Less is More

I grew up believing I was terribly lazy. My kids find this bizarre, because they see me as a workaholic. In my head I still identify as a lazy person, though I sometimes wonder we were all taught that we were lazy, because we didn’t give 100% all the time. Certainly the dominant ethos that I was raised with, at home and at school, really amounted to “if you’re not giving everything 100% all of the time, you’re slacking off.”

The trouble with this idea, of course, is that the human brain is not capable of giving 100% all day every day, and it’s not capable (nor should it be!) of caring about everything the same amount. We have to choose where to devote our energy. We have to have times where we’re just doing the minimum to get through, as well as times where we are actually resting. Really resting. Lying on the couch, feet up, lazing about style resting. That’s a literal requirement of physics, physiology, and biochemistry, that downtime. We are not physically capable of sleeping 8 hours, working 8 hours, and “playing” 8 hours. We need breaks. Lots of them. And even when we’re not on breaks, we can’t be working at maximum output continuously. It’s just not how we’re wired.

But the message I grew up with was clear. Work hard. Do everything as close to perfectly as you can manage. If there is a problem, work harder. If you don’t achieve what you wanted to achieve, put more effort in and you’ll get there. If anything is out of reach, keep stretching. Want to do well in that subject? Study harder. Want that promotion? Work harder. Need to lose more weight? Diet & exercise harder. You can fix anything just by putting in more oomph.

Which is why covid recovery, for some, is psychologically brutal. Because to get better, you need to rest. You can’t exercise your way out of it – that makes you sicker. You can’t diet your way out of it – that makes you sicker. You can’t push through it and work your way out of it – that makes you sicker.

But you also can’t exactly rest your way out of it. Because if you become bedridden, you lose muscle, you lose fitness, you lose lung capacity… everything goes downhill. If you stop thinking about hard problems, you soon lose the ability to think about hard problems. And, for me at least, if you stop seeing people, you start to completely lose your mind.

There’s an art of knowing when

Never try to guess

Toast until it smokes and then

Twenty Seconds Less

Piet Hein, Grooks II

So you have to strike a balance between physical and mental health. Between not overdoing it and not doing enough. Between staying alive and having a life. It’s tough.

It’s a little like recovering from a joint injury, like a sprained ankle. If you just run on that sucker, it will get worse, fast. But if you don’t walk on it enough, it won’t get better. And there’s no convenient readout that tells you when to stop, and when to do more. Of course, the ankle is just one joint. It’s a relatively constrained problem. There doesn’t seem to be any limit to the bodily systems covid can impact. And fixing some conflicts directly with the rest required to fix others, which is a joke at least as cruel as the one that made all the junk food we crave bad for us in the long run.

Until tech solutionism does something useful for a change and develops a forehead readout that tells us exactly what’s going on with our bodies in excruciating detail, and what to do about it, there’s no way of knowing how much is too much or too little. Medical support remains thin on the ground (and, frankly, doctors are still at the ‘throwing things at long covid and seeing what sticks’ stage of treatment).

I just want nice clear rules to follow. I will work any amount of hard to fix this. Unfortunately, working hard is exactly the wrong thing to do. So here we are, fumbling around, trying to maximise our energy and minimise our suffering, and remain viable human beings in the meantime. What fun.

Covid, like grief, doesn’t necessarily have an end

When you suffer a shattering loss, there seems to be an expectation – almost a requirement sometimes – that your grief has an end date. That it is contained, and follows some kind of predictable, regular path, with widely understood scope and processes. If you’re lucky, an outpouring of kindness provides casseroles and flowers for a week or two, and then life goes back to normal. Except, for the bereft, it never actually does. New foundations must be built. New coping mechanisms created. A new life constructed out of the ruins of the old one, perhaps looking much the same, but irrevocably different. And grief, of course, never ends.

Eventually you learn to incorporate grief into your life such that you can, for the most part, carry on. There will always be times, though, when it crashes over you like a wave. Sometimes pulling you under, sometimes merely leaving you cold and shaken.

Obviously that’s intense grief. Some griefs are smaller – more transitory – though they do tend to accumulate, and trigger surges of the griefs that came before them.

There’s no objective calculation that tells you how you will experience any particular loss. For some, the death of a parent is little more than a relief. For others, a devastating blow. Sometimes a chance met stranger becomes a fundamental part of your life in moments, and their loss is devastating. There’s no equation that can tell you how close a person is to your core, how connected they are to your heart.

A month ago I finally caught covid, after dodging it through a combination of caution and luck for over two years. It turns out that covid is a lot like grief. Some will experience it sharply, but briefly, while others are shattered by it indefinitely. Still others barely even know they have it. And we still expect it to have an end date.

Vaccination helps reduce the severity, but there’s always a risk of ongoing effects, and there’s no known way of calculating who is at risk. You can be young and fit and suffer for years. You can be older and more sedentary and be over it in days.

Yet it feels as though we have developed a narrative for handling the idea that someone we care about has covid. We recognise that everyone’s experience will be different. We check in diligently for a week or so, but just as quarantine ends on day 7 (except it doesn’t, as some symptoms require you to remain in isolation, although few people seem to know that), so, too, does our care and concern. Just like grief, we require covid to have an end date. To stop worrying us. To stop being difficult.

We expect workers to return after 7 days. We expect students to be back in class. We expect all disruptions, and causes for concern, to be swept neatly under the carpet. Secure in our smug “Only old people die” story, which is both untrue and deeply dubious from an ethical standpoint, we look away from the auto immune disorders, cognitive dysfunction, and heart problems that we know are accumulating, and bury our heads in the sand.

Peek a boo, I can’t see you

Everything must be grand

Book a pee, you can’t see me

as long as I’ve got me ‘ed in the sand

Peek a boo, it may be true

there’s something in what you’ve said

But we’ve got enough troubles in everyday life.

I just bury me ‘ed.

The Ostrich, Flanders & Swann

Just like grief, or climate change, or any other complex and terrifying phenomenon, it’s much easier to believe it will just go away. We’ll get over it quickly, or solve it with technology, or it won’t happen to us. The trouble is that there’s no way of knowing who it will happen to, nor even what will happen. It’s entirely possible, indeed quite likely, that there will be long term effects of having had covid that we don’t even know about yet.

It’s much easier, and more comfortable, to look away. To pretend this is just another flu. To “go back to normal”, as though we’re not facing a threat of unknown magnitude. As though there will be no consequences. As though we’re safe.

Five weeks post infection, I know that’s not true for me. Like grief, covid has left a heavy footprint on my body. Who knows what bruises I’ll find in a week, a month, a year. Perhaps I’ll find that new foundations must be built. New coping mechanisms created. A new life constructed out of the ruins of the old one, perhaps looking much the same, but irrevocably different. Just like grief, it’s possible this will never end.

We can’t keep looking away.