Of late, I’ve been thinking about energy. Not like Einstein of course. Not in an E = MC2 or water-rushing-down-a-hill-very-fast-as-an-alternative-to-burning-fossil-fuels kind of way. I’m thinking more philosophically about our sense of get up and go. Our inner energy. The thing that fuels motivation and action and seems to be the grease that moves the wheels of social engagement. This is probably because Covid has robbed me of my store of it, and it is noticeable by its absence.
I hate this feeling. The feeling of exhaustion merely at the thought of doing something, anything. I’m not good at sitting still and regenerating. I’m spending a lot of my precious energy being annoyed at myself for feeling weak.
Energy means both power and vitality, linguistically. I had thought energy in a nuclear fusion sort of way was quite a different notion to energy in a motivation sense, but I could be wrong. Energy can be defined, quite simply, as the capacity for work. In that case it would seem a fitting word for our own sense of it. And why not, I suppose, since we are a living system of biochemical interactions, subject to physical laws like all systems in the universe.
Energy, in physics anyway, seems oddly metaphysical. Less a material, hold in your hand thing, but more a measure of potential. I found even high school physics a bit beyond me, but I do recall, as we all probably do, one key fact. Energy cannot be created or destroyed. That’s the first law of thermodynamics. It is, by definition then, finite. It may not be able to be destroyed, but clearly, as Covid, depression and doing a triathlon illustrate, it can get used up. Transformed perhaps into fevers, snot, and aching limbs.
I’m quite attuned to energy, because as someone who makes a living facilitating groups of people in conversation, monitoring, topping up, and redirecting the energy in the room is a key part of my job. It remains quite fascinating to me nonetheless that this invisible quality is so easily felt. It is a tangible thing, energy (for want of a better word), with a tonal quality and a definitive sense of quantity, and it is responsive to the room and the people in it. As a facilitator you can watch in action how energy gets used up in the act of both engaging with others and thinking hard, and how a lack of it has a direct impact on outputs. Energy can be manipulated too. Built up with acts of creativity, music, and the thrill of achievement. Evangelical preachers, despots and good entertainers know well how to squeeze the energy from a crowd, transforming our individual portions of it into one giant mass that moves people to acts of both love and anger.
I’m definitely wandering into the scientific equivalent of mixing my metaphors here. My concept of energy as a feeling, and energy as a scientific construct relating to joules and motion and applied forces are surely entirely different things. But the notion of energy being finite and needing to be replenished seems a lived reality all the same.
If energy reflects our capacity to do work – to be productive not just in a job sense, but also as a human being joining with others to create something bigger than the individuals involved – and if our energy is finite, which it demonstrably is, then it makes sense to look after our store of it. To be conscious of it, and to manage it wisely. Both my husband and daughter rebuild their energy reserves by alone time. I, on the other hand, find myself replenished by the buzz of activity – exercise and friendships, activity and conversation. Ten days of isolation has done nothing to help me fuel the fire inside.
I’m not used to monitoring my own energy, because usually it feels like I have an endless store of it. But Covid’s lingering touch on both my mental and physical state has made me question this recklessness.
We waste so much energy on pointless things. Being angry at dickhead drivers in shiny BMWs or Trump supporters in a faraway land we don’t live in. All day long we are fed stories so far out of a circle of influence, designed to engage our attentional resources by outraging us. Sucking up our energy and transforming it into anger or despair or wasted moments scrolling through the mindless wastelands of social media. Energy we could put to better use.
Energy here is perhaps a metaphor for life. Both are finite – limited, and what we do with it is up to us. But, more importantly, where and how we use our energy dictates the quality of our lives. Of this I am certain.
Can one have a post-Covid resolution? If so this is mine. To learn to pull back. To give energy to things that matter in tangible and meaningful ways to me. A redirecting of my mental energy away from things that might seem critical (like the human species’ general susceptibility to superstition and magical thinking… grrr!) but aren’t within my sphere of control; a reserving of my precious store of energy for things that are both more important and controllable – like my own mental wellbeing. Covid’s been a reminder that energy is a power source with limits, and I need to guard it as fiercely and distribute it as carefully as one would a store of gold. If I can take this one thing away from being poorly this week, it will be a lesson well worth it.