university works still to UK office hours, most meetings are organised around them. However, since our highly international students are now working from a variety of time zones, my team and I are adapting: we will have to offer synchronous one-to-one appointments at a wider variety of times during the day, with some early and late offers to catch the outliers; and we are recording our group and webinar sessions, so they are available asynchronously. I think though, there will be further thought about this, since a personalised learning experience should not be exclusively coming out of a can.
How about you?
What adaptations have you made? Share your tips in the comments or on social media. The cheaper and weirder, the better.