Here’s the honest to f-bombs truth: I am so tired I could just cry and cry.
I am tired of tracking COVID case numbers and reading obituaries and doing abstract and groundless calculations to determine how bad things are, how risky something is, if my sense of risk is attached to anything real. I am tired of the emotional gymnastics of trying to determine if I am overreacting or if I am underreacting and if I am even angry at the right people, tired of doing cartwheels to imagine if in ten years I’ll be proud of each decision or if some grief-stricken thirty-eight-year-old version of myself will condemn my folly and shortsightedness. I am tired of excavating my anxiety to figure out what it’s really about and why it is that I am so angry or scared or resentful, so exhausted. I am tired of worrying that my exhaustion is frivolous. I am tired of castigating myself for being so tired, but, really, why am I so tired, I who have health and health insurance and a safe, warm home and no one relying on me for childcare or eldercare or much of anything, really, because all I am expected to do every day is turn on my computer and do a few, simple, low-stakes things, like grade a few essays, and reply to enough emails to prove I still exist.
And today is Christmas.
And Lord Almighty, we are so tired.
Here is what I am trying very, very hard to do this year: I am trying to remember that nothing is absolute. I don’t have Christmas cheer to offer. I just have this: that nothing is absolute.
Earlier in the academic year I read the new Zadie Smith essay collection for my book club (and God very much bless these women for sending me stupid memes and laughing at my stupid memes and watching basketball documentaries and period films and much of the oeuvre of the inimitable Hugh Grant over the Netflix Party Chrome extension, all of which has tethered me to wellness in a thousand tiny ways, which is also what reading books together has done, including this book, Intimations). In an essay composed in the early pandemic days, Smith writes that “suffering is not relative; it is absolute. Suffering has an absolute relation to the suffering individual,” which is why it afflicts all of us, which is why the most privileged and powerful and successful people in the world are often just as prone to misery as everyone else, though perhaps of a different variety. Our suffering becomes absolute in our own minds. Smith, in her wisdom, does not go on to say that we must fight this—she says instead that when the bad days come and we feel that every feature of our experience is working against us, “at that point it might be worth allowing yourself the admission of the reality of suffering, if not for yourself, exactly, then in preparation for that next painful bout of videoconferencing, so you don’t roll your eyes or laugh or puke while listening to what some other person thinks is pain.”
Which is, I think, to say that my knee-jerk response when I am asked how things are going, which is to say that I am not bad! and can’t complain! is not the act of self-awareness and restraint that I would like to believe. It does not enhance my empathy to others. And perhaps the more honest act, and the one that opens me to greater compassion, is in fact to admit that I am tired and always conflicted and often very sad—at least quietly, to myself. To recognize that it is real.
So I have just said I am trying to remember that nothing is absolute, and then I have said that suffering is absolute and we should say so. What I mean to say is that even that which has an absolute relation to the individual is limited because I am finite, myself, and that means that there is much in the world outside of me that is not my exhaustion. It is not absolute because I am not absolute. And even if all my emotions have become so in my own mind, there are a great many people in the world and a great many places and things and ideas, and there are verbs as well that reconfigure those people and places and things and ideas and that reconfigure me. There is life beyond the reach of my own suffering—if I may call it that.
I am not sure of very much these days. And today is Christmas, and what the hell does that even mean, in a year like this, in a world like ours. Nothing is absolute. So please know that I am not quoting Scripture because I want to end this tidily; I am quoting it because I am finite, and I need to hear it: “come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” and “I have come that you may have life, and have it abundantly.”
Katie is a doctoral student in English and education at the University of Michigan. She loves the New York Times crossword puzzle, advice columns, oceans, and dogs of all kinds.