Fighting the emptiness with the shutdown of group activities

With the present Government making a big deal of three-word-slogans, ministerial urges for the masses to spend and build are not compensating for the void left behind by the closure of social activities and the venues that host them.

Above – me after eight years with mental exhaustion. Sleep never brings rest.

I’m struggling to remember the last time when I felt I was firing on all cylinders so to speak. It may have been as long ago as secondary school. Which is grim. As for the past eight years, I almost don’t want to go there.

August tends to be a ‘down’ month for me because everything shuts down for the summer. But 2020 has been different for all of us. The various things I wanted to try out for the benefit of my mental health went out of the window. Nice round number in which perhaps to push myself further than before – that or accept that ageing has kicked in and things like that long-anticipated ski-ing holiday I promised myself after a school ski-ing trip in the mid-1990s is never going to materialise.

I prioritised exams and compliance with demands of authority figures over my own happiness

Over a decade ago during my civil service days, we had a very talented middle manager join our team for a few months in a period of intense work. And it wasn’t easy for any of us. At the end of it he said to our team leader that our directorate hadn’t got the best out of him given the attributes he came with. It was an interesting and perfectly cordial exchange (she agreed with him), and the concept of the conversation stuck with me. For me that goes for every individual, group or organisation I have ever had an upward or collective responsibility to. I don’t think I’ve ever had a situation where I have had formal responsibility over another human being – and to be honest I don’t think I’d want that either. Mainly because I couldn’t handle the stress of it.

In the grand scheme of things the past few months have really crystallised for me the things that are both important and lacking in my life, vs the things that people in authority over the decades told me were the things that should be important both in my life at the time and also in the future. The thing is that conceptually some of those things are nebulous – hazy and ill-defined, versus being told by some family elder that you should be a doctor/teacher/lawyer/accountant.

It was cycling down Long Road in Cambridge past the Cantabrigian Rugby Club warming up in the evening sunshine that made me realise I’d not played a game of football for nearly two decades, despite it being an almost daily part of my childhood – in particular my early teens. But then as adults we don’t have the freedom to play team sports every day. And most towns and cities don’t have the open spaces to facilitate such things anyway.

Interestingly as well as arts, drama and music *for the love of it* rather than for exams, assessment, and even religious service (in the mid-1990s the music was so bad that one of the priests dropped hymns entirely for one of the regular Sunday services), some of the common themes that emerge are activities with people I would not normally meet either at school or in my neighbourhood, a shared endeavour working towards something greater than the sum of our parts, and celebrations after it. Furthermore, broadening my life experiences and deepening my knowledge in areas of interest also stand out. And finally love. A huge yet repressed driver because as I’ve written before, the concept of shame was a huge component of Sex Education even as recently as the 1990s. When I compare how things were done before we had the internet to now, it’s difficult to describe the mindset change – and also how authority figures & institutions have struggled to respond. In particular those that demand obedience.

Buying more stuff does not compensate for strong community relationships.

And buying more books doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to read them! But psychologically the books on my bookshelves are a last symbol of hope that one day I might have my own place to live in. Interestingly the one area that has bucked the downward sales trends has been sales related to hobbies and crafts – up 200% says one retailer.

Yet even cycling around at the weekend ostensibly for exercise, there was something hollow in the whole activity – perhaps reflecting my own depression. I didn’t want to buy anything or go anywhere, and am also mindful of the inherent risks of meeting up with anyone for anything given the raised vulnerability the rest of my household faces. It’s not nearly as simple as ‘Oh let’s meet up for a coffee!’ or ‘Let’s go to the cinema’ – not least because the latter are closed, but the internal voice of “Is your journey really necessary?” in the face of the pandemic. But then as with Cambridge every so often you stumble across an image where you’re glad you were there to take the photo. In this case the opening up of King’s Lawn on King’s Parade. Right behind me making the shadow to the bottom left is King’s College Chapel.

If only the walls could talk…

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