'I just need 30 minutes of silence'
I'll let you in on a secret we in the newspaper world experience four or five times a year. On the third day of Eid, when my family is still making plans to watch a movie or visit a talk-of-the-town bridge, I have to explain why I am going back to work. "Already? You have work tomorrow?", "But it's a national holiday!", "But it's Pahela Baishakh!", "Can't you edit the news report later at night?" The conversation unfolds anew each time: "Yes, I have to go in today because you expect your newspaper tomorrow. I edit this article right now because you may not read the news in the middle of the night, but some people do, and that's why some of us are editing even then."
This isn't a diatribe against work culture in the news industry, nor against our families' expectation that we spend a healthy amount of time with our loved ones. In fact, people in both these parts of my life are known to show monumental amounts of patience and understanding given the circumstances. It is a rant against much more – my work emails at least are legally, professionally, and for decency's sake required to wait until the holidays officially end, but there are still about 12 messages in my inbox that require replies, and they require that I complete certain tasks before I can begin to form a response. Completing each of those tasks would take an hour at least. Add them to the hours I need for the more urgent items on my to-do list, and the math shows that my holidays ended before they even began. I don't suspect – I know that this applies to my friends who work in the media world, in the advertising world, who teach, who are studying, and those who are raising a child.
The truth is that, even as you sit reading this article, some corner of your mind is worrying about a text you haven't replied to, an email you have yet to open (thanks for the third reminder, Google), a call you promised you'd return, a lunch you promised you'd make time for… are you even still reading? Do you still sit and read things longer than the length of an Instagram caption?
Instead of these pressing tasks, our weekends, holidays, even the end of the workday, are supposed to be about reconnecting with things we don't normally find time for. You want to finish a book that has been on your nightstand for months. You want to watch a TV show everyone has been talking about. It's 2022 and you're still only on the second episode of Stranger Things (Season ONE). What even is Wordle?
We call Dhaka a noisy city, but hardly ever do I feel like the noise stops at our doorsteps. Like the honking that crashes in through windows and walls when we're attempting a rare nap, the noise of life – of how much we're expected and required to communicate, communicate, communicate, reply, reply, reply, reply, pick up, ring back, like, comment, subscribe, "hello-can-you-unmute-your-microphone-please?" – the volume is deafening.
I no longer need to cite an article to tell you that overuse of social media has been found to correlate with mental health issues – depression and anxiety topping the list. But I don't think we understand what this really means, beyond blaming video games, influencer culture, and addiction to oversharing on Facebook or Instagram. The virtual "social networks" we entrap ourselves in aren't actually fuelled by algorithms, but by the charged, frenetic expectations we send out into each other's lives, demanding that our every thought, every emotion be met with a reaction at a time of our choosing, even as we ourselves stretch at the seams within the same web. We need to consume, consume, consume, every show, every film, every song, every TikTok-gone-viral, and we need to let the world know that we're doing it all. The panic hits in the form of guilt: the tasks that lie waiting, others that we've altogether forgotten. The guilt bubbles into paranoia: why is my phone vibrating again? Meanwhile: How dare you post a story when you haven't yet replied to my text? How dare you experience something without first validating someone else's claim to your attention?
Not all of these people around us are bad guys. In fact, none of us are. We add our voices to the noise because we are colleagues, bosses, employees, customers, students. We have deadlines to meet. Memories we would like to create together. Sometimes we just really need a friend to pick up and say, "Hi. I remember you. I still care."
I'm not a mental health professional, nor an expert in social sciences or in productivity in the workforce. I deal in words and, on most days, I feel so full of them that I want to ram my shoulders against the door and lock out the avalanche pouring my way. I'm so full of words that I haven't written anything just for myself in months and months, and they're bursting out of my brain and through my fingertips in a messy, unrefined outpouring of mixed metaphors. This article changed its topic thrice over the past two hours and I don't think it's very well-structured.
Long story short, I don't have the solutions. I can only tell you about the tiny slivers of the day during which I feel slightly sane amidst all the madness of our lives. Here in the office, we get up from our desks and head towards a pantry. The sunlight there is muted, even rosy sometimes. One of us pours coffee, sugar, and boiling water into a mug that is yellow or blue or pink. I sit on a stool behind them and speak not a single word. We sip. Back in my phone, my best friend understands that I have to cancel a plan. Back home at night, my parents and I eat and we haven't spoken since we sat down. It's a sentence we often say to the people we come home to; I know I say it every single day, "I just need 30 minutes of silence." That's all I'd like to send out into the world.
Sarah Anjum Bari is editor of Daily Star Books and adjunct lecturer of English at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB). Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or @wordsinteal on Instagram.