True growth and success is always sustainable. It’s not a short sprint with an inevitable physical, mental, and emotional crash. All goals are means, not ends. Each succeeding stage of your progression should clearly build one-upon-another, leaving you stronger and more able, not weaker and permanently damaged.
In order to do this, you must properly “recover” from the following things on a daily basis:
This is so damn smart!
This is so utterly counter-cultural.
I make it a point to recover from all six of these, as a matter of course and of self-care and self-preservation.
For numbers 1 through 3, I’m fortunate enough to be self-employed, so setting boundaries, and keeping them, doesn’t mean potentially threatening my livelihood.
For Number four, I eat 750 calories two days a week.
For fitness, I work out/exercise 3-4 days a week, sometimes (sigh) only twice.
Working from home, I nap as needed, sometimes as little as 15 to 20 minutes, sometimes 90 minutes; without dependents, not difficult.
Living in the United States these days, and I live/work near New York City in a thrashing/disrupted industry (journalism), means waking up every single morning in something of a panic.
Not helped by the daily chaos of Trump.
Whose civil rights will disappear tomorrow?
Which new executive order will require more calls and emails to elected representatives or another street protest?
Should we move back to Canada? When? Where?
If I stay — or if we go — would we be able to find work?
Call it self-care, sure, or call it life, but a soul is a thing that requires tending. The soul is not quite interchangeable with “heart” or “mind,” or any other word we mean to denote only the “spiritual” part of a person. In the words of the philosopher Dallas Willard, the soul is the entire inner person, not detached from bodily life but inclusive of it, as well as heart and mind, thought and motivation, feeling and judgment. An untended soul drifts toward inertia.
But what does my soul benefit from being “productive”? Am I any number of inches closer to God because I wrote an essay that was praised by someone I desperately wanted to impress? What is the moral imperative to produce?
These questions are all tricks to say that I have no idea what the answer is. I know that when I am anxious, I often think I can produce my way out of it. I have an uneasy relationship with productivity, thinking my anxiety will be placated if I just do enough big things.
Every day, I see talented, experienced friends losing well-paid jobs in our field, with no certainty of being able to replace them. One pal needed almost an entire year to find his new job, yet another insecure contract position.
We also live in a time and age relentlessly demanding increased productivity.
We’re exhorted constantly to domorebetterfaster!
Not to think.
Not to reflect.
Not to sit still, alone, in silence.
Not to take good, slow, thoughtful care of our most valuable resource, our health.
And yet, and yet, we’re each of us simply human, de facto limited in some way, whether by lack of time, impaired physical stamina, weakened emotional energy or by restricted access to social capital or financing.
We’re not robots.
We’re not machines, no matter what laissez-faire capitalism (and stagnant wages) relentlessly demand.
We’re all running too hard, too fast.
As a result, many of us vibrate with anxiety, shoving sweets and fats and pills and liquor down our throats in an attempt to satiate much deeper, more painful sadness and anxiety, whether personal, political or professional.
Sometimes (sigh) all three.
It’s a very wise choice to pay attention, to read the signals, to try our best to stay safe and to protect the rights and needs of others.
But not 24/7.
Here’s a 14-minute story (from one of the best shows I listen to on NPR, the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC), about how stressed many Americans are feeling since the election of Trump.
Elizabeth Young once heard the story of a man who was asked by a journalist to show his most precious possession. The man, Young wrote, “was proud and excited to show the journalist the gift he had been bequeathed. A banged up tin pot he kept carefully wrapped in cloth as though it was fragile. The journalist was confused, what made this dingy old pot so valuable? ‘The message,’ the friend replied. The message was ‘we do not all have to shine.’ This story resonated deeply. In that moment I was able to relieve myself of the need to do something important, from which I would reap praise and be rewarded with fulfillment. My vision cleared.”
Columnist David Brooks describes this idea in his recent column, expressing a Timesian surprise at one man’s joy in his garden:
This scale of purpose is not for everyone.
What makes people happy?
Not just having the newest-shiniest-costliest thing.
Nor the most well-paid powerful job.
Nor a private jet or three nannies and a $50 m apartment — which, believe me, when you live anywhere near New York City starts to seem somehow normal.
When I see an ad for a home, a house or an apartment, costing less than $1 million, and think “Yeah, that’s a decent price” I know it’s time for a reality check.
If you grow up, as I and my half-siblings did, in a family who highly values achievement and professional success — as many do — it’s tough to celebrate smaller, quieter, less-public moments.
And social media, with its non-stop parade of others’ effortless and luxurious fabulousness, offers a terrifying hall of mirrors for the chronically insecure, like one writer I know who makes the vaunted six-figures and has two Ivy League degrees, which she easily dismisses. She still wrings her hands constantly about her value.
If you persist in clinging exclusively or primarily to the ladder of professional status, ever seeking more income, status, achievement and admiration, you’re doomed.
There’s never enough.
Nor does the larger culture of the United States, a place addicted to ever-more-feverish productivity, wealth and status, offer much encouragement to those of us who actually prefer a slower pace, the lower costs of a smaller home, an older vehicle, (only one! OMG), or none.
Are our modern lives really that much more stressful? “The answer appears to be yes,” says anxiety researcher Jean Twenge, Ph.D., a professor at San Diego State University and author of Generation Me. “Anxiety rates have risen steadily over the past seven decades, during good economic times and bad.”
She believes the rise is related to a cultural shift, over the last 70 years, away from “intrinsic” values—appreciating things like close relationships and having a real love for your work—toward more “extrinsic” ones, like money and status. In fact, her research found that anxiety rates rose at the same pace with this change in mind-set. “Recent generations have been told over and over again, ‘You can be anything you want to be. You can have the big job title. You can have the big bank account.’ And in the case of women, ‘You can have this perfect body.’
That puts a lot on a person’s shoulders—and it’s also not really true. These are things that aren’t always under your control, but that disconnect creates a lot of anxiety about how hard you need to work to achieve them—and a deep fear of failure,” she explains. “And although these extrinsic values—the latest iPad, the cutest shoes—seem important, all the evidence shows that at the end of the day they don’t leave us very happy or satisfied.”
Anyone who reads this blog, or visits my website, can see that I’m a fairly ambitious, driven and productive writer — two non-fiction books, a Canadian National Magazine Award, 100+ freelance stories in The New York Times.
I’ve ticked enough boxes.
I know a woman who’s produced four children and four books in the space of a decade. And she has yet to hit 40. What on earth will she do to fill the next four decades of her frenetic life?
She’s obsessed with being productive. I admire her financial success and her love of parenting but I don’t wish to emulate her life or its choices.
I see the insane stress so many people feel — not surprising in an era of stagnant wages, record student debt and a shaky economy in many sectors. How much work is too much? How much is enough?
It is one of the few benefits of being decades into a career and having lived frugally; we don’t face the same pressures as some people I know, certainly those in their 20s, 30s and 40s juggling work/commute/kids/aging parents.
I’m writing this while sitting on our top-floor balcony, the only sounds that of birds and the wind in the leaves. We have stunning Hudson River views and sunsets that vary every day in their beauty.
I value taking time off, whenever possible.
I enjoy naps, whenever necessary.
I make time to meet friends face to face over a long, delicious meal or a walk instead of chasing yet another client.
I value our strong marriage.
I value our good health.
I value our dear friends, people who welcome us into their homes in Dublin, Paris, Toronto, London, Maine, Arizona.
What we may lack in prestige/power and visible tokens of fiscal wealth we enjoy in abundance in other forms.
Sure I’d like to write a best-seller or win a fancy fellowship.
But my boxes are mostly ticked and, for now, I’m focusing on small(er) wins and pleasures.
Jose’s father was a Baptist minister in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His parish numbered about 30 — with a church large enough to hold 200. He faced many empty pews, yet kept on going.
His mother was a kindergarten teacher.
She was, he says, the epitome of faith.
Money was often tight and Jose, the sensitive, often worried baby of the family, sometimes wondered if everything would be OK.
“Have faith,” his mother told him.
We tend to talk about faith in narrow religious terms, as faith in a deity or a set of guidelines.
I’m interested, here, in the faith we place in ourselves, in one another and in the world around us.
Without it, without even a shred of it, we’re paralyzed. Too scared to move.
I started selling my creative work to strangers when I was 12. I sat on a Toronto street corner and sold bead necklaces. At 15, I sold my home-made stationery and at 18, my photos — and was gratefully stunned when one of the city’s top fashion photographers bought one.
Maybe that flickering flame of faith in myself, in my nascent skills, in my ability to connect with others who found value in my work danced a little higher then.
Without faith in ourselves we’re lost.
Without faith in our parents — to guide, teach, protect us — we feel un-moored and unsafe.
Without faith in our intelligence and stamina, we can’t accept that learning can be exhausting and difficult.
The past few weeks, for a variety of reasons, have demanded I stolidly move forward, in spite of sometimes paralyzing doubt in a few outcomes. Without the faith I’ll survive them, emotionally and physically, I’d consider staying in bed in the fetal position.
Instead, I went out this weekend to play softball with my co-ed pickup team, a posse of people, some 50 years apart in age, that I’ve known, loved and shared post-game, beneath-the-trees lunches with for a decade.
I stepped up to the plate, picked up the bat, wondered, in my first game of the season what would happen next — and hit a single.
For me, most recently, it was a near-miss accident in a suburban parking lot after seeing a movie.
No big deal, right?
Not for me; in 1996, at a stop sign, my new car tapped the bumper of a man, while driving three blocks from my home. In his car was his aged mother. They sued me for $1 million, a lawsuit that scared me for years. They eventually got $60,000 from my insurance company — he was a lawyer and I was a young woman in a red convertible. Alone, working from home, with few friends in the U.S., I found the whole experience deeply frightening and absolutely dread another car accident of any sort, let alone another lawsuit, easy enough to trigger in the litigious United States.
I’d never been sued when I lived in Canada.
For my husband, it’s the smell of Ralph Lauren Polo cologne — a scent he and fellow reporters and photographers used to douse the kerchiefs shielding their noses and mouths while covering the aftermath of a prison riot that incinerated several dozen New Mexico prison inmates.
Yet we all have triggers — a sight, sound or smell that can suddenly and powerfully and unwillingly thrust us back into a traumatic moment from our past. And they’re all different and specific and, because of that, you never know when or where they’ll hit you.
Life itself doesn’t arrive conveniently labeled with trigger warnings.
At a music service for the Christmas holidays of 1995, the year I was divorced after a brief and troubled first marriage, I sat with two friends. As a bagpiper came down the church aisle there I began to weep uncontrollably; a piper had played after our wedding.
When Jose proposed to me, it was at midnight on Christmas Eve after church service, as snow began to fall. He knew that the worst experience of my life, at 14, had occurred that night and, he said, he wanted to re-brand it with a happier memory.
Which he did.
We each need to be in the world and of the world, participating fully.
But there are times and places that are deeply painful for us — while the triggers to ancient and powerful feelings remain and invisible/unknown to others.
In other words, do you shatter like a cookie/biscuit into helpless crumbs?
Or, like a teabag, as hot water surrounds you, gain strength?
It’s not a question I ask lightly, but one that seems to separate those able to find life pleasurable — even as it’s filled with inevitable stresses: illness, the death of loved ones, divorce, miscarriage, job loss/search, un/underemployment — and those who choose to sit in a corner, wailing in the fetal position.
I’m aware I may here sound heartless, lacking compassion or understanding.
It’s not for lack of facing a pile o’ stuff in my own life, starting before my teens, that included parental mental illness and alcoholism, abandonment, an often cruel and competitive step-mother, blablablabla.
I’ve been the victim of four acts of criminal behavior. Had four orthopedic surgeries since the year 2000.
I didn’t love getting fired from several jobs and surviving three recessions in 25 years after leaving Canada for the gilded streets of New York.
But I’ve reached the limits of my tolerance for whining, moaning, hand-wringing and helplessness.
If you’re addicted and/or mentally ill and/or barely surviving on poverty wages and/or suffering chronic illness….life can be hard as hell! Anyone facing a serious illness also faces multiple issues at once, and just getting through a day can be an ordeal.
But if you’re blessed with health, strength, saleable skills, (even if they don’t always add up to a well-paid or secure job, the Holy Grail of a crap economy), let alone a family who supports you financially, emotionally or intellectually, do you step up and do whatever’s necessary to improve your situation?
I do support public policies that help — unemployment insurance, disability pay, and more — and the taxes that pay for them; good people do land in terrible straits.
I recently joined an on-line women’s group that I celebrated here a few weeks ago as a pillar of on-line community. Most of the women in it are in their 20s, 30s and 40s, all decades now behind me. I was excited to find a group filled with fun and interesting people.
It has evolved into something else, a minefield of hurt feelings and expected apologies. Plus, the draaaaaaama! The angst! The unhappiness!
So, whether it’s an issue of age and experience, or personality, or my putative white/middle-class/heterosexual privilege, I just don’t have time.
How much patience do you have for others’ dramas — or your own?
Last week brought two unprecedented experiences in my 30 years as a freelance journalist.
Two editors each apologized to me by email. One had driven me nuts with micro-managing while the other snapped my head off verbally and hung up on me for daring to (politely) argue my point.
Yes, I could have shrugged it off. But I didn’t.
Being repeatedly subjected to others’ anxiety and unmoderated rage leaves me shaking head to toe.
When I told a third editor — also a veteran of our industry — her reaction shocked me a little, because such incivility is something we’re all just supposed to ignore and shrug off.
“You’re lucky,” she said. “Many people would not have apologized.”
Why is it our job to absorb, ignore or deflect your toxic anxiety?
People in my industry, and in many others, are running so scared that many are behaving like terrified toddlers lost in a sea of unfamiliar knees at Disneyworld.
The sexy new word for this latest debacle of American employment-at-will — (i.e. they can fire you anytime, anywhere for any reason at all. No reason, even! And the law makes it impossible for you to sue or claim redress. Yay capitalism!) — precariat.
From The New York Times:
Thirty years ago, a vast majority of Americans identified as members of the middle class. But since 1988, the percentage of Americans who call themselves members of the “have-nots” has doubled. Today’s young people are more likely to believe success is a matter of luck, not effort, than earlier generations.
These pessimistic views bring to mind a concept that’s been floating around Europe: the Precariat. According to the British academic Guy Standing, the Precariat is the growing class of people living with short-term and part-time work with precarious living standards and “without a narrative of occupational development.” They live with multiple forms of insecurity and are liable to join protest movements across the political spectrum.
The American Precariat seems more hunkered down, insecure, risk averse, relying on friends and family but without faith in American possibilities.
In my industry one-third have lost our jobs since 2008, most of which are not coming back. So those left employed are clutching their staff positions like a drowning man with a life-vest. They’re freaked out by anything or anyone that threatens their hold — literally — on the upper middle class.
I get it! A midlife, mid-career drop in income is deeply unpleasant.
But this widespread free-floating work-related anxiety feels toxic, whether coming from other freelancers — some of whom seem to tremble in the corner most of the time, persuaded they have zero bargaining power, too terrified to negotiate better rates or contracts — or bad-tempered staff editors.
My recent eight-day working trip to Nicaragua, even working long days in 95 degree heat, was totally different. We were treated with kindness, respect and welcome.
It made me viscerally understand that many journalists (many workers!) are becoming accustomed to being treated rudely and roughly.
That’s crazy. And I came home with a much clearer sense of this.
So people, it’s time to get a grip on your anxiety:
Meditate. Move to a cheaper place. Do whatever it takes to lower your living expenses. Work three jobs if necessary, and bulk up your savings so if you get canned or face a dry spell, you’re able to manage.
It’s time to stop flinging your anxiety (aka shit) at those around you, in some desperate attempt to offload it onto those in even more precarious situations — like unpaid interns and your army of freelancers, none of whom can even collect sick pay or unemployment benefits.
For the umpteenth time, my life felt like I was wrestling a large, wet, thrashing and dangerous creature — a crocodile, as it were — that was the drama du jour. It might have been the crappy relationship with my mother, half-brother, stepmother, an editor (or three).
It might have been a fight with my sweetie, now my husband. It might have been my own insecurity or fear over my weight or my work or my income.
The more I wrestled with it, the more it thrashed, its scaly and powerful tail smacking me in the head, metaphorically speaking.
Hold it tighter! Make it submit! Then I had an epiphany, one that’s shaped my life ever since.
Drop the damn crocodile!
Just drop that slimy scaly sucker and walk the hell away.
Oooooh, that feels so much better.
It’s counter-intuitive for some of us to let something drop, to allow it to simply not matter anymore. We’re taught never to give up. To try our best. To work at things.
But, you know, sometimes that damn crocodile will kill you if you keep hanging onto it, its ferocious strength draining all of yours as you keep wrestling it.
Here are just a few of the crocodiles I’ve dropped in the past few years:
— obsessing about my income. And, funny thing, it’s rising, up 40 percent in 2011 over 2010. I expect 2012 to rise even further. Neurosis is rarely appealing to anyone, especially clients.
— whining about my weight. I need to lose 40+ pounds. I could go nuts or just try to do it in my own way. I’m working on it. It will take months. Whatever.
— worrying about whether or not I’ll be able to sell my next book. Probably will. If not, something else will come along.
— caring what my Dad thinks. Yes, I still do. But not nearly as much as I used to.
— keeping a spotless home. I used to waste a whole ton of productive work-time on house-cleaning. Now we have a maid coming twice a month, for a total cost of $110, which is less than my lowest hourly rate. I have more time to make more money.
— fretting over the normal costs of running my business, like my web designer and hiring paying assistants and lawyers and others for their help and expertise. Outsource! It’s all a tax deduction next year anyway.
— managing some of my business associates. Too difficult. Time to move on.
— trying to please my mother.Impossible. We no longer have any relationship at all. Sad to say, I have never been happier.
— keeping up friendships that actually left me feeling miserable. Just because someone was once a dear friend doesn’t mean they’re going to remain one. You change, they change and habits that might once have seemed normal can become unworkable. If you’ve tried to resolve them and it’s just not going to happen, time to drop that croc.
— getting my hip replaced. Two years of increasing pain, exhaustion, depression and frustration are gone since I had a new hip implanted in February 2012. I was terrified of the surgery and a poor result. I have my life back! I’m happy and strong once more.
I went off to boarding school at eight, the youngest girl there. I went off to summer camp, eight weeks at a stretch, at the same age. I saw my mother on weekends, my father (from whom she was divorced) whenever he was around, which was intermittent as he was a film-maker who often traveled far away for months for his work.
So, there you are, surrounded by a sea of strangers, whose rules and regulations — and kindness, compassion and goodwill — will make or break the rest of your childhood and/or adolescence.
So I want to try once more to begin a discussion about an issue we still refuse to examine: early boarding. It is as British as warm beer, green suburbs and pointless foreign wars. Despite or because of that we won’t talk about it. Those on the right will not defend these children as they will not criticise private schools. Those on the left won’t defend them, as they see them as privileged and therefore undeserving of concern. But children’s needs are universal; they know no such distinctions.
The UK Boarding Schools website lists 18 schools which take boarders from the age of eight, and 38 which take them from the age of seven. I expect such places have improved over the past 40 years; they could scarcely have got worse. Children are likely to have more contact with home; though one school I phoned last week told me that some of its pupils still see their parents only in the holidays. But the nature of boarding is only one of the forces that can harm these children. The other is the fact of boarding.
In a paper published last year in the British Journal of Psychotherapy, Dr Joy Schaverien identifies a set of symptoms common among early boarders that she calls boarding school syndrome. Her research suggests that the act of separation, regardless of what might follow it, “can cause profound developmental damage”, as “early rupture with home has a lasting influence on attachment patterns”.
When a child is brought up at home, the family adapts to accommodate it: growing up involves a constant negotiation between parents and children. But an institution cannot rebuild itself around one child. Instead, the child must adapt to the system. Combined with the sudden and repeated loss of parents, siblings, pets and toys, this causes the child to shut itself off from the need for intimacy. This can cause major problems in adulthood: depression, an inability to talk about or understand emotions, the urge to escape from or to destroy intimate relationships. These symptoms mostly affect early boarders: those who start when they are older are less likely to be harmed.
It sure ain’t Hogwarts, kids!
The very notion of daily, familial emotional intimacy — whaddya mean I’m supposed to share my feelings?Feelings?! — is as alien to me, even now, as Jupiter. It’s no accident I married a man who is very affectionate, grew up in a normal family with two sisters at home and easily says “I love you” a lot.
I have only one friend who also had this experience, a man a bit older, who has some very similar emotional patterns. At best, we can tough out almost anything without sniveling or whining. At worst, we come across as (and may well be!) cold, bossy, disconnected.
Some of what you learn:
You rarely cry. There’s no one to cry to. Bluntly stated, no one cares. There’s no one offering a comforting hug or a hand to hold if you’re anxious, ill, homesick or scared. You share a room with four to six other girls, some just as miserable, whose distant parents live even further away than yours, in Nassau or Caracas or North Bay.
You rarely share your feelings. No one in authority has the time or interest to sit with you. No one asks. “So, how was your day, sweetie?” They check your name on a list to make sure you are present. i.e. not missing, not a problem, not a liability. Your assigned room-mates? They might hate you, or use personal information against you. Best not to offer them any ammo.
A vicious tongue. Because you cannot fight physically and cannot leave and cannot find privacy from those who are making you crazy, you learn to wound verbally. Not pretty.
Television and radio are impossibly exotic treats. This was back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I got to watch television at school maybe once a week, with a bunch of other girls in the common room. I laughed really loudly — probably at a sitcom — and was admonished for not being ladylike. (You should hear how loudly I laugh today!)
Food and drink take on additional importance. Every meal, including snacks, is served on a schedule, in a pre-determined location. We were told each week at school what table to sit at. Between-meal hunger? Deal with it: sneak food out, keep some in your room. Tip: trying to carry oranges, apples or grapefruit in your baggy, saggy bloomers is not an effective strategy.
Privacy is the greatest luxury imaginable. Every waking hour, you’re surrounded by other people, some of whom you loathe and vice versa: in your bed, in the bathroom, in the dining hall, in the classroom, in classes and sports.
Your self-image is shaped by people who make judgments about you with incomplete information. I was asked to leave my boarding school after Grade 9 for being, (as I was that year), disobedient, rude and disruptive. But no one ever bothered, kindly and with genuine concern for me, to ask why. In high school, my nickname was the Ice Queen, so little emotion did I show. Go figure.
Self-reliance. Independence. A stiff upper lip. I know to make a bed, iron wool, tie a tie. (Part of our uniform.) Whistle with two fingers. Swear like a sailor. An excellent education with ferociously high standards. Tons of homework, as early as fourth grade. No boys to distract us. The automatic assumption that smart girls rule, that men are not to be deferred to simply because they expect it and the expectation that every girl is capable of, and will produce, excellence and leadership.
Oh, my. I am so not fond of turbulence. Is anyone?
Came home this week to New York after a fantastic five days exploring Chicago, flying on small regional jet over the Great Lakes, a 90 minute journey. My flight there was easy and comfortable.
Not the return.
We were warned before takeoff it would be a rough flight, not just for some of it, but all of it. Gulp. When it’s that rough, whatever alcoholic consolation I might have chosen would have probably bathed me at some point. So I desisted and did a lot of deep breathing. I read every single word of the New York Times Book Review (even the kids’ books) to keep myself distracted.
Then I just lost it and started weeping, feeling like the biggest damn baby in the world. Some guy was snoring through it. The poor man in front of me turned around to see what was happening and I apologized. The steward asked if there was anything he could do. I apologized to him but said, truthfully, no.
The plane bucked like a bronco. There’s nothing you can do, so a control freak like me is not happy at such moments. I also know, thanks to a friend who’s a commercial pilot, that they almost always — domestically — have two or more choices of altitude to move into to avoid or at least minimize the chaos. But we didn’t, as the pilot regretfully informed us when we landed.
I was the last off, trying to gather my wits and get my pulse rate down. It was the second-worst experience I’ve had in the air — the longest I’d felt such turbulence was a 10-hour flight from Taipei to San Francisco in 1994. At hour five, the lane shook like mad for about an hour. Flight attendants were told to stay in their seats and not move.
That left me really rattled, which is tough given how much I love to travel to places very far away. All I can do when the plane starts shimmying is try to stay calm and know that pilots really are doing their very best to keep us all safe.