Happy New Year — and greetings from that disorienting period in which we’re easing back into a schedule after emerging from the festive time warp (and cursing the audacity of hot cross buns appearing in our supermarkets no sooner than we’ve polished off the homemade rum balls).
The first month of any calendar year always feels a little loaded and oxygen-deprived to me. The urgency of all those pre-Christmas catch-ups would almost have us believe that time somehow stops (or the world will end?) on the 31st of December. Then a whole ‘new’ year arrives hot on its heels, and the rhetoric shifts not only to possibilities and potential, but also to goals and success criteria: the performance of self-assessment and reinvention.
It’s almost like we’re addicted to exhaustion and an inevitable sense of failure!
Alas, even our mid-/post-COVID realities have not stemmed the sudden onslaught of January gym selfies and empowerment quotes this year. But in social media posts, I also detect a note of caution and an encouraging sense of perspective. We’re being careful to acknowledge our blessings while grappling with ongoing upheaval and uncertainty; nobody wants to assume 2021 represents a clean slate, that life will magically get easier simply because the numbers have flipped over.
So, it is with a certain scepticism and wariness that I sit here typing then deleting sentences — as I’ve done for days now — understanding a need to process the events of the last 12 months but finding myself unable to locate the words, to tilt my prose at the right angle, to apply the most palatable ratio of introspection and gratitude.
As I reflect on my year, I guess I’ve been wondering about the value of performing these sorts of wrap-ups — producing a ledger of the negatives alongside the positives, extracting our ‘key learnings’ from the difficulties we’ve survived. I understand the utility in thinking through challenging circumstances this way. (Victor Frankl would not have sold millions of copies of Man’s Search for Meaning if it were unhelpful to find value in, and bring coherence to, unruly and seemingly senseless experiences.) But what if we allowed life to remain messy? What if we felt no compulsion to summarise or compare, to labour to impose resolution on unfinished stories, draw out the so-called god from the machine?
As someone living in Queensland, Australia — potentially one of the least-affected jurisdictions in the world, relatively speaking — the COVID-19 pandemic has often seemed like a slow, silent war happening at an intangible distance. Nobody I know has tested positive, and although my partner’s business had to shut down for several months during the worst of it here, and I’m conscious that many other friends, relatives, and acquaintances were furloughed or lost income, the brevity of our state’s quarantine period meant that physical distancing wasn’t quite the social or economic disaster we suspected it would be.
Perhaps it is some idiosyncratic new strain of survivor guilt, but I don’t quite know how to comprehend or appreciate this uncanny stroke of luck — the gross privilege of just so happening to exist in a sparsely populated Western democracy protected by a functional public healthcare system and a prudent and proactive state government. Like so many in this part of the world, at worst I’ve experienced some significant inconvenience due to COVID — the occasional panic attack about my status as an immunosuppressed person notwithstanding — and it would be disingenuous to pretend otherwise.
Despite all these permutations of luck and loss, however, I feel there should be a space in which we can all explore the unprecedented ways in which our lives have inevitably, irrevocably changed since this time last year. In the wake of some of the most disastrous bushfires in living memory, the lurching progress of the #blacklivesmatter movement, and the fallout of the US election results, it’s clear that the pandemic is just one of several collective traumas we’ve had to confront and process as 2020 becomes fixed in the past and 2021 rumbles to life.
It’s funny — well, uncomfortable — to revisit the beginning of 2020 in the frame of my wobbly memory. This time last year, I’d just returned from an overseas trip apprehensive about going back to work and devastated by the ‘state of the world’, broadly speaking. I’m not sure I could have imagined anything worse than the constant graphic reminders of a planet on fire (including whatever metaphorical dumpster fire Trump had most recently lit).
As rumours of a rapidly spreading virus became widespread, I distinctly remember dismissing people’s fears as ‘hysteria’, assuming this new strain of coronavirus would go much the same way as SARS in the early 2000s or Swine Flu in 2009, leaving Australia largely unaffected. It wasn’t until the tertiary institution I teach within started to reject new international enrolments that I began to sense the gravity of the situation, and it was work that remained the primary lens through which I experienced the full effects of the pandemic — as far as they touched and transformed life in southeast Queensland.
Those peak-COVID months, between the start of March and the end of June, slumped by in what felt like a never-ending loop of work and responsibility. As home-based learning was rolled out across the country in schools and universities, the demands of working across two education providers sharply intensified in ways I could never have anticipated. I was able to temporarily drop back one day a week in my regular nine-to-five so I could continue to teach using a fully asynchronous, online delivery mode, but even the extra day to focus on prep and delivery couldn’t offset the additional time involved in making such a swift and dramatic transition. I spent every waking minute away from my desk job writing extra course materials, editing and recording lectures, redeveloping assessment, and checking in on students with additional support requirements or others still who seemed to be falling through the cracks. Extension requests flooded in as students grappled with increased anxiety and the confusion associated with managing their own schedules without the structure of face-to-face classes, more than I’d ever approved in the space of one semester. They shared with me intimate details of their lives — people I could barely match to a face because we’d met only once or twice — and my heart sank over and over again to realise that I couldn’t pull off an effectively delivered course and cultivate a robust learning community and provide the type of individual emotional support I desperately wanted to, all at once.
Probably the most difficult part about teaching, though, was the sense of feeling stranded and conveniently out of sight. One-line emails from my program director when I was seeking information or reassurance brought me to tears on more than one occasion, despite my working seven days a week to fulfil my contract and retain as many students as possible. My teaching partner went AWOL more and more frequently as the semester progressed, leaving me anxious about their wellbeing and concerned about our deadlines and commitment to providing a high-quality program, despite the circumstances. ‘COVID stuff,’ they would say. ‘I feel so unmotivated,’ students would write. ‘What about me?’ I sometimes wanted to reply — in all caps, followed by multiple exclamation marks. What about the one person in this messy little situation who has no leeway to flake, no recourse to slow down or fail to deliver because she’s also exhausted, scared, or unwell?
Even now, my gut prickles when I recall how much pressure we were all under — the mornings I’d wake up at 3.00 am frantically reorganising to-do lists in my head, convinced that I’d fall behind and let everybody down. But it was a terror muffled by an acute sense of guilt: I wasn’t unemployed, I wasn’t a frontline healthcare worker directly exposed to COVID, and I didn’t have kids at home I was trying to wrangle around work commitments. More than that, unlike so many sessional and permanent university staff, I didn’t lose my contract, and even if I had, convening and teaching is something I do around a full-time job and other freelance work because I find it enjoyable and satisfying, not because I rely on that source of income.
It was, however, an angst that rapidly snowballed into anger. As the tertiary sector buckled and, in many cases, fell to its knees, this ‘gradually then suddenly’ state of crisis only highlighted the ways in which politicians and other commentators keep trying to blame the pandemic for devastating economic fallout and social injustices, as if everything was cool and normal before COVID-19 hit. The reality is that large organisations such as universities have been weakened — and have made their communities vulnerable to these casualties — through decades of profit-obsessed mismanagement, at the expense of all else, and sometimes with the deliberate intent of exploiting its most vulnerable participants.
It came as no surprise that some of the biggest fish in the higher education sector, organisations that had cash reserves in the billions prior to COVID-19, were some of the first to cull casuals and welcome changes to fee structures that will have disastrous long-term impacts.
Even though 2020 was a year pockmarked by other weirdness — a job offer fell through at the last minute; my parents finally parted ways after a decade of gradually separating; I resentfully endured a period of several months on low-dose chemotherapy to try to manage my intensifying autoimmune symptoms — it’s this reality that my febrile anxiety-brain seems compelled to revisit over and over.
I’ve never thought more critically about work than I have over the last 12 months: who has it, who doesn’t, who’s considered essential or expendable (and how those categories are not actually mutually exclusive), how much work is healthy, what type of work is meaningful, how else we should approach it — pragmatically, philosophically, ethically. It’s been a particular privilege to be able to examine the pandemic through this prism of work, to be worried less about loss of life itself than loss of livelihood, but I firmly believe we should be seizing any opportunity to examine our realities or sense of normality critically, while we have this time and space away from what we usually take for granted.
2020 was, in my experience, a year dominated by a more profound feeling of loneliness than I’d ever felt before — not a loneliness borne by extended physical isolation, but a loneliness resulting from a certain lack of visibility, an unrelenting sense of personal failure, and the painful feeling of being excluded and undervalued by a community I’ve worked so hard, for so long, to support. And I say all this as someone who’s weathered the pandemic remarkably well. (The job offer that fell through? I sidestepped a toxic work environment and achieved permanency in my current role, out of the blue, leaving me in the most stable professional and financial position I’ve occupied in my entire adult life.)
But what about those who weren’t so lucky?
If the ripple effects of COVID-19 have shown me anything, from this more sanitised Australian vantage point, it’s probably that there’s no clear, rigid division between our professional and personal lives. This may seem like a strange point to observe out of so many other possibilities, but the more time I’ve had to reflect, the more I’ve noticed how these distinct worlds have collapsed over the last year, how I used to hold onto a misguided sense of division between home and work, the personal and the professional, that doesn’t stand up under closer scrutiny, especially as working from home has become business as usual for so many.
Nor should it.
A couple of months ago, I overheard my boss confessing they had no idea whether we could ‘do it all over again’ if a second wave forced another round of widespread closures in Queensland. ‘Of course we can,’ their own boss replied, without hesitation. ‘We would do it.’
I have no doubt this is true. As 2021 unfolds in all its bewildering chaos, I know that we will bend and bounce and do whatever it takes to keep things afloat for ourselves and the people around us. (It takes a lot of work to continue to exist, whether it’s seen, noticed, or remunerated.)
But I hope we can approach it with an understanding that employees and colleagues — bosses and subordinates — are all just people trying to get through the day, people with emotional baggage they bring through the door, people who take it all home, too, who are left to process the brutalities associated with participating in a capitalist workforce, or the more specific pressures and politics of a given workplace, on their own.
It’s this mess I’m still trying to sift through in search of logic because I now realise, with uncomfortable clarity, that work is the epicentre of so much else in our day-to-day lives: pleasure, pain, fulfilment, alienation, structure, stress, opportunity, and denial. As Alain de Botton has written, through work we are so often ‘diluted in gigantic intangible collective projects, which leave us wondering what we did last year and, more profoundly, where we have gone and quite what we have amounted to’.
In its own strange way, I hope that another year in which we’re forced to navigate the quirks of working through a pandemic (in all senses of the phrase) will continue to reveal what really matters, what we must live with and what we can and should live without. Perhaps we have an opportunity now to reconfigure work in ways that are more inclusive and supportive, models that are more firmly rooted in a respect for workers as humans, for workplaces as communities that do more than merely facilitate labour — for better or for worse.
Personally, I want to be more attuned to the habits through which I incorporate work into my life in often unhealthy ways — as a gauge of personal success and worth, as a mechanism to avoid putting time and effort into the riskier pursuits I’m scared to invest in or to sidestep having to really sit with my thoughts and feelings without the distraction of things I could be doing. (Who else had a mini-breakdown during the holidays in the absence of a work routine? I know it wasn't just me.) I want to learn to assert, and advocate for, myself more effectively in the workplace and be more proactive in moments of condescension, compromised principles, or exclusion. And I want to make sure my work ultimately makes life better for others, not more difficult or unnecessarily complex, while giving myself the chance to acknowledge my own needs and priorities — including the need to have a break.
A friend asked me a few days ago what my word for 2021 might be. If I can have two words instead of one, I'm opting for 'slow down'.
How about you?