It may seem perverse but it wasn’t all that long ago that I was excited for a quiet weekend in. Mindless, cut-off, indulgent downtime. Usually by the Friday evening, however, my ‘downtime’ would include a meal out, a social gathering or visiting an attraction, determined to make my way across the city despite planned engineering works. Wanting to rest up gave way to what I actually preferred: connection and busyness. It was easy to take for granted how accessible that lifestyle was. Even if meant braving a replacement bus.
If our activities are laid out by various domains (work, friends, family, hobbies, learning, well-being) our identity can be vulnerable if any one of these is taken away. We lose a loved one, we feel hollowed out. We lose a job, we feel incomplete. So, as many of us head into the first weekend of social isolation or, at a minimum, a restriction on the activities that filled our time and defined us, it can feel daunting.
At first glance, a smaller world suggests that we must limit meaningful activity, but does it have to be the case?
Of course, the Covid-19 crisis has left us susceptible to physical, mental and financial risk, so protecting our health is our first priority. Without the feeling of a secure life-jacket, all we can do is try to stay afloat. But if we do find ourselves in the privileged position that we aren’t in immediate danger… well, that could leave quite some time to fill up.
Jump forward to the ‘end’ of the pandemic and imagine asking yourself how you have occupied your time. Whilst there’s a value in being informed, I doubt I would be thrilled looking back to see that I had spent my days scanning the news and sharing articles across group chats. Social isolation might not be within our control but how we fill each moment is.
As a therapist, regardless of the presenting issue, I ask the same question to everyone each session: “Despite the limitations, am I living the most meaningful life I can right now?” Granted, some practical barriers will need to be accepted – e.g. I can’t get to the gym, I can’t go to the pub – but we can unstick them if we’re resourceful and creative: I can work out at home, or I can host a group call with friends.
Living meaningfully isn’t a smug pursuit if it’s focused on enriching your life with activities that are driven by purpose and satisfaction. Doing, despite the limitations, will not only bring accomplishment but also allow continuation of our identities rather than slipping into resigned lethargy.
We also need to overcome more perceptual limitations if they’re paralysing us from attending to meaningful tasks. “Video calls do not equal physical intimacy.” “The world is too terrifying to bother trying.” What would a compassionate friend say in response? Probably to persevere with what matters.
Living meaningfully isn’t a smug pursuit if it’s focused on enriching your life with activities that are driven by purpose and satisfaction
Another approach to living meaningfully is to act on our values — e.g. creativity, determination, empathy — and being guided by these defining qualities. If I’m compassionate, how can I demonstrate this now? Maybe by offering support to vulnerable people or by turning compassion on myself and switching off the news. Sticking with self-compassion for a moment, we’re all struggling, so be kind and don’t put too many expectations on yourself.
Acting purposefully can reframe social isolation as an opportunity for a bit of a reset. We have been afforded some free reign, at least cognitively, to consider who and how we want to be. There has been no better time to make space for the language you’ve always wanted to learn or the craft you’ve wanted to master. If you can get the ball rolling in social isolation, even better, because starting now is more likely to demand space when our lives inevitably busy themselves later on.
Who knows what the world will look like and what living through a pandemic will have collectively taught us? What this does remind us, however, is that life is precious and we deserve to be fulfilled. If social isolation allows for a moment of reflection, of specifying our values, and of meaningful beginnings, then we should take advantage of that.
Dr Phil Lurie is a clinical psychologist