When I receive grateful emails and messages from readers and fans, I sometimes feel uneasy. I received one such email last week, which went as far as to say: “Everything I’ve been thinking lately you are writing and f**k it’s reassuring - thanks!” The uneasiness is because while I absolutely write for the benefit of others, it’s also a selfish act.
Writing is how I make sense of what’s happening to and around me. It’s how I process my personal and professional challenges, and the work that goes into researching and writing an article is a powerful tool for me to normalise, understand and contextualise the world I live in.
When I write about how to manage stress, it’s because I’m finding a way through unmanageable stress. When I write about boundaries, it’s because I’m learning how to set them. When I write about change, tricky conversations, or values, it’s because I’m devoting my energy to navigating and understanding those things for me, my family and my clients. Sometimes this feels like a conflict, or a selfish behaviour. But I came across an Anais Nin quote recently that has stuck like glue:
“The role of a writer is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say.”
I can’t get this one out of my head. There is no lonelier an experience than feeling as though we’re the only ones struggling with something. Sometimes it seems as though everybody else has access to a secret we don’t, so they can navigate the world happily while we battle silently.
It isn't true. I know that, because every time I share a piece of my own confusion in a book, article, Wednesday Wisdom or social media post, I’m bowled over by others’ relief that they’re not alone. When we give voice to the whispers, the fears, the doubts and the worries, something shifts. When we share a work in progress, not a heroes journey, the game changes.
It took me 6 weeks to own up to my recent collapse, and I broke my silence (with some trepidation) in a LinkedIn post that’s gone gangbusters. I owned up to the guilt and shame I experienced in being unable to care for my children, and the battle of reconciling a deeply held sense of personal competence and credibility with raw and unavoidable human struggle. My heart is full from the outpouring of support that accompanied that post, which streamed in publicly and privately in a way I’ve never experienced.
Why is it so powerful to see people publicly own their darkest times? We know, intellectually, that if we feel something, we’re unlikely to be the only ones. There are billions of people in the world, and as special and unique as we like to think we are, it’s highly unlikely we’re the only one feeling some kind of way at any given time. Yet still, we box on solo.
We’ve never had so many different ways to communicate. Instantaneous, multi-channel, multi-sensory connection sits in our pockets and on our desks, and we’ve got our entire network at our fingertips - so why do we feel so alone?
The pandemic has been a time of paradox for many. A time of both crushing loneliness and new connection. Of terrifying ambiguity and purposeful clarity. Of destabilising anxiety and newfound confidence. The ties that bind are stronger than ever, while the forces that divide seem to gain new momentum every day.
Politically, socially, personally and professionally, we’ve lifted up rocks and asked new questions. We’ve confronted demons. We’ve wondered about equality, morality, success and sustainability. We’ve talked about race. Gender. Work. Money. The environment. Leadership. Connection. The price we’re willing to pay, and the price we’re not. The future we want to invest in, and the past we want to leave behind.
And now it’s all about to shift again. The vaccine is here. Bubbles are opening. People are flooding back into offices, tired and weary, but ready for another round. The concurrent permission and exhaustion that accompanied lockdowns - whether persistent or intermittent - is coming to a close and we’re both thrilled and terrified about what that means.
In Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present, Frederick Snowden makes the case that global health crises act as a mirror to society, exposing and amplifying reality rather than changing it. “Epidemic diseases are not random events that afflict societies capriciously and without warning,” he writes. “On the contrary, every society produces its own specific vulnerabilities. To study them is to understand that society’s structure, its standard of living, and its political priorities.” The hope that COVID would force a re-examination of those priorities is starting to wane, and unfortunately, I share that pessimism on many fronts.
In a recent MindF**k Monday, Mark Manson expressed a similar sentiment. COVID, he argues, has been a sort of “hydrostatic stress test for each place and each person around the world. Each systems’ weakness has been revealed.” But rather than laying the foundation for a new way, Manson believes that our faith in a new normal is misplaced. Things will soon be more or less as they were in 2019, says Manson, with little political or social change to show for it.
I don't disagree. But I’m also not without hope for us at a personal level. Lines of communication are different now. Topics are different too. We’ve started podcasts in record numbers - Spotify saw a threefold increase in 2020 alone. Blogging has exploded. We’re sharing our lives in ways we never have before, we’ve seized the power from mainstream media and celebrity voices, and I firmly believe we’re better for it.
I also believe that doesn’t need to change. We may not be any smarter, and in a year’s time, we may not be living much differently than we did three years prior. But we can change the way we talk about our lives. We can continue to share how we think and feel, and we can make sense with others - even if we don’t know what the answers are, or we don’t get there any quicker than before.
You don’t need to be a writer, or a podcaster, or an ‘influencer’ to make that happen. The real power in sharing experience comes in the everyday moments. In the same way a shared smile or friendly word on the train or in the grocery store can change the trajectory of our day, understanding the reality of people we know through conversation is immensely powerful.
And we know how to do it now.
We've seen our boss’s kids and pets. We’ve seen the inside of our colleague’s garages and spare rooms. We’ve swapped ties for trackies, eaten lunch into a webcam and shown our personal selves in a professional environment in a way we could never have expected.
We’ve caught glimpses of spouses and washing piles. We’ve merged worlds, changed conversations and started to show up in new and different ways as work, family and home muddled together in messy ways.
Even if our lives aren’t different, the way we relate to each other can be. And it should be. The toll of the pandemic on mental health and personal relationships has been staggering, whether you live in a fortunate country or one still besieged by record case numbers. We need each other more than ever, and not in a glossy, ‘here’s how I beat this’, heroes journey way, but in a real, ‘here’s what I’m fighting’ fashion that empowers and normalises the full range of human experience.
We don’t need to be experts to be impactful. We can say: “Here’s what’s working for me. Might it work for you, too?” We can ask “How are you, really?” and actually listen to the answer. We can remember details about people’s lives, and follow up on them, by asking “Is your son feeling better?” and we can add our own experiences to show empathy “I remember that first year at daycare and all the bugs that came with it, it’s a killer.” We can inject microdoses of compassion, humanity and encouragement into the onslaught of mundane meetings and we can acknowledge small wins for each other, remembering the team spirit we were able to rally as we fought a pandemic together.
And we can do all that without losing credibility, respect or reputation. In fact, we can do all that and bask warmly in what we gain: trust, connection, vulnerability, empathy and understanding. We can experience the surprising benefits of feeling like shit first hand, and help others to do that too.
We might not have new answers. We might not have our revolution.
But we can sure as hell have new conversations.
Keep talking. And if you can’t do that, at least keep listening. We need each other.