One of the unspoken axioms of our time is that limits are bad. If you find a limit, you’re supposed to smash it. For the best people, the message is, life is essentially a 70-plus-year endurance sport devoted to breaking through one barrier after another. In American culture, we also hold as axiomatic that being busy is always better than not being busy. It is being busy, after all, that allows those limits to be smashed.
The confluence of these beliefs leaves a lot of people in a crisis. They are busy, but their busyness seems pointless. They would stop being so busy, but that would mean surrendering to a limit, and that, they’re convinced, is only for the weak, the mediocre, the losers. They feel guilty if they stop. They feel angry if they continue.
These people live in a constant emergency that can only be resolved by doing nothing about it. Literally. The only way out of this quandary is to do nothing. The promise of our culture is that once you’ve done all the work you can think of to do, you will find leisure. Well, this promise is, like the axiomatic assumptions listed above, false. Leisure, for a lot of people in this culture, cannot be made or found; it must be taken.
The only way to take leisure is to do less. And doing less means throwing off the cultural assumptions about what determines our value. Our value isn’t higher because we produce more; it isn’t higher because we convince others we have broken through every barrier that stood in our way. Our value is inherent in what we are as beings, and that includes our being limited creatures.
We all have lots of good ideas. Good ideas fall out of the sky like raindrops. But we don’t have time, energy, and focus to execute them all. If we tie our value to how many of our good ideas we execute, we are bound to fail. You aren’t going to work, raise kids, keep your house in order, pay bills, care for your neighbors, and bring to fruition every possible idea you dream up.
You aren’t going to do this because your limits are real and pushing past them only produces diminishing returns. Take farming, for example. Where I come from, a drive in the country means passing mile after mile of open fields that in the summer are planted with millions of stalks of corn. This is farming that has taken as its sole consideration the productivity of its fields. No thought has been given to the natural limits of the land, to the impact of this kind of farming on the surrounding ecology, to the increasing demand for inputs to keep yield high after the soil is exhausted. Yet this model is similar to the approach so many of us take to our lives: produce, produce, produce.
But, you might say, there are people who accomplish lots, who do seem able to execute many, many of their good ideas. I say, “So?” You aren’t one of those people. My guess is that even those people aren’t those people. The image of the overachiever is mostly illusion, but an illusion powerful enough to keep you striving to attain it.
If you want to take more leisure, you’re going to have to stop comparing yourself to others. Maybe they don’t have the limits you do, whatever. The point is that you need to own your limits and live within them whatever they are. Once you own them, there’s no need to feel guilty about them. They aren’t something bad you are doing, they just are.
How do you know if you are pushing past your limits? Probably you just know. But I have a few tests that might help you figure it out. How anxious would it make you to spend half an hour sitting quietly in a chair in the middle of the day? If it makes you anxious, you’re outside your limits. How are you sleeping? If it’s not well, you might be outside your limits. Are you angry at others a lot? You’re probably outside your limits. If you find yourself yelling at others, that’s probably because your body and mind are yelling at you. What they’re saying is “stop.”
Reversing this pattern is going to take some work. Mostly, though, it will be the work of doing nothing. Somebody else is going to have to do all the good things you’ve thought of. The most important thing you can do is sit down.
I am not advocating laziness. I am not advocating shirking your responsibilities. I am not advocating not trying to do something valuable with your life. I am advocating being humble enough to accept yourself as a limited creature. Because you are a limited creature, you will have to think clearly and well about what matters; you will have to select the few things you do wisely. The first step to doing that is to stop, breathe, and allow your system to grow calm—in other words, to take leisure in whatever amount you need.
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