What To Do With Yourself When There's Nothing Else To Do
Sometimes, it really is the little things that count.
Yesterday was a fairly tense day for US democracy in the midst of a turbulent time, with primaries in several states across the nation that award the biggest chunk of delegates yet but with most of the country still waiting to vote. And while that was happening, the novel coronavirus pandemic progressed, with new outbreaks and new revelations from the people trying to keep us safe about systemic failures.
And as the ancient sage wrote,
Even when it feels like the whole world is holding its breath, it keeps right on spinning.
For instance, we've got a particularly nasty strain of the old-fashioned, non-novel, non-zoonotic family of coronavirus going around our house. You know, the common cold. It's not the end of the world but it's nothing to sneeze at as we've got an at-risk individual (hello!) and older family members in regular contact with the family.
While all this is going on, I sent a pitch for a freelance opinion piece that was time-sensitive enough that I needed to keep a watch for the reply but which I couldn't really do anything about until I knew if had been accepted as whatever I'd end up writing would need to fit specifications I didn't have yet. After I fired off the first email, I was left with a lot of anxious, nervous energy on top of everything I was already feeling, so I got up from the computer and started pacing...
...and then found myself going into the bathroom and cleaning a lot of the surfaces that I don't always think about, or have the energy to deal with. Once I'd done that, I went back and did some of the more routine maintenance cleaning, and then I looked for more things to clean.
As I was doing this, I thought about conversations I've been having recently on here and elsewhere about how it's hard to stay motivated when it feels like nothing we do matters, when we can't see any immediate results for our efforts. And this is true. And cleaning a dusty windowsill in your bathroom or the invisible corner in your bedroom won't result in Medicare 4 All or an end to the Trump regime. This is also true.
But the last year or so has made me a big believer in controlling the things we can control and doing the things we can do, so here's my advice for the day: when you don't know what to do with yourself, do something else instead. Because if you clean windowsill or dust some blinds or put away some clutter, when you're done you do have a cleaner windowsill or blinds or room.
There's a vicious feedback loop between mood disorders and our living spaces. The more overwhelmed we are, the more pointless everything feels... the more things tend to pile up all around us, which just heightens the sense that everything is closing in, that we're not prepared to deal with the enormity of it all.
But a thing we can discover when we do these small tasks is that even if we don't have the energy or the time or the mental wherewithal to do everything, or even to do one job completely... doing what we can, when we can, is still doing something. Doing a partial job is better than doing nothing. Getting started brings you closer to the finish.
And this is true in politics as well as in life. If you don't have the ability to go down to a campaign headquarters and sign up as a volunteer, if you don't have the means to devote yourself as a full-time campaigner, you can do remote phonebanking and make a few calls or a few texts for your candidate. Two or three a day? That's two or three more contacts than would have happened if you hadn't started.
And maybe once you get started, you might find that it's easier than you thought. You might do a few more. It might become a habit. Or something you do in bursts when you've got half an hour while you're waiting to happen and there's nothing else you can do.
By the end of the day yesterday, I had done a lot more little cleaning jobs around the house, and as a result I sanitized a few surfaces (handles and knobs) that I don't always think about when cleaning. So even while I feel like I can't do anything about the coronavirus, that's not quite true. What's true is I can't do everything about it. I can't solve it. I can't stop it. But I can do things, and I'm better off because I did them. My household is better off because I did them. In a very, very small but still true and meaningful way, the world is better because I wiped a few doorknobs, just like it's better because I texted a few voters.
So when it feels like there's nothing you can do, ask yourself: is it true that I can't do anything? Or is it just that I can't do everything? The little things aren't everything but they're not nothing. They're better than nothing. And they add up.
A lot of what we have to do between now and our various primaries, for those who will be voting, and between then and November, is just getting through. Anything that helps you make it through the day is a positive good. Anything you can do that makes your life easier or better or more endurable is a thing that makes the world better.
❤️ thanks for writing this post! I've found this experience to be extremely true, from maintaining my personal living space, incl. your example of cleaning the bathroom, to being ok with incremental improvements in projects and job applications -- public school trained me to not accept partial solutions -- only 100% was acceptable, which was not helpful. Creating something that's halfway there is better for me, since I can *probably* improve it later.