Mindfulness won’t get you through the lockdown
Brits needs to rediscover their stiff upper lip
As we close in on a month in lockdown, some things are starting to become clear. For many people up and down the country, the government’s strategy of pressing pause on normal life has has come as a blow. Families are having to deal with job losses or pay cuts in the form of being furloughed. Many people are carrying on working long hours, at risk of catching the virus, in jobs that are already underpaid and understaffed. And some people, quite frankly, are having a good crisis.
The guilty secret many are harbouring during this pandemic is that they’re not really having a bad time at all. In fact, for many middle-class millennials, working from home with enough time to AeroPress the coffee and fit in a Yoga With Adrienne session between Zoom meetings is a vast improvement on sharing the crowded tube with other workers. The clampdown on driving, flying and consuming in general is ticking all their climate-change-concerned boxes and there are less people to dodge on their morning run to the independent coffee shop that has stayed open for its regulars.
The problem is, these coronavirus good timers can’t hide their rather shameful enjoyment at the almost total closure of society
The problem is, these coronavirus good timers can’t hide their rather shameful enjoyment at the almost total closure of society. It would be no good to simply stay quiet about the fact that, bar the lack of trips to the pub, your life hasn’t really changed as a result of coronavirus. Instead, they have to find a problem to fix in the form of their mental health. Take pop star and newly-christened plural-pronoun-user Sam Smith who was criticised for posting a grimacing selfie of himself in quarantine ‘meltdown’. Smith was (supposedly humorously) complaining about suffering from a mental-health breakdown despite being cooped up in a palatial home with endless resources and no money worries. In an interview apologising for his ‘bad timing’, Smith explained that though his post might have been a little crass, ‘the hardest part’ of quarantine for him ‘is sitting back and watching everyone else working so hard, but I’m doing all right, the time is moving’. It’s good to know how well rich people are coping with watching normal people do their jobs.
But daft celebrity examples aside, there is a widespread and painful narcissism among those who feel the need to pretend that this lockdown is hitting them hard. The Guardian ran a how-to video by Australian academic, psychologist and author Lea Waters who encouraged readers to give their ‘brain and heart an emotional holiday’ by being ‘present’ instead of worrying about coronavirus. (Tell that to the postman struggling under the weight of your newly purchased aromatherapy candles.) The Telegraph offers up suggestions from ‘experts’ like creating a fake commute by walking around to ‘transition your mind from work to home time’ or emptying your mind by writing three pages of nonsense when you wake up in the morning. And if it’s not encouragement to find problems with your mental health where there are none, there is pressure to use this as a ‘positive’ crisis, too. Even the the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have teamed up with Public Health England urging the nation to ‘take positives out of this and realise that… we won’t get this whole time again’.
This fetishisation of mental-health among my generation has been around long before this pandemic. A year ago, fashion journalist Pandora Sykes explained how her work threatened her mental health: ‘For me, seeing thousands of e-mails, all within a space of my own, is a sort of social claustrophobia – the white noise of strangers’ chatter – a suffocation under the weight of my inbox.’ A 2018 You-gov poll found that almost half of 18-24 year olds felt seriously ‘stressed’ – much more than older generations. This so-called ‘millennial burnout’ is taken seriously – workplaces are hiring in meditation coaches, calming petting zoos or other de-stressing mechanisms to combat their young workers’ anxiety. They suffer from things like ‘errand paralysis’ which is the torturous condition of feeling bad that you haven’t finished your to-do list. Meanwhile, serious mental-health concerns that make life difficult or impossible for people to function that are real and should be treated often get ignored. This low level obsession with keeping a balanced mind, a clean inbox, a de-cluttered head space is more often than not superficial nonsense. It speaks to a generation who have been taught that their feelings, emotions and sense of self is paramount.
Resilience is a dirty word these days, even Dominic Raab found himself in hot water for suggesting that the prime minister was tough enough to beat the virus – supposedly victim blaming everyone who had died. This cult of vulnerability – in which no one is allowed to be resilient for fear of offending those who aren’t – is becoming the norm. We spend hours asking children to sit for circle time talking about their feelings instead of learning. We tell young women that the world around them is fully of dangers, pressures and sexist threats instead of asking them to grab life by the balls. Mindfulness televangelists from the government and Hollywood alike preach to us that we all have mental health, and that we’re all in danger of suffering. As a result, resilience becomes something that is seen as a weakness – a flaw in someone who is unable to be in touch with their sensitive side.
These are scary times. But if the only thing you have to worry about this morning is whether or not you’ve written your three pages of mind-emptying, mind-numbing stream of consciousness, you’re probably going to get through this pandemic just fine. It’s hard to ignore the class difference here – a Channel4 News segment last week showed an interview with a bin man called Sean, who laughed off the suggestion that his job was difficult. ‘It is worrying at this moment in time but you just have to carry on’, he said, ‘this is easy, you know’. There’s no question that people like Sean feel frightened or anxious. The difference is, he gets up and carries on.
Being Irish, I’ve never been a fan of the proud British ‘stiff upper lip’. But when it comes to an international pandemic, it would surely be better for all of us to try to use this time to think about someone other than ourselves. That could mean getting out and volunteering for local groups or signing up for shift-work delivering food or resources or beating the anxiety of boredom by offering to join the cleaning staff at one of these new hospitals. It could also mean taking this time to reflect, in as mediative a state as you desire, on the sheer narcissism of fiddling with mindfulness while Rome – and the rest of the world – burns.
There will be serious mental-health ramifications from this pandemic – some people are unable to get the medication or therapy they need because of social-distancing rules. Some people will have their conditions or illnesses exacerbated by having their daily routines warped beyond recognition. The sheer lack of human contact will be an incredibly difficult thing for many of us. But those who are secretly enjoying wallowing in self pity need to get a grip. If we’re really to believe, as everyone from Whitney Houston to climate-change activists have said that the children are the future, it’s time we started demanding that younger generations step up to the plate. Forget Brexit, the post-pandemic future of this country is unimaginably uncertain and so we all need to be involved in shaping what it might look like. That might sound stressful, but don’t reach for the essential oils. The divided response to coronavirus has revealed the danger in this cult of vulnerability we’ve let grow among younger generations. Instead, let’s be mindful to call bullshit on the use and abuse of mental-health during this crisis and start thinking about how we might use this opportunity to reclaim resilience as the driving force that will get us out of this.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5Subscribe