Alive, Awake & Making It Through

Here we are, humans on the earth during and after a global pandemic. It's not like there wasn't a bunch to cope with already. But we're alive and awake and, with a lot of help, making it through the best we can. I'm waxing psychological about all that.


The term “collective trauma” has been used a lot lately (including here). Together, we are living through history. All of us are on this plagued globe (except for a few astronauts), and in that, we share some aspect of experience. As the world transits this pandemic, we are in the same boat: the human boat. There is no other!

At the same time, we are in completely different boats. Each of us comes into this moment loaded with the infinite unique moments we alone have lived before. There are vast inequities between us, on every dimension. We are distinct beings with separate lots in life, separate experiences, separate fates. This time will go differently for each of us.

So, are we together, or are you alone?

Both. And neither.

Life is a paradox of interconnection and isolation. There is safety, and threat, inherent to both. Thanks to our nervous system, we are constantly weighing the upsides and downsides. Based on what we’ve experienced and how we are predisposed to cope, we might lean one direction or another. But fluidity between togetherness and aloneness, closeness and distance, is at the core of human experience.

So, then, why does this moment feel different for so many?

Our illusions of hyper-individuality are being directly confronted. These illusions, for those with the privilege to hold them, come from Western colonialism and the power afforded to some to opt out of certain collective realities. We are taught that we are all separate and distinct, and therefore our fate is exclusively in our own hands. If you can’t, through your own efforts, make yourself invulnerable to the choices of others, then clearly you just aren’t trying hard enough. This myth upholds the idea that those living more insulated lives deserve to be, more than the vulnerable masses.

But despite profound differences in safety and security, there is no wholesale opt-out of this one. If you’re a human on the earth, you’re in this with the rest of us. Some can retreat further, but there is no complete retreat from the vulnerability of this moment. That we, together, comprise a species now afflicted that none of us in our individuality can excuse ourselves from is the truth our myths have obscured.

At the exact same time, many of us are experiencing unparalleled aloneness. Alone in our homes, alone in our unique experience that no one but us can feel, and reminded of all the aloneness that’s come before. And, we are made to feel more alone still by the implication that we shouldn’t feel alone at all: we’re all in this together, right?

Aloneness is a feature of many traumatic experiences. Sometimes, suffering is endured alone. At other times, the suffering is collective, but nevertheless makes one feel isolated inside. It is remarkable how alone one can feel, even going through something with others, even seemingly connected by all outside measures. There is an interior place that becomes known to people who suffer in this way.

We don’t tell enough collective stories about this place, from this place. We tell stories of individualism, achievement, success. We tell the stories our status-quo enables and sanctions. Stories told by marginalized collectives, people, parts of people holding stories we have disallowed, are silenced to protect our myths. And so, more or less, our most isolated places become islands of exile.

And yet, that place is shared. That place beneath it all. A room of our own we can describe, but not invite into. A place from which, ironically enough, we can feel the innermost humanity of all of us. We each have it, and therefore, have it together. This moment calls on us to be in community about our aloneness, in ways that say to these isolated places, “this, too, is human.” That even in our undeniable aloneness, we are together.

We are all so alone. We have that in common.

“I’ve been feeling really unmotivated.”

“I can’t seem to accomplish anything.”

“I just feel like: what’s the point?”

I’ve been hearing this a lot the past few days. People trying to get things done, trying to work or go to school remotely, and just struggling to care.

Don’t get me wrong: they care about feeling unmotivated. They feel guilty, ashamed, angry, that they just can’t function like usual, like everybody else clearly can. Still, they can’t conjure the energy or willpower to start or, frankly, to give a $h!t about what they’re supposed to be doing.

We are taught that we’re supposed to be endless founts of motivation. That almost no matter what is happening in our lives, hearts, minds, we are supposed to have no problem whatsoever carrying on with producing and doing of all kinds. We are supposed to feel driven and effective, regardless of what we think or feel about the task before us. And when we do have a “problem” feeling motivated, we are told that there is something wrong with us.

This framework treats us not as humans, but as productivity machines, expected to maintain perfect efficiency. But because we are people and not robots, whether we feel motived depends on many factors. It matters profoundly what the task is, how we feel about doing it, what the perceived stakes are of doing or not doing it, our and others’ evaluation of our capacity to satisfactorily complete it, our moment-to-moment capacity to apply the necessary resources, and basically everything else going on for us.

The system isn’t designed to respect, or even tolerate, these realities and fluctuations. The pressure is constantly high. We get the message that it doesn’t really matter what’s happening for us: that we don’t really matter. And nothing kills motivation like feeling as if you don’t matter, like feeling expendable, exploited, or exhausted.

Now, on top of the usual nonsense, we have at least three levels on which motivation has just become an even greater challenge.

On the nervous system level: The physiological states people occupy when threatened or coping with significant distress are biologically incompatible with higher-order processing like reflection and learning. Trying to engage in “normal” activities might feel ludicrous to your body. As if a tiger were running straight at you, and you decided to have a seat and pull out your knitting. Your brain is going “No! We can’t afford that!”

On the interpersonal level: When we’re in that nervous system state, being asked to produce work can feel intensely invalidating of what we’re experiencing. Having any non-essential demands placed upon you right now may feel like an affront. If your boss, teacher, colleague acknowledges the difficulty of what we’re going through, that may help. But for many, the expectations of “business as usual” are adding insult to injury. Which brings me to…

On the societal level: We are having a big and overdue conversation about our priorities. When everything but the basics must shut down, what remains? Brought down to essentials as we are, we have no choice but to acknowledge what those essentials actually are: food, water, shelter, power, freedom of movement, technology (ie. connection and access), relationships, medical care, mental healthcare, etc. While it is clear that these are priorities, our society is not structured to actually prioritize them. And so, when faced with tasks unrelated to these essentials, we may be scratching our heads going: wait, why am I doing this project, which doesn’t meet my or anyone else’s needs?!

To that end, the question to ask yourself is: does this really need to get done? Like, actually? Will a need go unmet or have its meeting threatened if this does not get done? What can you let go of trying to accomplish under these trying conditions?

But, the reality is, since we live in a society that has already over-taxed us without providing nearly enough support, most of us have massive to-do lists of thing that really, truly, need to get done.

If that’s the case, keep a few things in mind.

1) Trying to work counts as working. I’m serious. Asking your body what it needs to get something done, and searching for the answer, is part of the process.

2) Your needs matter. Are you fed? Are you rested? Are you socially connected to the degree that suits you? The essentials need tending to before any higher-order tasks are going to feel palatable.

3) It only has to exist. In other words, lower that bar all the way to the ground. Imagine you’re writing a paper, and as long as you turn in words on a page, you’re going to get an A. Just throw some stuff together. A for effort! Once it exists, if you have energy to improve it, cool. But that is a luxury and this is a crisis. Let’s underachieve!

4) Follow your motivation. What do you feel motivated to do? You may find yourself repulsed by the thought of most tasks, but called towards something specific: a particular art project, rearranging the furniture, re-grouting the bathroom tiles for all it matters. Go do it! There is wisdom in what your nervous system is interested in right now. See where that leads you, and then check back in with what needs doing to see if your way towards it is any clearer.

5) Just do anything. If all you feel like doing is absolutely nothing, but you need to do something, ask yourself: what could I do? Could I switch from lying down to sitting up? Could I keep the TV on but stand up and make a snack? Could I write a completely unrelated email? Just do what feels available. Because from there, other things might become available. And like stepping stones, you may be able to gradually hop your nervous system to a state more conducive to working.

6) Don’t do alone what would feel better done together. Our brains like to know we have back-up. If you’re trying something alone and getting stuck, you might just need some company. Whether or not you technically can do it alone is irrelevant. For some unhelpful reasons, we are taught that doing things on our own is more valuable. But that concept is both incorrect and harmful to us. Even if we know something, telling it to ourselves is often not the same as hearing it said to us from another. We need each other! If all else fails, try connecting.

What have you decided not to accomplish during the pandemic? I’d love to hear from you.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever been crashed on the couch, snacking and Netflixing, having much-needed downtime, but with a constant ticker-tape of guilt and should-be-doings making it feel a little (or a lot) less restful.

Yep, looks like most of you.

We need rest. Right now, at baseline, even in moments when you feel you are doing nothing, you are actually engaged in something major: being a human, living through 2020 on this earth. There are hardly words for the degree of change, disruption, and distress that our world is coping with, each of us with our own constellation of factors producing our unique experience. Consciously or not, this is taxing your system somehow. And then, there’s everything else you’re doing!

On some level, we are all dealing with a “too much to do, not enough resources to do it” equation. Whether it’s in our bodies, our minds, our hearts, our bank accounts, our coping abilities, or all of the above and more, most of us are overwhelmed somewhere. Our society requires us to work harder for what we need than is good for us. We are made to strive for maximum efficiency, while running on minimum nourishment. No wonder we’re so burnt out.

At the same time, we are told that if we aren’t okay, we’re doing something wrong. Do more self-care, they say. Maybe you need to be more productive, they say. We do our best, because being unproductive is a threat to our perceived worth. They tell us about work-life balance and we try to be productive at that too. Yet the system is not designed to promote, or even allow for, balance.

This is gaslighting, and it is a perfect recipe for guilt.

We all have things we can’t do, no matter how hard we try. We all experience blessings, and misfortunes, that have nothing to do with what we do or don’t do. We all have needs: for example, rest. Rest is a biological imperative. No way around that (sorry, caffeine drinkers). And yet because we’re being run ragged but still not keeping up, we feel guilt about taking the downtime. In fact, many of us don’t take it on purpose, but energizer-bunny through our days until we fall apart.

One way or another, we end up on the proverbial couch. Enter guilt. Maybe it’s a whisper of your undone to-do’s, a punishing voice yelling at you to get up, or a sneaky little gremlin running amok and kicking up stressful thoughts and feelings. However it shows up, guilt makes sure you get the memo that this rest crap is a bad idea. It reminds you that “you don’t have time,” or that “you haven’t earned this,” or that “you should be xyz-ing instead,” or whatever your guilt tells you. For however long you hang out on your couch, guilt will be there, tirelessly working to get you back in the game.

The thing is, guilt really wants to help you not do something wrong. That is guilt’s job, and it is a respectable one. It makes some valid points: maybe you really don’t have time. You probably do have way too much to do. Maybe there are some big consequences if you don’t get those things done. Being unproductive is an existential threat! Guilt is trying to help you manage the unmanageable, so things won’t get worse. It blames you, creating a terrible feeling, to motivate you back to work. It doesn’t know that this isn’t your fault. When exactly would it have learned that?

It can learn that now.

The next time you’re on the couch and you notice that guilt is up to something, here’s my invitation: think about rest as the absolutely critical necessity that it is, and pick an amount of time you feel you can truly afford to rest in that moment. The rest does not have to be perfect. This is not about maximizing, optimizing, or any other forms of toxic productivity. This is only to see if guilt can step away from the couch, even just a few steps, and let you better restore there for a while.

Then, set yourself a timer. Turn to your guilt, and kindly let it know that it’s okay for you to rest now, that the world won’t come undone, that you’re giving it a break. Maybe guilt would even like to rest along with you for this time: it, too, is over-taxed. Think of what you’d say to a friend who really needs a nap, and turn to yourself with that same tone and heart. Heck, find a friend who really needs a nap (most friends need naps), and say these things to each other.

Set your timer, and see what happens. Can you have that rest a little bit more?


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