Illustration by Maddi Masterson

We do not need to be productive during this (out)break

During the first few days of my return home, I thought I was fortunate to have a lot of time to myself. But eventually, I felt guilty for being at home and not doing anything. I quickly started reading a book in Italian, watching Netflix shows with subtitles to further my Spanish and Russian, looking into masters programs, studying for my Graduate Record Exam and doing yoga. And the world did the same: I saw posts of people working out at home, baking, cooking, doing crafts and sharing throwbacks on social media. 

Then I had a moment of realization: I was home, but it was not a holiday. It was my same busy life taking a different form in my house, with my same computer and to-do list. This is a common theme in our world: we are not even aware that we are workaholics because everyone around us is in the same boat. Our society pushes us to believe that happiness is dependent on success.

A quote from the New Republic writer Nick Martin in a New York Times article (entitled: “Stop Trying to Be Productive”) took me on a reflective journey: “… this mind-set is the natural endpoint of America’s hustle culture — the idea that every nanosecond of our lives must be commodified and pointed toward profit and self-improvement.” And that mindset stretches beyond America.

Growing up in Turkey, my Dad constantly said “Her şeyden önce sağlık” (loosely translated as health before anything else), and that phrase stuck with me when I was in a dark place studying for International Baccalaureate in high school. I asked myself why and how I ended up at a point where I was spiraling down when everyone around me had so much to say about being healthy. Then, it dawned upon me that my Dad was talking about physical health all the time, but he never took 15 minutes to himself during the day. I was doing the same as a kid copying the people around me: I was talking about living a happy life and not living it. 

Perfection and the will to achieve are difficult things to let go. It is hard for those of us who were brought up to be in the top of our class, be the best at something or simply fulfil our dreams that were set by the same mentality of profit and self-improvement. However, there are cultural exceptions.

When I went to Italy during the spring last year, I initially felt like I was wasting so much time. No one was in a rush for anything. I could be five minutes late drinking my cappuccino and easily walk into the class without feeling bad because everyone would be having a nice chat before we actually started learning Italian. It took me a while to realize that this was okay and healthy. In Siena, people made time for their friends and family and had snacks with a glass of alcohol (called an aperitivo) after work instead of directly going back home. Some places had their siestas during the day for two hours. They paused a few times during the day and processed — yet Italy is still the eighth biggest economy in the world.

My second such experience was the Aboriginal Culture Camp I went to in Australia a few months ago. It always gets tricky when you are talking about indigenous people around the world because they are not just one entity as our global non-indigenous system reduces them to be. In Australia alone, there are around 200 nations. 

That said, a common theme with indigenous cultures is that they have something to offer us about learning how to treat the Earth, become part of a bigger collective and let greed go. I know that it was a huge culture shock for many of my friends who were with me in the camp, but I felt like I was connected to something that was stolen from me. And I do not mean that in a dramatic way — I had no light in the sky or I-went-to-India-and-was-enlightened kind of experience. 

I am simply talking about how good it felt to take off my shoes and touch the ground with my feet, like I did when I was a kid in my grandma’s house. I am talking about leaving my phone behind and simply being connected to what I see around. These are not things we can often do in our globalized society. We become numb and disconnected, living our lives between blocks of concrete with shoes on our feet. As my experience proved, it was possible to live in a sophisticated and complicated cultural system without being forced to overachieve or overproduce. 

I feel like the time we spend in our homes is exactly the best one to question such mechanisms at work in our current world system. The coronavirus outbreak is a tragedy, but it reveals how our current systems are flawed. For one thing, the world is witnessing how the virus is affecting poorer communities in the U.S., a country that has constantly claimed to be the ‘best’ in the world, but cannot even provide the basic health services to its citizens. 

As the coronavirus has shown us, we are in this together. Borders and separation are an illusion. What happens in the world affects all of us. Holding negatively onto identities and underscoring the differences between people reinforces that idea of separation. Our world keeps us focused on this separation by telling us that we will be happy when we own our identities and live our ‘best lives.’ Now is not the time to ‘live our best lives.’ It is time to pause and look around. It is time to ask if the ways we live are healthy and balanced.

Let’s be open minded, listen to ourselves and others, correct and allow ourselves to be corrected. Hopefully, when we finally come out of our houses we can live in a slightly better world than we did before. I am not saying that we should not fulfil our responsibilities or do things we like. I am saying that we should take the extra time off for ourselves. It is time to just lie down in our beds upside down and look out to the sky through the window, and take the time to look at the world from a new angle.

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