On Thursday morning, Taylor Swift announced the impending release of her second “surprise” album of 2020 — double the number of covid-19 stimulus checks the government has offered its citizens, as some pointed out. “Evermore,” the 17-track sister album to Swift’s “Folklore,” released in July, was met with immediate fanfare. And immediate comparison.
“Why is Taylor Swift lapping us like this pandemic is the productivity Olympics please Taylor show us some mercy I’ve written 4 sentences total since March,” one Twitter user wrote.
“Dreading the day my kids are like ‘Taylor Swift put out two albums during a pandemic. What did you do?’ and I have to tell them I wrote a short humor piece about what if flubber had bones,” tweeted another.
While the majority of the self-deprecating observations of Swift’s pandemic productivity were probably made in jest, they also highlight a prevailing issue as the pandemic continues — one that’s hardly humorous. We’re living in a time of elongated trauma, of which we have no definitive end. More than 290,000 Americans have lost their lives, 8 million have slipped into poverty and as many as 40 million face the possibility of eviction by the end of the year. The pandemic’s negative effects are worse for women, and particularly women of color.
We are all coping in some way — dealing with a loss of life, income, community, normalcy — including Swift. It’s just that what her coping mechanism appears to be — working — is hailed as inspirational and productive, while other ways of managing trauma and stress are perceived as moral failures.
Trauma can take many forms, as can the ways in which we deal with its mental health ramifications. One 2015 study found that a common response to the trauma of intimate-partner violence is to overwork. Another 2013 study found that those who survive the trauma of childhood sexual abuse are also prone to workaholic tendencies in adulthood. For those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a common response is avoidance, which can be obtained by focusing on work and, as a result, avoiding the trauma and the feelings it evokes or even the physical pain it causes.
“Coping by ‘doing’ is something a lot of us, especially Americans, do often, and honestly without realizing we’re doing it,” says Jessi Gold, an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine.
In the most overworked nation in the world, where its citizens work the longest hours among industrialized countries, continuously working as a form of coping is hailed as positive — the silver lining of a dire reality. And while it might certainly help some, it is no more valid than other coping mechanisms that are often perceived as laziness, be that staying in bed, saying “no” more often, pushing back deadlines or putting a pin in projects you were once excited about completing.
The person who dealt with quarantine by making elaborate bread loaves is no more of a good, decent or respectable human than the person who dealt with quarantine by marathon-watching 10 television shows and eating takeout every day because they couldn’t bear to wash another dish or cook another meal.
“Your feelings, no matter what, are always valid,” Gold says. “And I think we often try so hard to compare ourselves, and that’s not healthy.”
Swift also has the privilege of having a job she can focus on — one that is uniquely success-oriented, high-paying and highly visible. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs because of the pandemic; they don’t have access to work they can “lose themselves” in. For the moms who are being disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus, particularly the Black mothers, there may be no space or time to process what’s happening and use work to express their emotions. And for 18 million health-care workers, the workplace may no longer be a space where they can find purpose and rejuvenation.
“[My health-care worker friends] would tell you, ‘I used to love work, because I could leave something that might have been stressing me out [at home] and I could just go do work and help people and feel better about helping people,’” Gold says, who treats college students and front line health-care workers. “But work has become a place where they can get sick, or that they see people die all the time, or they don’t have answers or people don’t believe them. It’s not a place of peace or calm.”
To have access to a job that you can throw yourself into, for better or worse, is a privilege. To have the time and space to turn the effects of trauma into art is a privilege. And while these privileges certainly do not mean the ongoing public health crisis hasn’t impacted Swift, it is important to put into context the ways in which she is able to cope by being productive.
At a time when people are looking for reprieve, there’s no doubt Swift’s music is a gift for her fans. And if her way of coping with this unparalleled moment in history is creating not one but two albums — a task very few undertake and even fewer can monetize — then all the more power to her. But before her creativity makes you feel as if you’ve wasted away a year in quarantine, remember the privileges afforded to her. Recognize, too, all the valid ways that we cope with loss, trauma and grief. Whether you’re writing a novel or are barely taking a shower, learning how to knit or simply pushing yourself to make it through another day, how you’ve managed to survive during a pandemic is worthy of praise.