There’s been a lot of optimism circulating on social media since quarantine started and this is a reminder that it’s also ok to not be ok with the state of the world right now.
I know I need more of these reminders. It hit me a week or so ago when I finished an intense workout and still cried because the endorphin release wasn’t enough. I’ve never sought a diagnosis but I exhibited many signs of clinical depression after my good friend Roy passed away when I was 20. Symptoms from that bereavement period came back when I lived in the Bay between late 2016 and early 2018. And I feel some of those same feelings coming back now.
I’m fine, but this is reality for a lot of us. Keith Yamashita puts it well when he said that COVID-19 has surfaced familiar feelings for people who have experienced trauma in their lives:
Like most trauma, in the subsequent weeks it is giving way to other stages of grief for us… The loss of lives and the psychological impact of social isolation is the first dagger; the second, third and fourth daggers are now coming upon us — a new world of behaviors, tough decisions about our businesses and life paths, a decaying economy, vast inequities magnified.
We’re all going through a difficult time, and we all cope differently, but we know it’s easier to be happy on social media than it is to be real because that’s not what the algorithm is optimized for. I stand by Tolstoy’s opening line in Anna Karenina when he asserts that all happy families are alike but unhappy families are all unhappy in their own way. I have no doubt people are doing swell and to them I say–truly–good for you. I envy you. I want that. But I’m in the unhappy family camp right now, so I feel for everyone else who’s with me. We are probably not all going through the same things but we can struggle together. In solidarity. I think not seeing or knowing about these personal struggles creates further isolation within an already isolated world.
What’s real for me right now is finally recognizing that the concept of self-care has been so manufactured and commodified within our neoliberal society that I actually feel like I’m failing at being productive with my self-improvement.
I, like everyone who has the luxury to, wanted to use quarantine as a time to work on the things I care about now that I have the time to—and especially so for me because I’m a contractor now so I have small projects here and there but nothing big to work on overall. Up until recently, of course, the ‘something big’ was Bernie’s campaign. In the absence of that I’ve plugged deeper into XR, Sunrise, Heal the Bay, DSA and other local political movements that I’m a part of with more zeal. I wanted to work more on my blog and write consistently; read consistently; workout and create art; cook and bake more; pick up new hobbies; relearn old skills.
I’ve done all of this within the past 8 weeks. In the process, I haven’t given myself time to breathe. I haven’t mourned Bernie’s departure from the campaign trail, which Amar Shergill recently described in conversation as a breakup. I haven’t done what I should have done and filed for unemployment as a gig worker because I am losing contracts because of COVID-19.
In short, I’ve done everything to distract me from taking stock of where I am because then I will be forced to confront the fact that I am not where society wants me to be. It is one thing to constantly remind myself that society only values my output but there’s also the very unique struggle that first generation kids face in feeling guilty about everything. Our parents had nothing and worked for nothing to give us something so I constantly feel like I owe them. Plus now I’m living at home and not a full-time employee at a company so I have to justify my decisions even more to my own parents.
None of this is new. I’ve written about productivity and value before. I’ve written about the Asian American / children of immigrants experience before. But now it’s a combo deal with a side of COVID-19 thrown in and frankly, I’m just tired.
I’m tired of the media. I’m tired of not being able to go somewhere and be alone. I’m tired of not being able to be physically close to people (which is a big thing for me, as someone who’s top 2 love languages are acts of service and physical touch and already suffers from self-esteem issues brought on by my parents. This childhood trauma of having your self-worth tied to your output rather than who you are is another layer of the aforementioned struggles and def deserves a whole post in itself but I digress).
I’m sick of how little people care about vulnerable communities and how they only focus on short-term profits.
I’m worn weary from the existential crisis of climate change.
I’m defeated by the renewed race struggles that we will now have to face.
I told Ayo that I’m nervous now every time I know I’ll interact with strangers because I don’t know what will be said to me or about me or about my ‘people’ within earshot. I don’t want another story of Asians being physically abused because of the color of their skin and the shape of their eyes. I am constantly on guard and ready to defend myself and those around me simply for being who we are. I’ve always carried this burden because I am a woman, but now I carry this burden because of my race. Like all burdens carried by black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities–and especially women–it is multi-generational and all encompassing. I never just represent myself; I am always a representative of my race. What I say and how I act and whether I choose to speak up will be tied not only to me but how my culture is viewed. I will always be perpetuating a stereotype.
Chris Abani says it well: “when you are a black person here, you are never an individual; you are always a collective. Whiteness enjoys that idea of being an individual. And so, whatever people have decided what the collective of blackness is, that is what you are until proven otherwise.”
And I know that at the end of the day, what I face is still nothing compared to what black men face, and I feel sad and guilty and angry all at the same time.
I don’t know how to change the world. I don’t know how to make things better. I want to—desperately—but I don’t know what to do. I am tired of action and I am also tired of inaction.
Earlier I was lying on the floor in my room with the windows open and I heard all the sounds of nature from outside. I still hold that the world is beautiful. That nothing matters and everything is inconsequential but that makes life so much more worth living.
But that becomes a catch-22 because try as I might to preserve this beauty for the present and future, all signs point to an accelerating tragedy of the commons.
Because that is, my brain dial is constantly toggling among (1) giving people the space to do what they can, (2) being upset that not everyone is doing their utmost to ensure that we don’t go back to normal because the world IS burning right now, (3) telling myself I need to take a break, and (4) telling myself I need to do more.
I don’t know whether I want to press pause, rewind, or fast-forward on this moment but I do know it’s unsustainable and at this very moment, I need to set my dial on (3) and take a break. But I also need to KNOW that it’s ok to take a break, and that’s really the hard part. As able as I am to articulate my traumas, I have not yet moved past them. So simply knowing this isn’t enough.
There is, however, a strange aspect of knowing that’s also liberating. I finished rereading Paradise Lost by John Milton last week, which is an epic about the creation of Adam and Eve within Paradise and Satan’s successful bid to get them expelled from the Garden of Eden. God of course forbade Adam and Eve from eating from the Tree of Knowledge; Satan persuades Eve to do so; she in turn persuades Adam; they despair; God tells them they’ll suffer but redemption is possible, yadda yadda.
Before you’re like lol Les how are you talking to me about the Bible rn you thought Delilah cut off Samson’s penis and not his hair in a pop quiz on bible references in high school yes. I did not do my summer AP Lit reading on Bible references. But no matter your religious beliefs, I hold that this specific text carries an important message.
If Eve and Adam had not eaten fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, then they would not have known about good and evil. They would have remained in a state of blissful ignorance–content–but not by their own choosing. Eve chose to taste the fruit; Adam as well. Having done so, they opened their eyes to good and evil, sin and death.
But they also opened their eyes to choice itself.
Without options, you have no choice.
Without options, you have no knowledge of what can be. You only have knowledge of what is. And that may be fine for some people, but that’s not the life I want to live.
Side note: I don’t know what the consensus is among critics but I firmly hold that Paradise Lost is a subversive text about liberty and absolute power with God being a tyrant and Satan being a false prophet. I know English history, I have read Milton’s other works, and I have done doctoral-level research on this so like I’m pretty sure I’m right but even if I’m way off base it’s what I took away from this epic and in any case what is art (and religion) but a means to inspire something within yourself?
So for now, I will fully embrace what I am going through because it is no less important than everything else.
I do so knowing that it can be a choice for me, and that others aren’t as lucky.
I do so as a reminder that there are those out there who will have me believe that they’re speaking truth to power when in reality they’re tightening their grip on society, and it can come from unexpected sources but that I should always trust myself.
I am still blessed.
I am still thankful.
I am still alive.
(Image sourced from NYTimes)
(Additional credits: Thank you Pearlyn Lii for sending along Keith’s article and This Human Moment series; thank you Hannah Kim for piercing my heart directly with this meme in her APANO presentation.)