This was supposed to be a great couple of months for me. I was going to spend the semester studying in Valparaiso, Chile, a coastal city with a name that literally translates to “Paradise Valley.” By June, I would come home with near-fluent Spanish and a parcel of “study abroad changed my life” stories, ready to dive into my dream internship. If you are a human currently living on this planet, it will not surprise you to learn that none of this ended up happening. Instead, I am back in my hometown quarantining in my house. My program in Chile is offering an online version of the classes that we attended in-person for just two weeks, but instead of paying for a semester of virtual study abroad, I opted to take a leave of absence from school. This means that for the first time in many years, I am not currently a student or an employee or an intern or a volunteer or anything really except for a person that sleeps a lot and wears only sweatpants. As one friend texted me, “Wow, so you’re really gonna have a lot of free time.” Yes, yes, I will.
Luckily for me, a whole cottage industry has sprung up during this pandemic promising that self-actualization can be achieved from the comfort of my own quarantined home. It’s something of a productivity industrial complex, with endless articles and blog posts instructing us how to make the most of this once-in-a-generation tragedy. In between breaking news updates, media outlets are publishing articles about how to stay productive while working from home or how to spark personal growth while sheltering in place. Suggestions include learning a new hobby or instrument, setting a daily routine, reading the classics of literature or, heck, writing your own contribution to the canon. Meanwhile, Duolingo and its crazed owl mascot have been pestering me to pick up a new language. Even vital health habits like exercise and meditation have been co-opted as life hacks. One of my favorite fitness Youtubers has a new 14-day quarantine challenge featuring workouts like “No COVID Core” and “Sleek and Sanitized Arms.” Relentlessly marketed at-home fitness programs and mindfulness apps like Calm and Headspace sell us on the narrative that if we can’t be living productive lives out in the world, we can at least be optimizing our bodies and minds while staying six feet apart as an investment in our productive capacity for when life returns to normal.
Facing the indefinite period of free time, I filled my mind with predestined accomplishments, like keeping a daily writing schedule, picking up a new fitness regimen, and completing a free Yale course online. Once again, it will surprise none of you that this hasn’t happened yet. I feel worn out, both from the diffuse panic I feel for our world and the more acute sense of grief I’m experiencing for my own personal disappointments. At school, I find I can channel stress into my work, but these past weeks I’ve been channeling my anxiety into the gallon of ice cream in my freezer. Seeping between these feelings of worry and distress is a pervasive sense of guilt that I am wasting time, that I am being lazy and am therefore worthless. Ironically, this guilt over my lack of productivity only makes it harder for me to have the energy to actually get things done. I’ve established a few small habits — video chats and Netflix parties with my partner and friends, long runs when I feel like it, much shorter ones when I don’t — but these are only enough to maintain a baseline level of wellbeing, to simply tread water. I’m nowhere near the point of actual self-improvement, and recently, I haven’t put as much energy towards being productive as I have towards thinking about why we are so obsessed with the idea of productivity in the first place.
I am not the first person to stumble upon the conclusion that our culture has a toxic relationship with productivity. People with disabilities and those who study disability have long called for a rejection of the idea that productivity is what determines worth. Scholar Sarah F. Rose writes that “in many cultures, disability has been characterized as the inability to do productive labor, a charge that has limited the citizenship and social standing of people with disabilities.” In this sense, the worship of productivity has created the label of disability and therefore created the grounds on which these individuals are discriminated against. In American society, the conflation of personhood and productivity is heightened by our capitalist context. When we worship at the altar of economic output, it makes sense that we will bestow secular sainthood to the workers whose labor contributes the most to this output and stigmatize those who aren’t deemed productive. For those with visible or invisible disability, rejecting the idea that “to make worth is to be worth something,” as Gillian Giles writes, is an essential antidote to the internalized shame that can result from our productivity-over-everything culture.
Many of us at Yale, including myself, are guilty of internalizing and furthering this toxic climate of productivity because we are the exact population who stands to benefit from it. Linking our productivity to our self-worth makes us feel good about ourselves as long as we are functioning at peak capacity. Suddenly, though, we have found ourselves in a situation where millions of people are limited in their ability to work and contribute to our economic system: those who are sick, parents who must now run daycare centers out of their home offices, individuals with mental health conditions that may be exacerbated by social distancing measures, restaurant and retail workers who have lost their jobs and can’t go out and search for new ones, and people like me who are simply not in the mood. Some of us have lost our privileged position as the beneficiaries of the productivity industrial complex, meaning that we can no longer rest ignorant to its detrimental effects.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed faults in our government and public health institutions, but perhaps it will also magnify the failures of our culture’s misguided fetishization of productivity. We can all begin to dismantle this system by being kind to and patient with ourselves and extending this grace to those around us. This is a time for self-care — not the commercialized variety that markets bath bombs as an investment in self-optimization, but self-care as a commitment to self-love. While using a global tragedy as a life lesson is tacky, allow me this: our lives and our world will improve if we can carry this patience and love with us long after borders reopen and quarantines end. Bodies and minds fall ill, bad days happen. There is a radical power to be found in accepting that sometimes we cannot live life to the fullest and rejecting the forces that tell us that this loss of productivity is a tragedy unto itself. And for those of us who will see our productive capacity return after the pandemic ends, we must commit to challenging these social norms even when they benefit us.
For many of us, these weeks or months will leave gaps in our resumes and transcripts, but it’s foolish to equate these to gaps in our lives. We might look back at this time and think we don’t have all that much to show for it, but we must remember how during this difficult stretch, we strengthened relationships with loved ones or created mediocre craft projects or found a new favorite book or acquired an extensive ability to quote old NBC sitcoms. When we are threatened by feelings of guilt or shame, we must remind ourselves that even the smallest moments of joy and peace can be as meaningful as any personal or professional achievement. At the very least, we can feel proud of our local and global communities and the ways they came together, even when it meant staying apart.
Elizabeth Hopkinson | firstname.lastname@example.org