…said an older friend over twenty years ago. It came up in a general conversation, not as a request to me. He didn’t explain but it opened up a train of thought that has only now pulled into my mind’s station.
This month Mumbai led the second wave of COVID in India. In my own close circle, many people were affected and badly. I have been trying to tell myself that this time round, we’re better prepared than 2020. We know more about the virus, there is some hope in sight in the form of the healing experiences of the past year and the promise of a vaccine, however conditional it may be. But I didn’t realise this is also a new experience of a kind. This is our first major setback after recovering from the shock of a lethal, worldwide pandemic. This is the first time it’s touching some of us closely, at a class or geography level. This is the first time many of us are having to admit that our money, gender, education, address, age or any other form of privilege neither shield us from the virus nor entitle us to healing before anyone else. And this is our first hard reminder that regardless of what we’ve faced before, this experience will not go easy into the night. It demands of us to be more, much stronger than we’ve ever been.
I’ve spent weeks in a dark daze, feeling guilty about sharing my fear with people who are going through worse, afraid of being hunted by people who are raging over their pain and worried about the things that I yet don’t know. In the middle of the week, I had a breakthrough when one friend’s COVID-afflicted parents finally tested negative and when another friend & his mother had a better day after catching COVID during chemotherapy visits. It was exactly like that first breath of burning air when you’ve been under water too long. It hurt but it hurt so good. I never thought there would be a day when hearing or reading “I’m fine” would be a reason for joy but now it is. I feel so much relief & gratitude for another day of life when someone I care about says this to me.
I fell sick yesterday with the worst acidity attack I’ve had in years. I didn’t even recognise it as acidity & mistook it for a migraine, heat stroke, allergy attack before realising almost 14 hours later that it was my old nemesis – acidity. I’ve been through it so long and so badly I should have known better but for the hours that I struggled with the acid eroding my insides, I relived the nightmare that I now know is called reccuring thoughts, depression, death visualizations. The real nightmare was not recognizing that’s what these were, even after all these years of recovery. My health is a permanent reminder of the fragility of life, of peace & happiness. Today I woke up much better, feeling the relief of having purged the acid and with it, all the things that had caused it and which it caused. Resentment, rage, shame, worry. I felt able to focus on supporting certain people in what they were facing. And replenishing myself frequently in between to be able to continue doing so.
Towards evening, something happened that made me lose my shit. This is for those of you who have only ever engaged with my content and think I’m always articulate & profound. I lose my shit abysmally often and carry more worry than is worth. Writing & performance are my ways of curating my best self as a guide to myself and I fail more often than I succeed. Maybe this rage was a residue of that acidity attack, the footnote at the end of a very important lesson. Because I was raging not just at the person who triggered it off but at least three others who pushed the same triggers in me this month.
All three of them did different things but they were boundary violations of sorts. I’m calmer now and I realised something. We are in a new state of panic in the second wave – of realising that we may live in this state of not knowing, of limbo for far longer than we thought. It’s causing a lot of idle mind-devil’s workshops. Everyone feels like they have to help. Sitting at home & staying safe feels boring & it feels guilty. What’s a way to escape that? By being useful. But trigger-happy usefulness is called a saviour complex. It’s selfish, dangerous & causes more problems than is worth. It is what drives the FakeNews broadcasting member of your Whatsapp group who one day announces that the police isn’t letting anyone out of their homes without a label and the next day that camphor is a replacement for oxygen cylinders (both of these are WRONG, please do not believe them). It powers the raging crowds haranguing doctors outside vaccine centers when stocks run out.
Remember the airline warning announcements at takeoff? One of them goes, “In case of emergency, place oxygen mask on yourself before trying to help others.” I keep that in mind. During difficult times, let me not be one of the victims needing help. Let me keep myself healthy, clean & safe so I don’t add to the rescue burden. And let me also keep myself balanced & practical so rescuers don’t have to choose between babysitting my emotions & treating the ones actually in crisis.
This is when my friend’s words make most sense to me. It’s easy, tempting really, to rush out and do something, anything. But how wise is that especially in a contact-spread pandemic, a violent political system, a malicious social media? It is irresponsible & cruel to make it about yourself. This is our new challenge. How to stand by, in unimportance, in irrelevance, in fear & guilt & worry and not add to that burden.
I know the people who pushed my triggers were pawing at me to reassure them, to find answers for them to feel relevant and not have to just stand by helplessly. It set me off because I have trouble establishing boundaries; I know this now. This is not a weakness or a flaw, it’s just something that I didn’t know how to and am learning at my own pace. Because this is so new, it takes me longer than may be healthy to realise when I need to draw a boundary. And drawing it takes out a lot from me. I physically feel ill, I have trouble sleeping or breathing right. I am trying not to resent the people who incite this so I can focus on being a better boundary setter.
Here’s what I’ve been doing to ‘not do something and just stand there’.
Housework is a good way to stay engaged & keep a functioning life & mind, even if not a happy one. This can lead to turf wars with housemates since humans are primed to politick for power. But there is always something to be done, millions of tasks that aren’t as visibly heroic as cleaning fans, repairing gadgets or spring-cleaning. There are drains to be unclogged, washbasins to be de-grouted, water bottles to be refilled…small tasks that no one notices unless they’re not done and magically need to be done again soon. It helps me feel fulfilled in quiet ways and reminds me that quiet contentment nourishes better than victory parades.
I find myself replenished by engaging with content that shows people being resourceful or productive. Leftovers cookery shows, interior redesign challenges, a design podcast that examines solutions to everyday urban problems. I am not as proficient as any of these people. But it helps me trust that I live in a world that has some proficiency. It helps me hope.
I also have a sense that I’m growing when I’m learning, however patchily, slowly or regardless of the subject. I started blogging because I was browsing a site called HowStuffWorks when I was bored & frustrated at work. And it led to 17 years of exploration of digital technology & my own identity. Right now, I don’t have the schedule stability, the direction or the funds to take on a full-fledged course. But I taught myself how to bake an apple pie from scratch. I made countless iterations, alternating baking time, ingredient structure & more. I baked late at night so I wouldn’t have to deal with criticism stemming from other people’s boredom & frustration. I repeated each success in afternoons when everyone was on zoom calls or watching TV, so I wouldn’t add to the internet load. It took me 5 months, no special equipment and only Youtube/blog tutorials to make one apple pie that held its shape & tasted good. But that apple pie represents weeks, days, hours that I didn’t lash out at hapless bystanders, didn’t violate safety norms in my boredom, didn’t add to general anxiety and didn’t need in general, to be babysat. Yes, I’m very proud of myself.
I am aware that this doesn’t work for everybody. But I’m not even suggesting that my life is a perfect formula that others should follow. The pandemic is pushing each of us to face our biggest fears, our worst responses and without any of our usual escape/coping methods. What are we going to do about it? I’d suggest starting by just standing there & not doing anything.