The Pressure and Privilege of Productivity

Our lovely Poetry editor Sophie explores the relationship between privilege and productivity…

In times of great uncertainty, moving parts, and general feelings of global despair and doomsday; it’s probably a normal response to feel your levels of productivity drain. So, if that’s our intuitive response to shitstorms, why has the C*word pandemic we are now facing summoned the need to simultaneously run a marathon, write a Pulitzer novel and learn how to cook an entire cuisine? 

This desperate need to maintain, or improve upon, our pre-world-being-flipped-over levels of productivity is something I have been struggling with myself. What starts in the morning when I wake up, as a mild bubble of anxiety in the pit of my stomach,  inevitably turns into a crippling feeling of meaninglessness and the existentialist questioning of every major life decision I have ever made. Not only does this make me feel awful, it also prompts me to be a not-so-great to be quarantined with a version of myself for my family. It also has made me have very vivid, fast-paced, Harry Potter themed recurring dreams… an issue for another day. 

I know I’m not the only one dealing with this anxiety, after conducting much rigorous research (via house party), it’s clear to me that loads of people are feeling this way. And it makes me wonder where that comes from.

Obviously, there is the potential answer that its human instinct to, in a time of crisis, buckle down, and push on. While I agree with that, I can’t help but doubt that there were many people learning yoga at home during the Great Depression. So, is it somewhat fiscally motivated? Is it potentially a particularly unhelpful product of late capitalism? Potentially. We don’t have to look very far to find many “successful” manifestations of the Calvinist work ethic, it’s a very normalised, internalised approach to measuring one’s sense of worth. In sum: how much you produce, and what monetary value can be gleaned from that, determines how much value you yourself are worth (and historically if you will go to heaven… Y I K E S). 

So, if that’s even a little bit a part of the basis for this onslaught of my friends partaking in virtual health kicks, what does it look like today? Money has always been linked to power; today however, power is also inextricably linked to one’s online reach and ~influence~. Instagram has entered the chat. As a platform which so many of us actively engage with and contribute to, yours truly included; Instagram has acted as a festering breeding ground of performative means of seeking validation from faceless “friends” on the web. This plays into our base need to be liked and puts a quantifiable measure on how valuable that which we have chosen to brag about is worth. It’s not our fault. We have been handed this cornucopia with which to feed our insatiable egos on a silver platter. Who would look such a gift horse in the mouth? 

It is that quantifiable nature of social media, as a means of giving our pursuits of productivity an audience, which makes it such a perfectly destructive platform in this time of fear and uncertainty. I know that, having come from living a life which I made for myself and from which I gained independence, satisfaction and happiness, I have found a certain ability to regain control from social media. It acts as our connection to the outside world in this time of, aptly named, isolation. When we combine the isolation of being distanced from our real lives, we turn to that which we can control (e.g. the 50 bizarre hobbies I have taken up in quarantine). Social media lets us feel as though that, that is something we can be proud of. 

So, if that’s maybe a few of the sources of the pressure we are facing, how does privilege come into it? 

Well, I am sitting at home, having a drink, knowing that my family is safe and that I will not have to worry about having a roof over my head or finding my next meal. I was able to fly home at a moment’s notice, thanks to the privilege of financial security which my hard-working mother has given me, and I was able to safely self-isolate in my home without worry. That is privilege. 

It is a privilege that I am able to wake up to a seemingly purposeless day and say, maybe today I will make a small ladies’ bottom out of clay, and maybe I won’t. While yes, the feelings of purposelessness and associated anxiety is real, I believe there’s an important conversation to be had about why we are able to feel that way. 

I can assure you, the cleaners, nurses, surgeons, doctors, domestic staff, and all the people who work tirelessly in hospitals to keep the system running and people alive, are not feeling that way. They do not have that option. So, while it is an obvious and topical example, it is the perfect way to remind ourselves that our sense of pressure to be productive, while real and valid, is deeply rooted in privilege.

You cannot help the hand you have been dealt in life, but you can help how you respond to the situation we are in. If one finds oneself in a position of privilege, whatever that may look like, I believe there is an obligation to use that to help. On top of that, I believe that, in today’s world, the way to help, is to care. To care for others, to care for yourself. When we display love and kindness and patience and understanding and compassion, to what is a pretty shitty global situation, we are doing everything in our power to better our world. Whether that be the small world in which we exist, or the global sphere. 

Be kind to yourself, remind yourself that you do not need to be super productive. And remind yourself that, if you find yourself in this position, it is a lucky one to be in.

Tomorrow, I will cuddle my mum an extra time, because she needs it. I will call my friends in heavily affected areas, because they need it. I will spend the rest of the day in bed, playing animal crossing, because I need it. 

Sophie Nankivell, Poetry Editor