The end of urgency

Scott Gilmore: In 2020, ‘seizing the day’ basically means you got dressed. Maybe you even stepped outside for a bit. Anything over and above that is just a bonus.

I filed this column late. Very late. There was no specific reason. I wasn’t travelling. There were no meetings filling up my day. And I haven’t launched a big new project that is consuming all my time.

No, it was just late because it really didn’t seem very urgent. I mean, look around. There was that election—you couldn’t really expect anything to get done while that was going on. And, of course, there’s the whole pandemic. That has put things in perspective. For example, from my vantage point (staring out my bedroom window), getting my column in on time doesn’t seem that important given that everything else has pretty much come to a standstill.

Sure there was a deadline. I distinctly remember my editor asked me to send it to him by a specific date. But neither one of us believed he meant it. We both knew he’d be happy if I even did a column, regardless of when it actually showed up.

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Because, let’s be honest, there’s not a lot getting done these days, and better late than never, right? In 2020, “seizing the day” basically means you got dressed. Maybe you even stepped outside for a bit. Anything over and above that is just a bonus.

Our expectations, for ourselves and for others, have been lowered dramatically. Consider my children, for example. There are no school sports. They sit at their desks for recess. Every other day is spent at home, staring at a computer screen. Even Halloween was cancelled. Under those circumstances, only a monster would care about their homework or grades. And besides, the school board has decided that “under the circumstances” everyone is going to get a passing grade anyway. The only thing I care about is that they are not losing their minds.

My life used to be frenetic. Frequent travel. Hard deadlines. Important calls. I kept a tight schedule—up early, exercise, walk to the office, work, lunch with a colleague, back to work, take the kids somewhere, run errands, pick them up, work a little more, maybe go out to see friends, then late to bed. I was always racing the clock; I could always hear time’s winged chariot hurrying near.

Not so much anymore. I wake up when I wake up. My commute is about seven steps, 11 if I stop to refill my coffee. I have a few Zoom calls, but those frequently get bumped. No one asks why. We’re all in the same boat—no need to explain. We can talk tomorrow. Sometimes we even do.

How can anything be urgent when time itself has lost all meaning? There’s no need to look at my watch anymore. I used to schedule myself in 15-minute increments. Now I have “morning” and “afternoon,” and I’m not entirely sure when one transitions into the other. (Because lunch is now more of a floating concept—sometimes it’s not long after breakfast. Sometimes I forget it. And sometimes it happens more than once.)

I’m not even sure what day it is. And, be honest, you had to think about it for a moment, didn’t you? Sundays and Mondays are now indistinguishable. I’m not wearing a tie on one of those days and meeting friends for brunch on the other. Nope. Now it’s a pair of worn-out jeans and maybe a toasted bagel standing by the kitchen counter. Both days. And the rest of the week, too.

Work has slowed down for everyone. It’s as though the entire world just collectively agreed that nothing was urgent anymore. Except maybe a vaccine—I really, really hope whoever is working on that knows exactly what day it is. But for the rest of us, everything else is getting done when it gets done. Expectations are lowered. Schedules are aspirational. All plans are on hold.

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I assume this will all eventually change; that we’ll all eventually find ourselves “back on track,” chugging along like we used to. Maybe when the gates are finally unlocked we’ll come charging out, filling our calendars with dates and meetings and flights and plans.

But some days (don’t ask me which), I’m not so sure getting and spending will again be the rule. Macbeth said, “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well / It were done quickly,” but I’ve learned during the pandemic that’s rarely true. Life goes on, at its own pace, regardless of whether I made that Zoom call, or filed that report on time, or filled my days with one task after the next.

My kids are (mostly) happy. I’m (mostly) healthy. My family and friends are (mostly) safe and well. Those are the important things. The rest is nice, useful even, but not urgent. It took a pandemic to teach me that. I wish it hadn’t. But better late than never, right?

This column appears in print in the December 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “The end of urgency.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

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