I have a pair of full length caramel leather boots that are mocking me. They are flopped over in my porch next to the shoe cabinet they don’t fit in. Of course, I don’t see them often because the front door is only used now for Tesco and DPD deliveries. Because my husband’s study is a flight of stairs nearer the door than my office he tends to beat me to the paltry excitement of taking in boxes. But still, I know they are there because they call to me.
Remember when you bought me? Remember when you first wore me? Remember when you thought your new life was always going to be that way?
I bought them in the in-between period when I was no longer working as a Judge but not yet officially retired. I had driven in early spring sunshine over the top of the Burnley moors to do a pro bono coaching session and, on my way home, gloriously free to choose how I spent my day I stopped off and bought them. They were a celebration of a new stress-reduced start in life.
They had their first outing on a trip to Didsbury. I went to interview two holocaust survivors who had been on the the ill- fated SS St Louis. Afterwards I walked in those boots, in glorious spring sunshine down leafy streets to a café, revelling in the freedom. I brunched with a guy who speaks six languages and we studied some Torah together and he told me about life and food in Paraguay. I popped into a bookshop and chose a new memoir then I found a different café and spent a couple of hours writing and answering emails at the table in the back. Later that afternoon I did another coaching session and packed a bag ready to go to London for a psychology class.
Ha! say the boots, and you thought that was what life was going to be like!
And it is. And it’s not.
I still coach and write and speak to interesting people. I still study psychology and I can still put those boots on and walk down the lanes by the house if I want to. I am binge reading all the beautiful memoirs of Dani Shapiro. I still wake up every day glad, so glad, for the decision to leave that unmanageable stress behind.
It’s lockdown No 3, we are on house arrest and it’s not the same at all.
I am bored.
Cranky bored. Restless bored. Bored enough to consider taking a teaspoon and digging an escape tunnel out from under the house, under Liverpool and the Isle of Man to my Mother-in-law’s house in N. Ireland. (If you ever wondered where those slightly bonkers government policies come from….)
And yet the irony is that this very boredom makes me curious about the boredom.
How can I have so much to do and still feel bored?
The question invites me first to examine the boredom. The presence of difficult emotions – anger, jealously, guilt and this seeping, annoying dullness – are there to give us clues to what we need in life. Rather than avoiding them, sitting with them, truly examining them can be the way to turn them to positives. After all, this lockdown is not just a pause between segments of our life. It is our life. It’s a unique time to be alive, so rather than enduring it why not catch hold of it, really be present for it.
Boredom to me feels first like claustrophobia, like being tethered down. I miss movement and travel and roaming about. I can see that novelty and change are something to mindfully build into life in the future, a psychological need to meet. But there is more, another level underneath. Boredom feels, it feels.. I search for it, rolling around in my mouth trying to form the words…. It feels… like disconnection, as if I am entirely untethered.
This is of course a particularly human phenomenon, this complexity of being able to hold two diametrically opposing feelings at the same time. Tethered and untethered. I feel nailed to the floors of my own home, condemned to walking a limited patch of ground and yet I am also floating around the air in the house with no connection to anyone else, the freedom both heady and disorientating.
As I thought about this I remembered that in some of the bantu languages the same word – isizingu is used for both boredom and loneliness. Loneliness is of course fundamentally about disconnection and in those cultures that speak those languages the not-easily-translated concept of ubuntu is a key part of their societal culture. Ubuntu might be rendered as “I am because we are”. Archbishop Desmond Tutu explained it as “I am human because I belong. I participate, I share” and wrote of it in No Future Without Forgiveness (1999) saying
“We are different so that we can know our need of one another, for no one is ultimately self-sufficient. The completely self-sufficient person would be sub-human.”
Barak Obama at Nelson Mandela’s funeral said
“There is a word in South Africa – Ubuntu – a word that captures Mandela’s greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others and caring for those around us.”
I’ve found the danger of lockdown is to overcompensate for the lack of novelty and travel by focusing on how we are safe at home, how we are doing the right thing to isolate and how danger lies outside the door. In a physical sense that is true. The problem is – my boredom, my feeling of being untethered comes when I forget that it isn’t spiritually true. That whilst I can tough out being physically constrained, I cannot truly live life with joy if I let go of the knowledge that I am needy of others.
As a coach it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that if I am busy meeting the needs of others then I should not be bored. It’s the same I imagine for those of you still in the law. You are busy – busier than ever if you add in home-schooling – and daily we give out to others. But are we allowing ourselves to feel the vulnerability of needing others ourselves?
My boredom I realise is not actually about the distractions I miss, the cafes and the aeroplanes and beaches. It’s not about lack of activity because I have that in spades. It’s about me having accidentally slipped into a bunker mentality in which I subtly and subconsciously starting to see others as potentially infectious dangers to be kept at bay. Its not so much about the keeping apart from people physically, It’s about me forgetting the psychological position of Ubuntu. Desmond Tutu in a different book the Book of Joy, Lasting Happiness in a Changing World said,
“We shrivel when we are not able to interact. I mean that is part of the reason why solitary confinement is such a horrendous punishment. We depend on the other in order for us to be fully who we are. (…) The concept of Ubuntu says: A person is a person through other persons.”
That interaction need not actually be synchronous or even direct to take away my sense of being untethered. He’s not talking about conversation so much as a recognition of the fact of our interdependence.
It’s probably no accident that my response to this realisation is to write about it because writing is only half alive if it is not read. Some writing – the journaling I do almost daily – is so personal, it’s a connection between my cerebral self and my inner self. But the rest of my writing is fundamentally about connection with readers I may never actually know have even seen my words. Writing requires trust and the vulnerability to cast words out in the hope that they connect with someone. It is, I suppose my way of ‘achieving myself by sharing myself with others’.
I just have to remember that the silver thread of ubuntu is ‘invisible to the eye’. It’s more than the physicality of the face on the Zoom screen or the neighbourly wave over the garden fence. It is the internal belief, a faith, that the point of me sitting here writing this is that by writing about what makes us human, someone somewhere will read it and recognise their own humanity and together we will be tethered by the unity of our experience. You reading makes me fully who I am.