How Can We Stop Feeling Useless Right Now?
Staying home as much as possible is the most useful thing we can do
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Here is a question that friends and I have: How do we stop feeling useless during the COVID-19 quarantine? It sucks to be living through something that will be in the history books. It sucks more to be on the sidelines having things happening to us and our world and feeling useless. During WWII the nation came together, people stepped up. Heroes are still talked about. For COVID-19, it seems like the best thing we can do is stay at home (and vote). We aren’t doctors. We don’t sew to make and donate masks. We don’t have enough extra income to donate substantial amounts to save the world. Shouting into the void that is social media gives limited returns. We talk about what we’ll do once this is all over, but with hollow excitement since being too happy feels weird right now (we know it’s not), and we have no idea what season we’ll be in when this is all done. Our lives are on pause and at risk, and it feels like there’s nothing we can do about it and we aren’t even being useful by pausing them. Being cooped up in a city where we can’t really get out, for a bunch of people whose happiness is pretty linked to the outdoors, is bad enough. Feeling useless on top of it is wearing. So, for an actual question, how do we stop feeling useless?
Feeling useful and being useful are two different things, and, though I know you know this, staying home as much as possible is the most genuinely useful thing you can do right now. You’re doing the heroic thing, the thing that binds you to the rest of your generation, the thing that will save lives, and you’re still not feeling right about it. Which tells me that what you’re really asking isn’t how to be helpful. You’re asking how to feel OK.
Some of us are working from home; some of us have lost part or all of our work; some of us are disabled, with limited ability to go out even pre-pandemic, and seeing that experience finally reflected in the culture around us; some of us are all alone, or sharing space; some of us are still going to jobs in person, careful and fearful every day. This pandemic is said to be an equalizer, though in many ways it’s brought our differences—particularly demographic vulnerabilities (age, race, family, ability, economic, and so on)—into greater relief. But the one thing we are all experiencing together, looking out our separate windows, is the world operating at a different speed.
As an outdoorsperson, you already have a huge advantage, because the outdoors skill that will help you the most right now, which is something so many people struggle with, is the ability to be bored. Or rather, the ability to experience boredom, or situations that other people might find boring, without feeling panic. Think about when you’re camping, sailing, or even just sitting in your backyard, when the minutes are empty and unmeasured, and all you can do is exist and notice. Long nights in the woods without a clock, thinking until dawn. How often do you melt into time like that at home? I know I never do. I scroll on my phone, or do the things on my to-do list, or, more often, feel guilty that I’m not doing the things on my to-do list. True boredom is terrifying because it forces us to let go: let go of “progress,” let go of distractions, let go of the idea that we are doing something important, and that therefore we, too, are important.
Odds are that the world doesn’t need you to be a hero right now. The world needs you to let yourself be bored.
As you mentioned, perhaps the most disarming thing about quarantine is that we don’t know how long it will last. It may help to create your own countdowns: this many weeks until midsummer, this many days until your dog’s birthday. Build rituals to mark the passage of time in other ways, too, whether it’s writing in a line-a-day journal or sitting on the porch each morning and noticing as many things as you can that have changed since the day before. Choose a weekday to go off social media completely, a weekday to call your old roommate, a weekday to call your representatives. Try to do physical, tangible things, like cooking, or stretching while you talk to friends on the phone. Clean and repair the gear that you’ll use when this is over. Try a craft.
Notice the ways that people in your community are struggling, both personally and systemically. Call your friends and ask what they need. Many of those needs will be beyond your capacity to help. But some of them won’t.
And if you need help—in big or small ways—call friends and ask for it. They care about you and want to feel useful. They’re passing the time, too.
It could be that you’re going to do something huge and historic during this pandemic, and that circumstances will align in, say, August, for you to use your creativity and skills and experience to solve a problem or start a conversation that will resonate in unknowable ways. But most of us won’t be remembered, even if our era is studied for generations. Most heroes aren’t famous, and most famous people aren’t heroes. We participate in history by participating in today. Right now, that’s all you can do.