Recently, several friends described themselves as unproductive in the saddest and most judgmental tones. “I’m not producing anything” meant “I am not the person I was“, “I am not who I knew myself to be”, “I do not measure up” against an idea of how we are all supposed to be in the world, of others who seem to do what they do so well and easily.
They couldn’t see that they each had actually achieved a great deal, NOT the work product they’d brought forth in the past — plays, books, films, money — but in personally challenging ways. Just navigating the insidious emotional challenges wrought by the pandemic has been mighty work for many of us: Grief at the loss of so many sources of daily joy and at our broken world. Fear at the wildly uncertain future brought by a threat we cannot see, at our own unexpected reactions to it, in exhaustion, depression, disorientation.
How did it happen that we have learned to value only obvious tangibles and define our worth by them, to savage ourselves with opinions?
I view THAT as a hyper-charged product of the Plague Years we are in, a magnification of the puritan ethic that courses through this country. Recognition of it is implicit in this Joy Permit I found in the park across the way; It renders permission to just feel joy, have fun, be fine as you are.
British actor and activist Riz Ahmed spoke compellingly about the pressure to be productive during lockdown. His words are useful even in normal times.
We’re all reimagining what productivity is. We’re all reimagining what our purpose is. I think there’s something spiritually profound about what we’re all living through...
……I think we’re all experiencing this trauma, really, and so many of our mental and emotional energies are going toward dealing with that. I’m also kind of reconsidering what an act of creativity is…
…But I’d like to hope that if there’s an arc to this journey, it might be starting to interrogate and challenge some of those mantras that we all inherited.
During a particularly stressful period when I was taking care of our failing mother, my sister, 3,000 away, one day said: “I’m issuing you a certificate”. Yeah. A certificate, which basically meant permission for me to take care of my driven self. “Stop working, go out to dinner with a friend, on me.” Like that. Since then we’ve issued each other many imaginary certificates. It can be for all sorts of things we need a reminder that is right and necessary to do for our well-being.
And the real point it: because someone else may seem to be faring well, or “better”, than us, doesn’t meant that there is something wrong with where we are.
So I’m going to issue certificates to anyone who needs one:
Of course, you can issue yourself your OWN certificate, filling it out exactly as you want, above. (Click here for a pdf to print.) What certificate would help right now?
The message is, at heart, what Jenny Holzer proclaimed in her iconic, transformative Truisms for Survival series (1983-1985):