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Back in the old days, when I would catch up with friends and family, my instinctive response to “how are you doing?” was almost always “busy, but good.” After years of this automated answer, I convinced myself that being busy translates into growing toward something meaningful. And then the pandemic hit.
The crutch of busyness
For as long as I can remember, I quantified my self-worth by my productivity. This is no surprise in a society obsessed with achievements, hustle culture, and constant self-improvement. I have been conditioned to believe that I always need to be working or bettering myself or society in some way. It made sense before the pandemic, when I worked a full-time day job, various part-time jobs, and performed in live shows multiple nights a week, all while trying to maintain my relationships and be an acceptable, functioning human.
But for the past 10 months, my activities have been reduced to a microscopic fraction of what they used to be, forcing me to change my perspective. The solitude of quarantine has evoked myriad personal changes and challenges, but it has also allowed me to experience a paradigm shift in my relationship with productivity, which has exposed me to a more intimate relationship with myself and with those close to me.
In the “busy, but good” days, my identity hinged on the crutch of busyness, and the illusion of a forward trajectory. The pressure to always be moving, advancing, and visibly growing was a weight on my shoulders that I had gotten used to, and after I lost all of my jobs, and the majority of my performances were cancelled, I felt estranged from myself and the world around me.
I spent a lot of energy criticizing myself for not being more active, as my social media flooded with people learning new skills, traveling, and making major life changes. I felt the pressure to do something great, incessantly reminded that William Shakespeare accomplished some of his best work during outbreaks of the plague. But instead of inspiring and motivating me, the onslaught of inspirations and expectations left me in a frozen state of guilt.
Time for choices
Eventually, I made some choices. First, to spend way less time on the internet. Then, instead of succumbing to the pressure to learn new skills or come out of the pandemic “better” than I was before, I decided to direct my energy inward and use this time and space to address negative thoughts and conditioned toxic behaviors. Instead of continuing to shame myself for my lack of contribution to society, or not being able to write the next King Lear, I indulge in what brings me joy: reading, cooking, watching movies, going on walks, and taking care of my body—activities that used to require justification. Now luxuriating in these activities reminds me that some of the deepest joy I experience can come from simply reading a good book, watching an enthralling film, or taking a long walk.
Relationships bring joy, too, and are an essential part of life, but as someone with her own baggage and personal challenges, I don’t always navigate relationships in the healthiest way.
When I am not feeling my best, I tend to isolate myself instead of practicing vulnerability and expressing what is wrong and what I need. This only exacerbates the initial problem. Before the pandemic, my social isolation usually dissipated as I was forced to engage with the outside world through my many activities. As months in quarantine passed, and I moved in with my partner but remained physically apart from my friends, isolating myself proved to be more toxic than before, as it further distanced loved ones.
But because I am no longer able to say “I’m busy” (that’d be a flat-out lie), or rely on performing to cope with negative feelings, I have to be open and honest. Now there is room for me to say “I’m not OK,” “I’m struggling,” or “it’s been a tough week,” which has helped me be more vulnerable and allow for deeper connections.
What I learned about the arts
The time and space of quarantine have also clarified my dedication to performance and artistic expression. Since early adulthood, I have had a contentious relationship with theater and art, always debating whether I should dedicate my time and energy to something more consistent and profitable. Pursuing art often seemed like the antithesis of dependability and security. Despite the unpredictability of the field, the jobs that I have maintained during the pandemic are writing, improv coaching and corporate workshops, and performing via livestream. This has proven to be more sustaining, in many ways, than my “safe” 9-to-5 office job. I have a new feeling of certainty that the arts are an essential part of my future and of my wellbeing.
Movement or growth?
I follow a Facebook page called The Artidote, which focuses on mental health and art. It shared an illustration of two plants with the caption “not moving...but growing.” Whenever I feel myself slipping down a judgmental, negative thought spiral, I picture a plant and remind myself that all of us have experienced extreme challenges and changes, and that the work required to cope, and adapt to it all, is growth.
It can feel trite to search for silver linings in times of crisis, but the truth is I continue to find them. I wouldn’t have had the time, space, and wherewithal for these realizations in my old life. Don’t get me wrong, I miss working and performing; I am someone who thrives with a lot to do, and I find a chaotic sense of bliss juggling multiple things at once. I mourn the structure and peace of mind that my old routine provided. However, as someone who was in desperate need of reflection and change, this hiatus from the hustle has allowed me to make some invaluable discoveries about myself, my relationships, and what I want.
Image description: A photo of two people walking on a forest trail between tall trees, with their backs to the camera.
Image description: A photo of Kelly Conrad and two other performers in the middle of an improv skit. The stage is black and they’re wearing black clothes.
Image description: A photo of seven green houseplants on a windowsill and a wooden bench below the window, including bamboo, succulents, and a spider plant. It’s daytime and the window has white shutters and a plaid curtain.
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