A few years ago my best friend and I decided to take a vacation together. We had always talked about maybe doing a literary tour of England (because we’re cool like that), but at the time, both exhausted by our new careers, we opted for something that required less planning and more suntanning: an all-inclusive resort in the Dominican Republic.
It became obvious, very quickly, that I am not cut out for resorts. My friend adjusted immediately to the open bar and beach loungers, and dove right in to the first of the several books she had carefully selected to help maximize her relaxation. I, on the other hand, dragged my battered copy of Guns, Germs and Steel to the beach, determined to force myself to finish it.
After about half an hour of reading, I began to get antsy. We were staying near Cabarete, a town well-known for its kite surfing, and I wanted to learn. I’d never been warm-water diving before either, and this was my opportunity. Speaking with one of the many women and men who spend their days on the resort beaches selling services (hair braiding or massages) or trinkets (bracelets, tropical fruit snacks), I discovered that many of them were Haitian immigrants and I wanted to learn their stories. I had also recently watched a documentary about cane sugar plantations, and really wanted to go inland to investigate one for myself. There was a market in a neighbouring town that I needed (yes, needed) to check out, and the beach-side restaurants in Cabarete had been calling my name since we booked our flights.
I had 9 days in which to do all of these things, and the longer I sat on the beach, just reading, the less likely it began to seem that I would be able to accomplish them all.
Did I mention that this was the first vacation I’d had in several years? That I’d gone straight from trying to survive on less than $800/month during the recession to a stressful full-time degree program/part-time job to working 3 jobs to make ends meet, to my first full-time teaching job, involving a move to an island and leaving my then-boyfriend behind in the city?
What I really needed was to just sit on the beach and read something. Something that wasn’t Guns, Germs and Steel. But I had forgotten how to do that.
In fact, I’ve never been good at just doing nothing. Blame it on my mennonite heritage, with its history of hardship and its protestant work ethic. But us Mennonites aren’t the only ones who can’t relax.
According to a poll done in 2011, only 57% of workers in the U.S. take all the time off that they’re entitled to. In Canada, employers are legally required to give their employees only 2 weeks of vacation per year, compared to member countries of the European Union, which are required to provide 4 weeks off. In the U.S., there is no legal requirement that employees be provided any paid vacation time at all. According to a 2014 article, American workers are afraid that if they take time off, things will either fall apart without them, or they’ll be seen as replaceable. Many don’t want to deal with the inevitable extra work they’ll have to do upon their return. In short, taking a vacation would be too stressful.
Because neither of my jobs is full-time, and my freelance work is, well, freelance, I don’t get paid time off, so the above isn’t really my problem (though taking time off from writing and teaching at the same time has proven to be a struggle). But I’ve been bitten by a different kind of bug: a hornet called Make Every Moment Count.
You don’t have to look very far to find endless articles about Living Every Day Like It’s Your Last, or Seizing Every Opportunity. This “motivational” article is present in countless iterations on sites like Thought Catalog and Elephant Journal, that hawk inspiration like so much cheap click bait.
The sentiment exists in less obvious formats as well: there are “30 Experiences You HAVE to Have Before 30“; guides to organizing your life so that you can fit as much of what you love or what you want to accomplish into every day as humanly possible; exhortations to drop people and things from your life that aren’t a “hell yeah”; inspirational stories about people quitting their jobs and traveling the world, or starting their dream business (and how you can too).
Really, all of these articles and videos and books are saying the same thing: that every nook and cranny of your life should be filled with the beautiful, the exhilarating, the profound and the rewarding. Everything that isn’t these things should be cut out -to what purpose? To create more space to fill with more things that are.
It’s not just “carpe diem”, it’s carpe everything, all the time, and it’s exhausting.
I get it -I want the corners of my life to be airy, full of sunbeams, not cobwebs and dust and clutter. When I can, I want to cut stuff out that doesn’t inspire me, to make room for even more of the good stuff. And sure, it’s easy to get distracted and overwhelmed and to give more time and energy than we should to things that don’t matter, and things that make us stressed out and unhappy and stuck-feeling.
But what about when those things can’t be cut out? When we’re depressed, sick, tired, broke? When we have to work long hours and have just enough in us at the end of the day to order shitty takeout and watch an old episode of Sherlock before dragging ourselves into bed?
Bunmi Laditan wrote an article on Huffington Post about not being a perfect Pinterest parent, and why that’s ok. I’m not a parent, but the stifling perfectionism of having to have an Instagrammable life at all times is something lots of people feel.
I’m not blaming social media, or suggesting that we should be shaking our heads reproachfully at the way we collectively tend to put our best moments out there and keep the rest to ourselves. In fact, by and large, I really enjoy scrolling through the highlights.
What I DO take issue with is this increasingly blatant intimation that your life actually COULD look like a Pinterest board all the time, if you just worked hard enough, had the right attitude, found the right hack.
This winter, my life wasn’t very Pinterest-worthy. I was sick, on and off, from the beginning of November to the end of January. I was also tired. Really tired. Like, needing 12+ hours of sleep a night and a nap in the afternoon in order to preserve basic functioning tired. Because of this, I had to take a lot of (unpaid) time off work, and clear a lot of plans from my schedule. I had to scale back on mountain activities and city activities, on financial goals and fitness goals and writing goals. (You may have noticed I haven’t posted much recently).
After a couple of crashes (largely involving my couch, a bag of chips, and intermittent napping), I finally acknowledged that I was planning my weeks according to what my healthy self could achieve on a good day, not what I was currently capable of. I identified what was necessary to my survival, and my well-being, and eliminated almost everything else. Then, I forced myself to be ok with this.
I told myself that it was ok if I had to spend every evening watching mindless television, and then going to bed at 8pm in order to make it to work in the morning. Whenever I began to long for the mountains, or worry about how little I’ve published lately, or feel guilty or loner-ish for passing up on a social event, I would remind myself that I don’t have to seize every moment, that skiing, or writing blog posts, or going to dinner parties, while rewarding or inspiring, are not, in fact, essential. I could get by without them for awhile. I repeated this to myself until I began to believe it (this is a thing, and it works). I admitted that I couldn’t do everything I wanted to, and it was strangely freeing.
I could be wrong but I think our workaholism and the pressure we put on ourselves to “make every moment count” might be coming from the same place. I read a blog post recently, criticizing the idealization of productivity. The author’s critique levels the blame at what she calls, “a deep-rooted and long-established cultural emphasis on making lots and lots and lots of money.”
And I think that may be true, for my parents’ generation. For my peers and I, however, “making lots and lots of money” is not only increasingly difficult, it’s not particularly desirable. Instead, what we’re looking for is meaning. We want our work, our hobbies and every other little thing in our lives to be meaningful. But we’re going after it with the same “more is more” attitude.
It’s not that I don’t think it’s important to create meaningful lives for ourselves. But sometimes, what we need isn’t more vision boards; what we need is a nap.
So, in honour of my less-than-awesome winter fatigue problem, and the busy spring and summer I know we all have ahead of us, I’m putting out a call to naps. You don’t just deserve a break -you need one. Stretch out on that couch, pull a throw blanket over yourself, and read that trashy novel until you can’t keep your eyes open anymore. Breathe deeply, and forget the world for awhile. I don’t know about you, but that kind of feels like a moment that counts too.