On not being essential
aka “My existential crisis in times of corona”
There’s nothing like a global pandemic to make you re-evaluate your life.
All over the world, people find their lives forcibly slowed down, if they’re lucky, or completely upended if they aren’t. At the end of this, our lives will be forever changed.
Before Corona, I was beginning to stabilize. After a decade of disordered eating and years of depression, I could honestly say: I’m getting there. I was able to pay my bills, found time to write and work towards my goal of a creative career, and was getting my life in order. Only took 29 years, but hey, there’s no schedule. I truly thought I had it figured out.
Then I lost my main source of income, a part-time job at a Berlin cinema. My other side gig ended on March 15. I had been able to save up a cushion and an emergency fund, which makes me way luckier than most, meaning I don’t have to panic about putting food on the table or paying the electricity bill… for now.
In fact, this should be paradise: a month-long hiatus from normal life, allowing me ample time to write.
And I have. Some blog posts, some fanfiction… and a full page and a half of the screenplay I’d intended to rewrite in April. Yeah. Underwhelming, isn’t it? Not really as productive as I expected myself to be.
As the self-deprecation and perfectionism that have been my constant companion since childhood reared its familiar yet destructive head, I stumbled across a tweet from @neilmwebb that provided some much-needed perspective:
“You are not working from home; you are at your home during a crisis trying to work.”
I’ve heard this twice today. I think it’s an important distinction worth emphasising.
@neilmwebb, March 31, 2020
Alright, I decided. Let’s stop the productivity porn. Let’s slow down. Let’s focus on my blessings. Let’s take long walks, play with the cat, read for hours a day. And while I had genuine moments of calm and happiness, one thought kept resurfacing, over and over again:
I am not essential.
I’m a writer who has yet to earn a living with their craft. I’m a recovering bulimic battling depression who lacks the energy for a lot of things they would like to tackle. I am a blogger and YouTuber with only the hint of an audience at this point.
So yeah, if society has to shut down with only the most vital parts still going, I am amongst those who stay home and wait. Which wouldn’t be too bad, I guess, if it weren’t for my urge to affect change in the world. It’s why I decided to share my recovery journey. Why I’m talking openly about being nonbinary to any local newspaper that wants to run the story. Why I want to tell stories that help create a more inclusive, diverse media landscape.
Yet despite my lofty goals, I couldn’t help but wonder: What am I doing with my life? While others help and improve the world day in and day out, I am talking walks and doing a bit of writing, waiting until I can resume my comfortable side gig at a cinema later this year.
Four weeks into lockdown measures in Germany, and I felt lazy. I felt ashamed.
See, I’m not made to be a doctor or a nurse or fill any of the other roles in the medical field that are saving lives and curing ills. My sister is a urologist and her tales, first from uni, then from the clinic, showed me early on that this is no path for me.
Why not help feed the nation, then, I thought? I could apply to shelve produce at a supermarket, or help harvesting foods, become both essential and be employed again. Yet I looked at the hours and the requirements and I knew, deep down, that this schedule and rhythm will ruin what tentative progress I’ve made in my recovery. The worst five weeks of my life consisted of working at a factory. While others had been in that job for decades, I was at the edge of reason — and learned that there is no ‘one job fits all’.
That is no excuse for laziness, though, I reasoned.
Given that I will need a ‘day job’ for a while longer before my creative endeavors allow me to live off them, why not pursue something worthwhile? Alright. Let’s go looking.
I found plenty of co-op studies or trainee positions that would provide money as well as the qualifications I need to become a social worker or help with child protective services. All required two to four years of schooling, which is more commitment than I am willing to make. Besides, I am not one for full-time education. My Bachelor of Arts in film studies and anthropology proved that.
It took me a bit to start looking into jobs at NGOs or charitable organizations. Most want volunteers, but the big ones surely had paid staff, right? I could become one of them, and further their cause at the same time as support myself.
Well, that brought another issue. If my anthropology degree taught me anything, then it’s that so-called charities or humanitarian work might not be as helpful as those providing the help like to think. Post-colonialism and one too many corruption scandals drove home the fact that, wherever I turn, I’d need to conduct a thorough vetting process.
Between the musings and doubts and contemplation of my own uselessness, I went on a lot of walks. I relax by consuming media, which at the moment is once again fanfiction. Sometimes it’s non-fiction books, sometimes I binge-watch series, but right now I’m immersing myself in stories written by fans, for fans, just for the fun of it.
I’ve been part of online fandom for over fifteen years. It’s where I began my journey as a writer, where I met long-time friends, where I grew up as a creative. I can’t imagine ever not writing fanfiction. In fact, some of the only writing I managed during those existential crisis days was for my current work-in-progress.
That’s when it hit me.
I don’t have to be essential.
The content I produce doesn’t have to be life-changing.
Here I am, walking through a nearby patch of trees, distracting myself from the chaos that is life and recharging my batteries, and what am I reading?
Content that is fun. Content that is entertaining. Sometimes I seek out that which challenges me, which teaches me something. But more often than not, it’s just about the joy of it.
It’s escapism, pure and simple.
And there’s nothing wrong with it. Escaping the present is what enables me to cherish and appreciate what I have. Escaping the present is what allows me to replenish my energies and return with more vigor.
For years now, I viewed my purpose in life as telling stories that move people, but it always had to be profound feelings I evoke.
What this pandemic has helped me realize is that, in fixating on an underlying agenda in my writing, I’m falling prey to society’s obsession with productivity all over again.
Enjoying art, whether that’s fiction, film, theatre, poetry, music or else, isn’t about maximizing impact. One story of mine isn’t better than another if it deals with more serious topics or inspires deeper reflection in the audience.
Writing something that is simply fun is just as well. It helps distract a reader, provides a ray of sunshine for a cloudy mind. It’s a change in scenery, no matter how frivolous it is in someone else’s eyes – or mine.
I think I finally understand what ‘art for art’s sake’ means.
And if that’s true for art, what about life?
Don’t get me wrong, I never doubted that every person on this planet has equal worth, because we do. Yet I somehow still distinguished the worth of our actions. Intrinsic versus gained worth, if you will. Somehow, my perfectionist and workaholic brain had decided that working to affect positive change was morally superior to just working for the money.
Which, oh boy… so much wrong with that assumption, least of all the privilege that it assumes everyone has to simply choose a way to earn a living.
I see that now.
I see where I went wrong, where my internal beliefs turned harmful.
I can work at a cinema or at a supermarket or a hospital. I can reach five people or five thousand with my stories or videos. More isn’t better. It’s the effort that counts. The act of creation, the act of providing escapism to others.
Yes, my life’s purpose is to tell stories, but not to evoke anything specific. I tell stories so others can enjoy them. Nothing more, nothing less.