Some years ago, I was talking to the person who was my spiritual director at the time. I was in the midst of unrecognized (by me, anyway) burnout, and she was encouraging me to take some time away. We had found a retreat that sounded lovely to me, but there was so much work to be done, so much need in the world, and the idea of my hitting pause on that merely because I needed time away seemed so wrong to me.
I told her that. I also told her that it seemed so self-centered, this idea of claiming time for myself, of putting my own needs first.
“I grew up surrounded by men who worked hard for very little money. It wasn’t joyful work. It was hot and sweaty, and they thought a lot more about survival than they did rejuvenation. Nobody would have recommended they take a week of retreat at a monastery. They didn’t get sabbaticals. Hell, they barely got vacation. If anybody deserved time for self-care, it was them!”
We were sitting in her sunroom, on her heavily wooded suburban lot. Her little furry dog lay on the floor at my feet, and my tea was on the coffee table, untouched and rapidly cooling. Outside, birds flitted from limb to limb as my words hung in the air.
She sat there, legs crossed, a cup of tea in her hands, elbows on the arm of the chair, chin down, staring into the cup of tea as if it contained answers. Maybe it did.
She looked up at me, took a sip of tea, and said, “You’re right. They did deserve it. And can you imagine how different their life could have been if they had gotten it?”
As I try to rebuild a life after burnout, in the midst of a pandemic, and while dealing with depression, it sometimes seems like self-care is a full-time job. I swim almost every day, which takes anywhere from 30-45 minutes. On the days I don’t swim, I walk, which takes 45 minutes. I do my morning pages, which can take from a half-hour to an hour, depending on how the words come. I have a deliberate morning routine and evening routine. I monitor my food. I try to keep boundaries up between work and not work, and I try hard to prioritize family time and time away.
And it can all feel a little self-indulgent at times. Like I’m at the center of the universe, and so if I reply to a simple, non-urgent request on Friday at 4:50 PM that I will take care of it Monday, despite that it wouldn’t take 20 minutes to do, it can feel a bit like I’m being a jerk. More than once, the person asking me for that favor has made it clear that is how they interpreted it, too.
But that’s ridiculous. If I asked if you wanted to go hiking with me on Monday, and you said you couldn’t because you had to work, I wouldn’t be offended. But that’s because it is socially acceptable to spend ⅓ of your life working on someone else’s projects in exchange for money to pay your bills to maintain your house, and not socially acceptable to say that you have promised your wife that Friday night is just for her in order to maintain your marriage.
But all of the things a human needs cannot be purchased with the money that we trade, if we are lucky, that ⅓ of our life for. We also need community and health and connection and peace of mind and rest – all things that can’t be bought with money, but instead can only be acquired by deliberate practice.
So, if we have normalized eight hours, at a minimum, a day earning the money which only takes care of a portion of our needs, what is a fair amount of time to trade for everything else? If eight hours is a reasonable time to spend getting the money, what is a reasonable amount of time to spend on maintenance? If I spend 15 minutes of my day in a morning routine that gives me clarity and focus, is that a wise investment of my time? If I trade 45 minutes of movement for lower blood pressure and healthy glucose levels, is that worth it? If 30 minutes of winding down mean that the 7 hours of sleep I get is restful and rejuvenating, shouldn’t I do it?
We make those calculations all the time, and we always bid against ourselves. But we never ask those questions about work.
People seldom miss work because they need the money. However, they often miss sleep, as if they didn’t need the rest. They eat crap food, while in a rush, often in their car, as if they didn’t need the nourishment and energy that comes from good food. They keep the eight hours of work as inviolate but willingly give up their date night with their partner, or an hour of sleep, or supper with their kids, because they are “busy”.
Your work provides the income you need to live your life – but it shouldn’t “be” your life. You deserve so much more than that.
“It is not enough to be industrious; so are the ants. What are you industrious about?” Thoreau asked us all those years ago, and today, most of us still don’t have a good answer.