Work Will Not Save You – COVID19 Guest Post

Katherine Pickering Antonova is an associate professor of history at Queens College, City University of New York. She is author of The Essential Guide to Writing History Essays (Oxford, 2020), The Consumer’s Guide to Information: How to Avoid Losing Your Mind on the Internet (Amazon, 2016), and An Ordinary Marriage: The World of a Gentry Family in Provincial Russia (Oxford, 2013). 

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I’m an academic mom on a 3-3 teaching load; I’ve long since surrendered. I’m already as lax as possible about screen time, hygiene standards, cleaning, cooking, and laundry. Like most Americans, we’ve barely been able to afford childcare, and then only the minimum to barely keep our jobs. All this was the norm before we hit a global depression in the middle of a global pandemic with a narcissistic idiot in charge. 

Yet, surveying the reports of friends, colleagues, and strangers, we’re all now trying to continue mostly unnecessary work on new terms, wearing ourselves to a nub, unhealthily overcompensating for crushing anxiety. Our kids are also suddenly thrown into distance learning with bonus screen time so Mommy can finish grading. 

Thank God we’ve got the option of screen-based entertainment and education for kids who are stuck inside indefinitely. But have you met a kid of any age after even a couple hours of screen time? They get crabby, they develop aches and pains, they can’t sleep — just like us. Which makes even more work for parents–there’s no way out of the endless work. We can’t expect kids to be good at handling this transition any more than we can expect their parents to be able to juggle suddenly full-time work from home, making it up as they go. None of that is actually possible. 

Why are we filling our lives with bajillions of unnecessary emails and “deliverables” and Zoom meetings to pretend we’re “productive,” compounding the ill effects of a crisis? 

I’m not talking about actually necessary work here: healthcare, medical research, delivery & grocery work, and so on. What if our pretense of productivity in all the other realms of work is not only purposeless and making us miserable, but endangering the lives of those who have truly necessary work to get on with?

There are going to be a lot of reasons this virus spreads and people die unnecessarily in the coming weeks. Government inaction, delays, and ineptitude are chiefly responsible. Lower on the list but definitely a factor is that in addition to staying home, washing hands and wearing masks we should all be resting if we can, to prevent spread and to improve chances of recovery so we can keep the vital work going long enough to eventually reach herd immunity once a vaccine can be introduced. 

It took us weeks to admit mask-wearing by the general public will help and there still aren’t enough masks; no one even mentions rest. God forbid Americans acknowledge there are limits to the human body and to economic growth: we’d rather kill ourselves with the lie. 

I know what some of you are thinking: our students need the credit now, a favorite business might go under, if we don’t work we don’t get paid. None of these are reasons to work; they’re reasons we have to work. 

Work is not holy in itself. Work does not heal. Work does not bring you closer to God or to happiness. From the most pragmatic perspective, increased work does not increase productivity. What does increase productivity, solve problems, liberate people, and bring wealth, health and happiness? Balance. Rest. Play. Art. Exploration. Reflection. Exercise. Nature. Connection. 

So let’s imagine a totally different response to this virus. Imagine if we called a mulligan on everything. Imagine we all at once stop doing work emails or Zoom meetings while our kids sit out this crisis with YouTube; all of us alienated in front of screens. Imagine the teachers stop teaching, students stop trying to learn, offices stop officing, brands stop selling. 

I know you have objections. They pop up in my head, too. They’re the nefarious brain worms created by our culture of productivity, our political-economic system that requires us all to stay busy so we don’t notice how that system actually works and who actually benefits and at what cost to humanity.

What would happen if we only used email and Zoom to connect with loved ones, to connect kids with lonely adults so parents can get a break, to connect donors with the needy? What if the executives, administrators, lawyers, educators, and business owners used this time to rest, exercise, reflect, consider, and come back later with balanced, deeper ideas? What if workers, students, and kids used this time to recover, breathe, play, and came back later ready to work and learn more deeply? What if we all relearned how to consider health first, how to think long-term, how to prioritize?

This could only happen, of course, with emergency Universal Basic Income, universal healthcare, freezes on rent, mortgage, utilities, all deadlines suspended, all policies adapted, large and small. Every objection you have could be figured out humanely and equitably, if we could let go of the pretense that any normality can or even should be held on to. The virus has already taken normal away. It’s gone. Done deal. 

Obviously I’m not making a practical suggestion for any individual action. No amount of self-care, hacks, or tricks will alleviate any of the conditions that are killing us, directly or indirectly. The problem is structural: we’re kept so busy all the time, with so much at stake, so much information, so little time to think or rest, it’s very difficult to even imagine another way of life, let alone bring it about. 

To beat this virus, to prepare for the next one, simply to make life possible, we have to stop trying to pull normal back from the abyss — it’s gone. Instead we need to survey what we’ve got on our hands now and come up with new ideas for new problems. And we have to do that collectively

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.

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