Episode 20: Learning to trust the journey

In which our protagonist emerges, blinking, into the outside world, seeking proof of life

Dear reader, brave soul, how are you doing? How are you really doing, in this crazy world that’s sort-of-reopening but still trying to frighten us at every turn? I hope you’re doing ok. I hope you’re surviving. If you’re struggling, though, please talk to someone. Get out in the sunshine and fresh air. Leave your house. Reach out. It’s scary, it’s difficult, it seems like it’s impossible…. But it’s totally doable. I did it this week: I went to the cinema, I went to a gig. I was in my happy places. I recognise I’m privileged to be maxinated (thank you, NHS and AstraZeneca), but the day out was wonderful and I can’t wait to do it again.

Because, dear reader, being out and “living” is not the norm for me. I’m the first to admit I’ve gone a bit overboard during the plague. I have basically been a hermit for the last 14 months; I have rarely left the house, even to go for a walk around the block. But to be honest, I didn’t really notice any difference. People don’t understand when I say that, when I admit that #plaguelife was just business as usual for me. I’m not proud of it, but it’s true.

In the before times I did much the same as lockdown; I would spend days on end within these walls, sometimes going an entire week without setting foot outside. I would tell myself it was because I was busy. Y’know - busy busy busy, modern life, work and all that. Too busy to leave. Too busy to look after myself. Just enough time to slide out of bed, sit at the computer to work (from home), watch an episode of something with dinner, then head back to bed for a not-at-all restful night. 

That was life for me. I knew it wasn’t right, that I wasn’t happy, but nothing was exactly wrong so nothing was pushing me to change. Just that niggle in the back of my head. Even those few occasions when I had social engagements, I would often back out at the last minute, good ol’ social anxiety winning over the desire to be amongst the world. 

So lockdown, and life during Covid, hasn’t been that much different for me. If anything, it’s helped: it gave me a socially-acceptable reason to be a hermit. People suddenly understood why I might be nervous of being around other people, of why I might be too exhausted to leave the house, of my general lethargy with life. I felt seen, I felt heard. For the first time, no one was trying to force me to go out and socialise and LIVE (capital letters necessary for emphasis). It was ok to not be ok.

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We needed to reset humanity

This mental health awakening has been amazing, but I can’t be the only one nervous that it’s about to go away again. Do we really think that, this time next year, we’ll all still be living in compassion, allowed to be flexibly working, allowed to negotiate the world on our own terms rather than by societal dictate (government decrees aside)? If you believe that, I envy you. I wish I had that kind of optimism in humanity. Me, though, I think we’re overdue a massive reset. I think we needed this enforced pause - not meaning to trivialise the collective trauma in any way - but life could not safely go on at the speed and pace it was before. We are burned out as a planet in more ways than just mentally - we’re burned out economically, environmentally, culturally, spiritually. We’re burned out in practical terms and in more esoteric terms, too. We need to rethink the way we live.

That’s why I’m taking it slow, this emerging back into the world, and I want you to know it’s ok for you to do the same. The world before all this scared the shit out of me, and I let that fear rule me. The pause of the last 14 months - and the subsequent impact that pause had on me professionally, medically, mentally - has changed me in profound ways. In ways I could never have imagined. It’s given me both the courage and the clarity to seek change, to start living instead of existing. 

But I also know I’m sounding like a broken record. I know I’m very good at the talking, but less so at the taking action. I wrote last week about how I need to live by design and not by coincidence, and I’m trying to work out what that looks like. I need patience as I do this, as nothing is an easy answer. 

Trust the process

However, two signs were sent to me this morning, telling me I’m on the right track despite recent setbacks and disappointments. First, the affirmation card I pulled said “I am learning to trust the journey”. And I am. I’m learning that mistakes and failure are not the end of the world or a signal that I’m worthless/useless/no good; they are positive because they keep me moving towards the right goal. Nothing worth doing ever came easily. 

The second sign was today’s Words of Wisdom at the London Writers Salon. Coming from stoic writer Ryan Holiday, they said: 

“In life, there will be times when we do everything right, perhaps even perfectly. Yet the results will somehow be negative: failure, disrespect, jealousy, or even a resounding yawn from the world…We are all faced with this same challenge in the pursuit of our own goals: Will we work hard for something that can be taken away from us? Will we invest time and energy even if an outcome is not guaranteed? With the right motives, we’re willing to proceed. With ego, we’re not.”

I’ve faced the failure and even the yawn from the world in recent weeks despite thinking my motives were sound. I’ve also feared both my entire life. I’ve craved external validation too much, and I can feel that craving creeping back into my subconscious: [insert experiment] didn’t work, which means no one cares and no one’s interested. And that thought inevitably leads to… “So, why bother? What’s the point?”

Those two questions have a place in the overall conversation, but this is not that place. They are not an excuse for inaction. The point is that each experiment moves me closer to the goal. I bother because I have a mission I’m working towards. Right now, the point is figuring out what works for me, what I need, what I’m willing to give to get there, and what I’m asking the universe for to help me. It’s a journey, and it’s a long one, but I’m learning to trust it.

Trust your own journey, dear reader. As Ryan Holiday wrote: “Do your work. Do it well. Then ‘let go and let God’. That’s all there needs to be.” I’m not down with the God bit, but I’m willing to trust the universe at large to keep me moving in the direction of optimal travel for me, at this moment and in all moments. 

Until next time, let’s trust the process. 

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The week ahead 🗓

I spent an inspiring few days listening to amazing writers via StokerCon, plus actually getting back out into the world. It’s time for action.

  • Writing: This morning I set a goal of the end of the summer for the next draft, which is in effect a total rewrite and so I’m now calling it draft zeropointone. The aim is 5000 words per week. (I nearly accidentally wrote per day and that would just be setting myself up to fail!)

  • Work: After a big push fortnight it’s back to slow and steady, and I’m focusing on upskillign. I’m starting to tick away at some CPD as I work out what the best next steps are in this turning point for my career. I’m a member of the Chartered Institute of Editors and Proofreaders, so I am doing some of their online training in the coming months. 

  • Health: The whole health plan has gone out of the window in recent weeks. No point in analysing why, but I’m back on the straight and narrow this week.

  • Routine: I’ll let you in on a secret: that routine I talk about every week? It’s aspirational. Do you know how many times a week I actually get it done? I’m too embarrassed to admit that one... You can, however, join me and hundreds of others at the LWS Writers’ Hour every weekday: 8am London, New York, California and NZ. I go to at least one of those a day. Side note: I’m now hosting Kiwi hour several times a week! (That’s 9pm UK/4pm EST/1pm PST/6am AEST for those playing at home.)

On the stereo 🎧

California Soil, by London Grammar

I find London Grammar to just be incredibly soothing. This latest album - released a few weeks ago - has all the hallmarks of earlier releases (ethereal soulful vocals, downtempo music) while being slightly less… morose? Is that the world I’m looking for? Some remixes of tracks have been released through the Calm app, too, if you want to properly zen-out with them. 

Off the shelf 📚

The Reset: Ideas to Change How We Work and Live, by Elizabeth Uviebinené

This. This is the book we need right now. The book for our times. I’ve been raving about it on social media for the last week, but here are my thoughts collected: It’s not about “the new normal”. It’s not about how to make hybrid or remote working efficient. It’s about the fundamental changes we need to make as individuals, as cultures, as businesses, as communities, as cities and societies. Because it’s all interconnected, and it all starts with YOU and your demand for better.

As regular readers know, I have suffered multiple burnouts, never letting myself fully recover before diving into the next thing. That’s how I got here, to this journey of self(ish) - I had no choice. In The Reset - written for millennials, but applicable to everyone - Elizabeth Uviebinené doesn’t have the answers, but she’s asking the right questions. She’s starting the conversation, and I appreciate that. She points out that we can’t change the way we work unless we’re willing and ready to, but that changing the way we work is interrelated with how we run our businesses, the culture of those businesses, the communities we live in, the way our cities are set-up and the infrastructure that underpins them, and finally the attitudes of society as a whole. Once upon a time, in the midst of a depressive trough, I was told by a senior at work (in healthcare!) to “take a pill and get over it”. It’s that sort of attitude that drives us to burnout. Let’s stand up and demand better for us all.

“There are very real reasons that we, as a generation, all feel so deeply fixated on work. We’ve come into a working world recovering from recessions, trying to make enough to survive and rising living costs and greater competition for roles as certain industries become more automated. It’s made us desperate to hustle hard. In that environment, we simply don’t know how to take proper breaks, and we’re applauded for coming into the office when we’re ill and soldiering on. We’ve rebranded second jobs as ‘side hustles’ in our attempt to catch up economically. We frame it as: who wants to be one thing these days? But more often than not the reality is: who can afford to do just one thing these days? No wonder 32 is now the average age of reaching burnout and 37% of millennials don’t feel empowered enough to take a lunch break. That lack of empowerment is a very real issue that needs to be addressed… The last two decades have seen burnout become an epidemic in offices throughout the UK and half a million people in the UK suffer from work-related stress to the point of being unable to continue… Burnout isn’t a millennial affliction. It’s a twenty-first century one [and] it’s tied up in how we view work, and we think it says about us.”

Visual confirmation 📷

Saturday, 22 May: I emerged back into the world, blinking in the sunlight and wondering what had really changed. I indulged two of my great loves - cinema and live music - in a public setting, with people I didn’t know and that weren’t in my “bubble”. There is, indeed, hope ❤️

(Ring from Zoe Sherwood)

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