For the past several months, I’ve found myself substituting the word “crisis” in place of “pandemic,” solely because in my opinion I believe the latter has, in many ways, lost all sense of urgency and concern. I despise the term “the new normal” (that was a short-lived sitcom on NBC starring Andrew Rannells, not a lifestyle). It isn’t because I’m living in denial that things have changed and they aren’t going back to the way they were before, at least for quite a long time. It’s because I believe that words and language matter more than anything, and nothing about this year or this crisis has been “normal.” It’s because I believe we, as a culture, have incited a whole new stigma surrounding the concept of “normalizing” things that we don’t even know what’s actually normal or not anymore. What’s normal for the fish is chaos for the cat. As Meryl Streep once yelled at Clint Eastwood in The Bridges of Madison County, “It isn’t human not to be lonely and it isn’t human not to be afraid! You’re a hypocrite and you’re a PHONY!”
But here’s the thing. We can all be hypocrites and phonies, trying to convince ourselves that anything that’s happened this year is normal, because our brains are simply not wired to hold such an excessive amount of ongoing trauma and destruction. We were only ever able to attempt the illusion of control in the past, and that’s been one of the many things robbed from us by 2020. In other words, much of the trauma and destruction that has occurred this year has largely been out of our control. So we try to focus on the things we can control: following guidelines, washing our hands, staying home, going for walks until our legs fall off. Or, if you’re like me, constantly equating my self-worth with the amount of books I’ve read.
Among the other things that this year has robbed from us is the ability to hide behind professional or personal achievements as a way of distracting ourselves from the nagging feeling that we’re not enough as we are. To proverbially strip ourselves of all the things we hold onto in an attempt to convince others that we are capable, fully functioning human beings is to say, “Hey, look at me! I’m just a person who is alive and breathing today and sometimes that has to be enough!” I don’t remember exactly when or how it began, but at some point in the last five years, I started taking great pleasure in hiding behind the disclaimer of “I’m so busy!” in an attempt to distract from questions like “what’s next for you?” or “are you dating anyone?” or “how are you really?”—even though the label of “so busy” has never made me feel anything but miserable, confused, and alone.
There was also a moment in the last few years when reading for pleasure became some kind of competition with myself. I was made so insecure by thoughts of my path in life that I somehow began dealing with those neuroses and anxieties by reading books almost compulsively. On the one hand, I’ll be forever grateful for the miracle of reading and certain authors’ words, as they have both comforted and distracted me in dark times and happy times. But on the other, I almost don’t know how to function without books—to the point of calling every other aspect of my life into question at the hint of even the slightest reading slump. “Who am I? Why do I bother? Does anything even matter anyway?” For me, being unable to find the right book to read at any given moment means confronting never-ending existential angst.
But then I stopped and asked myself: on top of a global crisis making feeling too much an absolute curse, when will I stop equating my self-worth with the amount of books I’ve read? Why are those two things so intricately linked, and could I ever possibly return to a time when they were not? Obviously, this year has given all of us plenty of opportunity to master the art of distraction, and if the world wasn’t perpetually on fire, I probably wouldn’t be so desperate for the right book to distract me. But for me, the art of distraction goes deeper—I must constantly be reading to be constantly distracting myself from the thought that I’m not enough as I am and never will be, so maybe if I read all these books as fast as I can, I will not only have accomplished something but I will also have fresh knowledge to distract OTHER people from questions or topics that make me feel vulnerable in public. I use reading and knowledge to distract both myself and others from the urge to compare ourselves to each other.
But don’t you think that in a year like 2020, which has stolen so much from us, that we could afford to stop pretending? To stop acting like we have any large amount of control over the universe in any way? To stop perpetuating the myth that we only have value when we are “so busy” and encouraging the continuation of an anxious “grind” culture that only leads to burnout and exhaustion—even during a (excuse my use of the term) PANDEMIC? While I am in fact grateful for this year for clarifying priorities, we all become the biggest hypocrites and phonies for acknowledging the presence of a toxic work culture during the silence but then refusing to denounce it when work once again begins. It’s not easy. But she needs to go.
As someone who struggles with chronic anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), I accept and I acknowledge my tendency to sometimes read compulsively, because in all honesty, it’s not always unhealthy. There is so much in the aforementioned universe that we can’t control, and this is something I grapple with over and over almost every day (especially in 2020). So when things get out of control, I take great comfort in knowing that I can at least try to shut everything off and focus all of my attention on a good book, or whatever’s left of my attention at this point. I just have to remind myself that no matter what happens, I don’t have to conflate my self-worth with my bookshelves. They are two different things, and they are allowed to exist separately from each other—just like we are allowed to exist separately from our achievements.