Pandemic (Recovery) Diaries #4
When all else fails, turn the goal on its side.
Is anyone else experiencing a staggering, even impressive amount of futility lately? As in, you call and call to get the dryer fixed, and the dryer guy finally comes and repairs the dryer, and you rejoice because you’ve been dangling wet clothes around your house for a month….and then the machine re-breaks while tumbling the second load?
Or you finally set aside time to apply for the program that might enable your kid to go to summer camp, and you learn that you cannot use an IEP to prove your kid’s eligibility, so you call the school for a different set of documents, which they agree to send, and when you open the manila envelope days later, you find… the IEP?
Or you’ve wanted to paint a few mushroom walls in your house white since a year ago, and you at long last get the time—and childcare—to do it, and when the paint dries, the walls are decidedly not white at all, but yellowy cream?
Those are weirdly specific incidents in futility (and yeah, autobiographical). Are you having these moments, too? Or maybe you’re just trying really hard to achieve a goal, and all you’re getting in response is no in a variety of ways: the silent no, the written no, the verbal no, the Amy-Winehouse-on-the-Radio nooo, nooo, nooo.
I realize it’s partly pandemic-related. The mental and physical engines are sluggish. The caseloads are high. People are quarantining, sick, swamped, tired. Everything seems to take twice as long, if not longer. (My sister also reports that Mercury is in retrograde….)
In Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, Emily and Amelia Nagoski say that these high-output, low-yield situations are perfect recipes for burnout. The authors cite a study where psychologists shock two groups of dogs. (I know, I know. Cuddle your pup after this.) The dogs in one group could stop the shocks by pushing a lever. The dogs in another group had no control over when their shocks ended.
Here’s the fascinating part: In stage 2 of the study, the dogs from both groups were each placed into a box divided by a low wall. On one side of the wall, the dog received shocks (I know, still terrible), but there were no shocks on the other side of that wall. Can you guess how the dogs responded? Dogs in the first group, the ones who could press the lever to stop their earlier shocks, figured out that they could just jump over the low wall and escape. But when the second group of dogs were shocked, the ones who had no control over their earlier misery, they didn’t try to escape. They just lay down and whined. They had “learned helplessness,” as the experimenters called it. And who could blame them!
How could the dogs relearn their agency? Threats and rewards made no impact. Neither did demonstrating how to get over the wall. Instead, someone had to physically pick the dogs up and move their legs! Someone had to simulate the gross motor work needed to escape into comfortable territory. The dogs needed this physical movement at least twice before they unlearned their sense of powerlessness.
There’s a lot of futility out there. There are a lot of factors we can’t control. And this sometimes makes me want to lay down and whine like a shocked dog. And I wholeheartedly endorse this coping strategy for an hour or two. But I need to get up eventually. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a physical therapist to move my body repeatedly through the motions of my day, showing me how I can get to the other side.
Which brings us to the Nagoski authors’ recommendation for situations like these. Amelia Nagoski, who holds a Doctorate in Musical Arts, tells a story about recording a musical performance with a large choral group. It’s apparently a tedious task— recording a piece of music. It requires singing the same snippet over and over, getting it not-quite-right in a thousand different ways, and redoing it, striving for perfection. (Turns out, perfectionism is a perfect recipe for burnout.) As the hours went on, the energy of Amelia’s singers waned.
So Amelia gave her musicians a different goal. Their goal was not to get the song just right. Their goal was to fill the guy behind the recording booth with joy. Just sing and fill him with joy.
And so they did. They sang their hearts out for the guy on the other side of the recording glass. And they sang better, and more beautifully, as a result. But they also had way more fun, because they stopped trying to achieve the difficult task of perfection, and instead tried to achieve the very doable task of bringing joy.
I’ve been letting this story marinate in the back of my mind lately, as the dryer rebreaks and the paint clashes with the room, etc. How can this music-recording story inform the painful stretches of futility? I think one strategy is this: If you’re burnt out on striving for a particular goal, maybe flip your goal on its side a little. Reshape it into something a little more lighthearted, into a goal you have some more control over. Into a goal that delights, that brings some fun.
This afternoon, I heard my husband on the phone with the school. He explained the need for different paperwork. He explained that he’d been sent the IEP, and he couldn’t use the IEP. But he also had a warm tone in his voice, and I know him well enough to know what he was trying to do: Make the person on the other side of the phone laugh at least once. Through the tinny sound of his cell phone, I heard a person chuckle, and then, before he hung up, I heard my husband say: “Yes, through the post is fine.”
The walls got repainted. The dryer guy returned. The right paperwork will come. It’s all taking three to four times longer than we expected. My goal right now is to marvel a little more at the details while we wait—like last night’s purple light after a day of snow.
I wrote some new things! They were published! Here they are:
This poem in Literary Mama called “Pumping Milk,” about the very strange act of pumping milk for your baby at the office.
This short memoir in The Unmooring called “Our Way of Loving the World Right Now,” about trying to teach the kids to pray and meditate in March of 2020, right as the world shut down.