Don’t let guilt drag your quarantine down


By Melinda Xu, Co-Managing Editor

A few weeks ago, my sister asked me a question. 

“Did you know that Isaac Newton had his most productive period working from quarantine during the Great Plague of London?”

In a time when many of us students are stuck at home, the idea of productivity and efficiency has taken on a new definition in our lives. With no more bleary-eyed 6 a.m. wake-up times to catch the school bus, no more carved out 43-minute blocks dedicated to learning and no more strict assessments, much of the structure of daily life has been swept out from under our feet. Despite managing to maintain as much normalcy as possible through Microsoft Teams meetings, Schoology updates and edited together video clips, I’ve noticed that this lack of structure has invited in a new emotion: guilt.

As my sister — and The Washington Post — was implying in her question, there’s a general sense that we should be doing something with ourselves during quarantine. At first glance, it seems to make sense. Without our usual avenues of productivity, we should find something to dedicate ourselves to, to turn lemons into lemonade, as the saying goes. If Newton could develop the beginnings of calculus, begin his discoveries in the field of optics AND unearth the secrets of gravity while home away from Cambridge, surely we should be doing something, right?

Well, yes and no.

First of all, yes, you should do something. With the many technologies on our hands, we’re lucky to be able to experience this pandemic in relatively opportunistic ways. What we can no longer do in person, we can adapt to do through screens. We still have classes, get-togethers with friends, and online resources for books, movies and art. There’s an opportunity to explore things you’ve never done before, to follow a dance tutorial in the safety of your home, or to try cooking recipes that seemed too intimidating or time extensive before. Find something you’re interested in! Have fun!

But, no, don’t pressure yourself to do anything you don’t want to do or expect to turn into the next Isaac Newton. On a normal day, would you beat yourself up for taking a break, for procrastinating some work for one more episode of your fave TV show? So why should you feel bad if you do the same during the middle of an unprecedented pandemic with record levels of unemployment and a general atmosphere of uncertainty, fear and tragedy? All our lives have flipped upside down, and we are simply adapting to these times. So we deserve to forgive ourselves if some days we stay in PJs and if, woe-be-us, we can’t discover the secret to gravity.

After all, as professor of science writing at Massachusetts Institute of Technology Thomas Levenson wrote in The New Yorker, “the real lesson (from Newton) is to remember whatever aspect of your life that fired your passion before this mess — and to keep stoking it now.”

Art by Melinda Xu

Melinda Xu can be reached at [email protected]