Early in the pandemic there was a moment when it started to become clear that the lockdowns that had been proposed as a temporary measure were, in fact, going to go on for a while. Society was understandably anxious. What are we going to do, people wondered, without restaurants, bars, dating, face-to-face human contact, sex with strangers, museums, opera, movie theaters?
Some of the worst people in the world swept in with suggestions. Don’t think of this as lost time, self-help moguls and lifestyle influencers and creative professionals told us. Think of this as an opportunity. Dutifully, some Americans made big plans to utilize and optimize this year of mass death and instability – to perfect sourdough; to learn Italian from an app; to do a lot of squats; to write King Lear.
I thought they were joking. I thought the pandemic resolutions would end up like the kind made on New Year’s Eve, pursued with optimism and vigor for two weeks, then shoved in a drawer never to be thought about again. But a man’s viral description of a recent job interview reveals that someone took the notion of spending the pandemic working on ourselves very seriously: our potential employers.
“I don’t want to alarm anyone,” the pseudonymous Twitter user warned, but at a job interview he was asked whether he used the pandemic to “to pursue any passion projects or personal development”. His tweet prompted a flood of other users’ similar experiences of being asked to account for their time shut into their houses. Whether you spent the pandemic curled into a ball mainlining carbohydrates or in a frantic pursuit of accomplishment and accreditation and ambition while people died around you is, I guess, supposed to say something about your character and whether you deserve employment and money and benefits.
During the past year, the media tried to stuff us with inspirational stories of people who took a bad situation and made it grand. This man made a fortune shorting stocks from his kitchen table. This couple made millions selling handmade masks on Etsy. This person wrote a hit book, got fit, found love in the most unlikely of places. And here were all the good boys and girls of social media, looking for their gold stars for meeting deadlines, getting new jobs, exploiting others’ labor in a rentier economy so they could buy an ugly handbag.
I started to feel like I was being swallowed into the mattress, that the muscle tissues in my thighs were slowly being replaced with memory foam
Now that cities are reopening and businesses are hiring employees again and we are re-emerging, as hungry and horny and soft as Brood X cicadas, what do we have to show for it? I feel like the algorithm knows that I have not been living my best life under lockdown; my newsfeeds are working overtime recommending articles on losing my pandemic pounds and making myself attractive to employers. Now the New York Times is suggesting that I ruthlessly cut out friends who aren’t inspiring and ambitious enough for my glamorous post-quarantine lifestyle: obese friends will only make me obese, a Times article explains. Depressed friends will only make me depressed. It’s time to restart your life; you already wasted a year, you big dummy, the clock is ticking.
I fell prey to this pressure at certain points as well, afflicted as I was by media coverage of people thriving. I should, you know, thrive too, I guess. Lord knows I could use it. Adapting our small one-bedroom apartment into a work-from-home space for two meant turning the bed into my work station during the day. But after a couple of months, I started to feel like I was being swallowed into the mattress, that the muscle tissues in my thighs were slowly being replaced with memory foam. I’ll take up yoga, I decided, 20 years after everyone else did, as a middle-aged woman. I started to fantasize about the physical transformation I would debut for our post-pandemic frenzy – toned, firm, able to wear sleeveless clothing without self-consciousness again.
Within minutes I had turned my virtual yoga teacher into my enemy for life. Listen to this demonic twentysomething telling me to love my body while holding a plank pose for “just three more breaths”, each one the longest amount of time anyone has taken to move oxygen into their body in all of history. Lady, if I loved my body, I wouldn’t be here, and also I don’t “got this”, and also I’m deeply suspicious of any effort that uses language of radical self-acceptance right before reminding me that I can access an unlimited number of classes for a low recurring monthly subscription fee.
There is something truly warped about the way American culture prioritizes growth and romanticizes hardship. Call it hustle culture, or manifest destiny, or the myth of the self-made man: we are incapable of just having a hard time. Cancer is your teacher, poverty is supposed to inspire ambition, a tragedy is just a teachable moment. A year spent in lockdown is an opportunity to pivot, to build wealth from the fear of others, to self-improve. There is nothing about you or your life that cannot be enhanced, monetized, upgraded, or learned from. And our culture believes strongly that if you are unwilling or unable to participate in this hysterical climb upward, you are undeserving of assistance or care.
So allow me to join the chorus of accomplishment and sing about all of my tremendous feats. I am proud to say I personally stimulated the economy with a primary focus on whiskey distilleries. I watched many very important Michael Douglas movies, some of them several times. And I not only retained my pre-pandemic weight, I was able to get those numbers moving upward. I will be re-emerging, proudly, with a spring in my step and with long sleeves to hide the flabby triceps area. I am an inspiration, I must tell my story to the masses, someone put me on the radio.
Jessa Crispin is a Guardian US columnist