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Slow is beautiful

Some personal reflections on my lockdown experience…

So, this is my first blog post since lockdown. Which is kind of surprising, being someone who writes about happiness, psychology and society. There’s been plenty to say about our new situation, and much has been said. What was the best response to the pandemic? How long would it last? What caused it in the first place? Could this be an opportunity for social reform? Is this the point we finally realise we cannot return to business as usual?

All of these were important questions and I definitely had my own opinions about them. But, in all honesty, writing about them felt competitive. Not a day went by without another must-read piece about the coronavirus and its implications. I felt compelled to write articles on what I thought were the most interesting things about the crisis, from how it had strengthened local communities to how it showed our control-based societies were not immune to tragedy and uncertainty.

But, meanwhile, my day-to-day life had changed considerably. The consultancy work I do had dried up, or at least been postponed until later on in the year. Likewise for the local groups and activities I’m involved in. Life had dramatically slowed down. And so had the outside world. It seemed contradictory to use the occasion to write as many interesting articles as possible, even though, in many ways, it was a great opportunity to expand on the ideas in my book, the subtitle of which is Expecting Better in an Uncertain World. Instead, what felt right was slowing down and embracing the uncertainty. The truth is, no-one really knows what to say about our current situation – it’s too complex for that. If slowness is what the world needs right now, and uncertainty is what we have, then, well, perhaps we should just accept that. Or, even better, learn from it.

Of course, I’m in a very privileged position. It’s relatively easy for me to slow down for a couple of months, digest all the changes that are happening, let my ideas steadily ferment into something new. I recognise how lucky I am in comparison to millions of others around the UK, and even more worldwide. But privilege is also an opportunity. With that privilege, I have the time and resources to do things differently, to take more risks. I’m not saying everyone should do the same. Most people don’t have that luxury. I just wanted to say a little bit about the particular journey I’ve been on – and can afford to go on – and some of the conclusions I have reached.

The first thing I realised was how difficult it was to be slow. Not just in terms of travelling less or seeing less people. But also in terms of psychologically slowing down – having less of a ‘to-do list’ mentality throughout the day, putting less pressures and demands on myself. Most of all, just not trying to be productive all the time, whether that be work-based activities or hobbies or exercise or communicating or cooking. It’s only when the world outside slowed down that I realised just how much I’d internalised the norms of our fast-paced society. I felt shit on the days I’d achieved very little. I compared myself to others who were being much more productive than I was. And yet, at the same time, I was championing the brief pause in human consumption and pollution that was taking place around the world. And I was excited about the breathing space many people had to reflect on the things that really matter to them. I recognised just how hypocritical this was.

So, for the past two months, I’ve been working hard on not just slowing down externally, but also internally. To smell the roses and all that. To let things emerge in their own time, while continuing to gently push myself so as not to get too comfortable. It’s an ongoing challenge, but I’m starting to get the hang of it. I also really love it. I’m not sure I’ve ever lived better.

Which brings me on to the second realisation. During lockdown, I’ve started to explore what it would be like to have a sense of self-worth that isn’t tied up with what I do. What if my existence, in itself, is worthwhile? What if the idea that I only deserve to be loved if I am good or useful is a relatively modern – and somewhat toxic – invention? What would I do if I knew that, even if I did nothing or failed at what I did, my life would still be of worth? Now, this isn’t an excuse to either shirk my responsibilities or be a horrible person. My actions can still contribute towards creating a better world, or not making it worse. But, I’ve found what I chose to do with my time is considerably different when my entire self-worth isn’t on the line.

Different things have started to take on value and meaning for me. For instance, instead of writing an insightful article on the coronavirus, I’ve started putting together ideas for a new book. And instead of writing a normal book proposal, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time thinking about how I could do things differently – writing something a bit more personal, maybe even a bit more interactive. Not just words and theories, but real life actions too. I’m still working on it, letting ideas percolate to the surface. And I’m enjoying the process immensely. Of course, I have nothing to show from it yet (at least, nothing I’m willing to share). But that’s the whole point. If I was only concerned with outcomes that made me look good, or gave me a sense of achievement, then I would have produced something very different by now – and, I think, much less interesting – than what I’m currently up to. What would it be like to see the value of our lives in terms of meaningful processes instead of ambitious outcomes? I hope to continue seeing my activities in this way.

The third, and final, and also related, realisation has been about solitude. I’m a self-diagnosed introvert, so solitude often comes easy to me. I’ve been in regular contact with my housemate and partner during lockdown, so I’ve been fortunate in that respect as well. But I’ve still had a lot of time to myself. When I’ve got caught up in being productive, and not feeling worthwhile otherwise, the isolation has left me feeling low and kind of numb. But, when I’ve let myself be slow, and feel a sense of intrinsic self-worth, it’s been glorious. I’ve enjoyed having time to connect with my body: doing stretches and exercises, meditating and having cold showers, and cooking and eating healthy food. I’ve enjoyed connecting with the natural world: writing outside with pen and paper, going for long walks and observing Spring slowly unfold. I’ve found that solitude is less about being alone and more about connecting with the things that are always with us, if only we cared to notice.

So there you go. That’s been my lockdown journey so far. I’m very grateful for it, especially at a time where life has become impossible for so many people. In writing this, I hope to reinforce the things I’ve learned and maybe inspire people to explore the beauty of being slow, if they have the opportunity to do so. I guess you can expect another blog post from me in a couple of months...

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