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NO OFF SWITCH

How do we continue working in the face of catastrophe?

A women in Ukraine looks out of a window.
Reuters/Marton Monus
Distracted and human.
  • Cassie Werber
By Cassie Werber

Cassie writes about the world of work.

Published Last updated

I can’t stop thinking about the war in Ukraine.

As a journalist, of course, thinking about what’s going on in the world is part of my job. But at the same time, most of my current work calls for me to concentrate on other things: I’m deep in a long-term project with hard deadlines, which has nothing to do with the military invasion of one of my neighbors.

It strikes me that the disconnect I’m feeling is one that many of us go through: Work needing to continue while something overwhelming boils away in the background. It’s not always geopolitical. We might be coping with the death of a loved one, or a health problem; we might be spending nights negotiating with a furious teenager, or worrying about a distant parent. If nothing else, we’re coming up to the three-year mark for how long we’ve been working through a pandemic.

Work, in these times, can be many things: On one hand, an anchor for much of our identity and purpose. On the other, a seemingly pointless collection of tasks.

Whichever it is to you—and perhaps it sometimes seems like both—this emotional see-saw is worth acknowledging. Strong multitaskers that we are, humans are good at performing everyday functions, even while our emotional worlds roil and writhe. But we can’t keep going indefinitely, and we shouldn’t have to do it in silence.

The pandemic has opened up a chink in the facade we formerly had to present—a facade designed to convince the world that work was everything, and everything was fine. But when we’re truly rocked by events outside our control, work should help to cushion us. The payoff is that we’ll go over and above when we are no longer depleted. It’s a give and take, not a give, give, give.

All of which brings me back to my job. Journalism is meant to be one of the things that helps us make sense of what’s going on. But here I am, a reporter, baffled and angry, and so deeply worried about the people being bombed, fighting in the streets, and dying in their own homes just a few hours away.

How can we all keep going about our daily work, without doing something? How, on the flipside, can we do anything else?

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