I was thinking the other day about how I was sustained for years and years by the belief that life would get easier eventually: things would work out, a pattern would emerge, as I grew stronger it would all feel more manageable – maybe not soon, maybe not till I was middle-aged or really old, but well eventually…. Of all the daft things I’ve believed in my time, this has to be the daftest.
So here I’ve been, struggling through the excessive workload of the beginning of yet another new academic year. It’s the fourth since I started working in academia. You’d think it would get easier year by year, but it doesn’t. You’d think the stress of overwork would be easier to deal with after more than twenty years of facing it, in difference contexts, over and over and over again, but it isn’t.
It’s not that I fail to learn from experience. I’ve learned a lot.
A huge amount about workload management, focus, what my particular weaknesses and difficulties are. How I used to be much too good at seeing the big picture. How this may be a sign of a powerful and agile mind, but it can fatally consume mental energy and stop you getting on with the job in hand. I learned to resolutely put the big picture aside until an appropriate moment, focus on the thing in front of me.
And a huge amount about the wider personal repercussions of overwork. How I used to choose efficiency over kindness, rant and rave impatiently at everyone around me when I was really pushed. How I used to travel to meetings in interesting, exotic places, meet interesting, exotic people and shout at them for not meeting my standards of efficiency. I learned that that was too high a price for them or for me to pay for efficiency. That the exchange of kindness, however busy you are, costs nothing and nurtures both parties, so it isn’t the additional drain it might seem.
Both of these were hard lessons, not learned quickly, and learning them changed me. But not even these lessons made things easier. Experience only serves so much. No task, I guess, is ever really the same as last time – and neither is the doer.
Take this year. There’s been nothing new. Nothing particularly dubious or ill-prepared or frightening. Just lots and lots of the usual thing – more information and demands arriving simultaneously than the average human mind can process, the instant of panic this inspires, the ritual facing of the panic and refusing it and filing the new piece of information somewhere it can be retrieved when there is time. And I’ve dealt with it well enough, which is all you can ever do. But the toll it has taken, the feelings of exhaustion, confusion, anxiety and intimations of depression – oh god! So why? Why doesn’t it get easier? What was the particular factor this year?
I think it’s that I swore I wouldn’t still be here to do all this again. When I booked the students’ weekend school I’ve just been on, some eighteen months ago, I did so in absolute confidence that some other idiot would actually have to accompany them on it, since I would be long gone. In October 2004, I remember thinking I should make a point of enjoying the bits I enjoy about this, enjoy holding forth to this group of gratifyingly attentive new students, enjoy having knowledge to share and their gratitude for it. Because I wouldn’t be doing this again. And here I still am, doing it again. I haven’t gone. I’ve failed to cross the bridges, meet the targets, make the effort, put in the spade work to tunnel through to my other continent beyond this one. Here I still am, angry and disappointed in myself. And that anger and disillusion with myself has sat on my shoulder, weighing a ton, through every task and every demand and every busy, busy day of the past few weeks. Sat on my shoulder hissing cacophonous insults and bitter reproaches in my ear. No wonder I’m sick and tired, and sick and tired of myself. No wonder it felt no easier, indeed harder than ever.
Maybe there’s one thing, though. Yesterday I felt destroyed by this. I sulked and fumed and chewed my fingernails raw, as I do when I’m beside myself. Disgusting. I really hate it when I do that, though I suppose there are habits more dangerously self-destructive. To my surprise, by today, my fingers were already half-healed. And I think that’s it, the only comfort. Nothing gets easier. I don’t fall over less, it doesn’t hurt less, than it ever did. But, as the years go by, I do seem to heal, recover, bounce back upright more quickly. Or does it just seem quicker in the context of a longer life?
¶ 2:27 pm
Wow very intense look at your world. Thanx. You should take some time to smell the roses and enjoy your friends. It is all about the people in your life not the work load. Your blog is awesome added to favorites. Have a look at our blog if you have time.
Do you think writing about how you feel has helped a little. it always helps me through those awful stomach churning times; that and walking and a lovely hot smelly bath- back to the womb? It is definitely a time to be kind to yourself
Yes, I was thinking also that kindness begins with kindness to oneself. And that includes letting up on yourself for not meeting your own expectations, including timelines. On the other hand, if your dissatisfaction continues to push you to make changes towards what you really want in life, then use it to fuel the fire! Easier said than done, of course. Some things are just not under our control. But I think you can keep moving towards and when the winds finally change in the right direction you can sail them. (Hope this isn't a bunch of blather!)
Studies of long-time meditators show no difference in how much their various stress symptoms jump up in response to stimulus -- how much their heart rate jumps up in response to a loud noise, for instance. But they show that they go away much faster. Heart rate returns to normal twice as fast, or faster (if I remember right; this is information I picked up a long time ago.)
I know I've gotten more resilient, with age. How much is meditation, and how much just the years passing, I don't know. No control group :-) But it makes sense that they'd both do the same thing -- in either case (if you're of an observant bent, anyway), you learn more about how your mind works and what to expect from it.
It's not easy to make a turn like the one you're contemplating, even when the spade-work is easy -- which in your case it's not. Or it wouldn't be for me, anyway. But I'm quite sure you will make the turn. That you are making the turn, in fact. The invisible stuff happens first.
Thanks Jean, for the long rave. It struck a lot of chords with me. I'd only just been thinking lately that life gets more rather than less complex as time goes on. Which wasn't what I expected, but I guess it adds a certain richness to things. I'm glad to hear you bounce back better with time, tho!
Jean, I know the sharp sound of self-criticism and disappointment all too well. I've learned the hard way that in those moments, when I tend to clench, that's when I most need to become gentle, kind and tender and unbend. It doesn't mean denying what I see, but it does mean being careful about how I talk about it to myself. Because what I want, what I expect, and what I need aren't always the same. And because I'm so good at digging the deep holes, you see. Maybe you aren't and maybe you are -- I feel confident that you will find your own true way through this thicket. (I love that photo, by the way, so expressive of this feeling.) Do take care.
Jean, since I am a teacher I relate to the academic pressures. I recognize that I do much of it to myself, even though systems in place (that I have not set up) also contribute mightily to my feeling as a rat in a maze. Balancing family life and work life brings its own torrent of bad feelings and recrimination at times. The path of tenure, brings other pressures.
What I've been doing is letting go of plenty of things I do that I don't have to do. Everything used to pull me away, until my mindfulness was stretched thin or very challenged. In letting go of some things, in substracting a little from my life, I've found new time for things I truly value or to which I've wanted to return.
To be sure, this is not a panacea. The pulls and tugs are still there. An academic mind sometimes does not leave one to just not care, not seek explanations, etc. But when I meditate deeply on impermanence, I find I can let go a lot easier! The other thing I've been doing is looking deeply at why I do or commit to some of those things. What brings me joy in them? Are there other ways to obtain that joy? Am I fooling myself in thinking that something is bringing me pleasure and joy *and* helping myself or others? It is rather easy for me to sometimes get trapped in thinking all of those, when in fact such is not the case.
So, all the best. In my experience these things are cyclical. You are like a wave, ebb and flow, sometimes peaking. : )
Best Regards, and thanks for your blog! Oh, here's a nice quote:
"What an absurd amount of energy I have been wasting all my life trying to figure out how things *really are,* when all the time they weren't."
Hugh Prather, Excerpt | Notes to Myself - My Struggle to Become a Person
How I used to travel to meetings in interesting, exotic places, meet interesting, exotic people and shout at them for not meeting my standards of efficiency.
Oh, that's dead-on. I've done that for years, and even learned to complain that if only people would be more interestingly inefficient, I might find it better to tolerate. That's called "bargaining" in the biz.
Thanks for hitting this one on the head for me, and for you.