Maybe you’re like me. I experienced a major life event a few weeks ago followed by a host of increasingly exasperating minor (hopefully) health issues, some of which are not only uncomfortable but affect morale as well (i.e. being extremely limited in my diet, which, though bad for the last five years, worsens).
Maybe you’re like me. Your life has become unstructured, and you become anxious or down about things those close to you feel are unworthy of your concern. You are accustomed to pressuring yourself with deadlines and goals and have removed these in an effort to assuage stress, but this has translated into your routine collapsing into a mayhem and a disorder that dominate your days. You’ve slipped out of your usual routine. Maybe you’ve become distracted by the endless web of links on social media which can devour hours of your time.
Maybe you’re like me. You are connected to people who are experiencing depression, and you feel helpless to raise them from their quagmire. May is mental health awareness month, but mental illness seems to prevail, and the war to restrain its greedy talons feels dauntingly unbeatable.
Maybe you’re like me. You feel the sentence of mortality keenly which impels an internal impetus to achieve and to accomplish by cramming. You feel you have to fulfill your dreams by a certain age or accomplish arbitrary goals by a deadline. The frenetic pace at which your mind dictates you should conduct your life leaves you too depleted and starved for the necessary emotional space to begin. So you dangle, seemingly in an abeyance of activity, though the clock of your heart unfailingly counts the minutes passing anyway. Tempus fugit, the Latin saying goes, has guided your approach to living.
Maybe you’re like me. You need some stimulus to reboot the hard drive. In the last forty-eight hours or so, I’ve encountered a number of experiences that have triggered me to evaluate how I need to reboot. These included attending the Sarasvati staged reading of Breaking Through, the reading and book signing at McNally Robinson of editors Anne Giardini and Nicholas Giardini of their book on Carol Shields’s writing notes, Startle and Illuminate, writing emails regarding self-care, and posting my Wellesley Writes It interview of the Why.Race.Still.Matters blog founders, Bai Kamara, Portia Allen-Kyle, Yasmine-Imani McMorrin just moments ago.
Andrew and I attended the Sarasvati staged reading yesterday of Breaking Through, aimed to break the silence of mental health issues. In this play, one message was that “silence is the disease.” Other messages included that you are still loveable even if you struggle, that not everyone will be understanding or compassionate, that one in four Canadians will suffer mental health issues, that people, even those close to you, might say insensitive things which you need to accept and perhaps not take personally, that you still have a voice, that you’re not selfish because you’re suffering and might need the help of others. My notes to continue this dialogue include: Would you blame a cancer patient for being self centered or accuse her of crying for help because she requires aid? Would you ever blame someone for developing cancer because she is sick and compare her to other people who didn’t acquire cancer? Would you think less of her because she is sick or accuse her that she is responsible for her illness? And another message in the play was that maybe, just maybe, your distress, be it OCD, hearing voices, or possessing a distorted body image, is due to irrational thoughts, a disease, rather than an actual identifiable danger or accurate perspective of reality. And perhaps it is safe to disclose your vulnerabilities. That the only way to move towards an acceptance of what many struggle with daily is to discuss it. And to accept that maybe your struggles will shadow you throughout your life, and your coping with them will be lifelong, that there might not be a cure in the end, but rather an acceptance, much as the character John Nash accepted his hallucinations at the end of A Beautiful Mind and recognized their presence but acknowledged that they were delusions and lived in spite of them.
At the McNally Robinson reading, Anne and Nicholas Giardini discussed how Carol Shields did not embrace the principle of Tempus Fugit. It seems as though she lived her life deliberately, moderately, and without rushing. In the end, her life was somewhat short: she lived to be 68. But would she have profited from a higher quality of life had she pressured herself more and felt the grips of time? Of course not. And perhaps her discipline of writing and editing one or two pages a day was more effective than those who aim to cram ten pages a day, feel overwhelmed by the task, and don’t even begin, or whose work suffers in quality. I recall Friar Laurence in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, who cautions Romeo by stating, “Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast.”
Then there were the emails I wrote to others regarding self-care. It occurred to me, that without realizing it, my attempt to relieve pressure also removed the self-care structure I need to ward off my internal opponents. I had slipped in the last few weeks into making ambitious schedules regarding my music, novel-writing, and research goals. The plans were as equally ineffective motivators as the idea to remove all pressure by structuring much less into my days. What do we need every day? We need exercise, good food, hydration, healthful comforts such as tea, and some movement toward our goals. We need social interaction (which is different from mindlessly clicking online links but could include online or email connections we’ve made or phone calls). And we need some minimal goals and structure, taking at least baby steps toward productivity and progression. When I think back to doing scientific research, typically on any given day I saw little movement toward the completion of the project. But the daily work accrued, and in time I finished the project. Even just working on a few paragraphs of the writing part of the project a day, a typical paper can be written in a week or two. There is a delicate balance between pressuring ourselves to the point of exhaustion and burn-out and not disciplining ourselves enough, regardless of motivation levels, to engage in a minimal amount of activity in an attempt to thwart gravity’s force on us downward.
The final motivator I had to reboot was posting the Why.Race.Still.Matters interview. I am very shy and a bit hesitant at self-promotion, reluctantly forcing myself when necessary, but I realized as I was posting the article to Wellesley Underground that I had to share the piece with the Wellesley FaceBook Community, something I’m not sure I’ve ever done before with any of my articles. This article, I realized, was significant. I think about race a lot, worrying that in some subtle ways I’m as insensitive as others are to me about my anxiety or gender. Do I behave in subtly insensitive ways? How can I be better educated about race issues? What do people of non-European descent have to deal with on a daily basis? How can I help? These are the questions that motivated my queries in the interview. As I proof-read the article one last time and put it together, I acquired a perspective about the concerns that precipitate my anxiety and realized how irrational they are. As I read Portia Allen-Kyle’s words based on her powerful post, “I am Sandra Bland,” I realized I need to redirect my energies from distorted worried minutiae to the bigger picture, to trying to make some small contribution to the world, be it through words, physics, music, or living a healthier lifestyle, so that I can be my best self to help others. I still need to read Daniel Deronda, but in the film, I remember the title character suggesting to help others and to look outside of yourself as way to find meaning in your life and to counter your inner struggles (and perhaps emptiness). So, as I often conclude in these blogs, Wellesley has it right: Non ministrari sed ministrare. Looking outside yourself and helping others really is the keystone to a good life.
Do you need a reboot? I recommend, though I’m not a professional in the area, to be compassionate with yourself and with others, to recognize what worries or comments from others can be irrational, to slow down, to find a cause larger than yourself to engage in, to make small doable goals every day, and to try your best to live in a healthful, constructive way.