Well-Being//

The Consequences of Over-Extending, According to a Brown University Professor

And how to begin the process of slowing down.

I worry, then, about the promotion of unworkable shortcuts in our culture. I also worry about being told that there are no limits to what we can accomplish gracefully within a day or a week or a year. We Americans have a difficult time with the very idea of limits, often seeking to overcome them with harder, defter work, or else denying them altogether. It seldom occurs to us that working and living well might entail the judicious acceptance of limits.

It amazes me that I keep trying to accomplish more than health and sanity allow. Even when I finally admit my own overextension, I insist that my state of mind, and not the implausibly busy schedule overflowing the margins of my planner, is at fault for my loss of equanimity. My great temptation is to believe that I should focus on, and enjoy, one or two tasks at a time, rather than lament the hundreds of tasks I have yet to accomplish each day. This approach borders on wise counsel, for its objective is to avoid compounding my manifold duties into a single, massive millstone whose heft surpasses the sum of its constituent parts. Under its weight, it is difficult to delight in and attend to what is before me in the present.

And who would doubt the superiority of delight and attentiveness in the moment over the dread of future chores and impatience with the task at hand? But, attractive though it seems, this approach is a decoy. It draws our attention away from the condition that predicates our worry and fear. It obscures the need for a structural—not purely mental—change to address a systemic problem. And what is this problem? The habitual attempt to do more than can be done well—done with excellence, comeliness, and grace. It’s no use trying to cultivate mindfulness if we refuse to reduce the untenable number of demands in our lives. The mind, however trained, is always embedded in a body and a lifestyle. If this body is fatigued and this lifestyle hectic, the mind is, too. In this culture, achieving at least a measure of simplicity is our challenge. It is also our hope.

The great temptation I have described—to mitigate the ache of overextension with mental effort—is held by those who William James called the “healthy-minded.” For them, the world outside the self is basically good and harmonious. If we experience pain and distress, according to the healthy-minded, we simply need to adjust our mindset. A champion of this viewpoint is the mental healer who tells her patients, “there is nothing but Mind…as a man thinketh so is he.” Here, the evil and pain of the world exists only in our heads, and with proper instruction we can will them away.

James contrasted the “healthy-minded” with the “sick souls.” For this type, the world and our lives within it are fundamentally flawed. All is not well and we stand in need of a basic change or radical cure. In spite of the nomenclature, the sick souls are in fact healthier than the healthy-minded. It’s quite a burden for the healthy-minded to deny their suffering or suffer guilt for its eradicable presence. Try telling cancer or HIV patients that their suffering is self-created. To accept such counsel would be to suffer not only from disease but also from the impossible responsibility of curing the body without physical aid.

Most of us, unsurprisingly, would not be tempted to take or offer such advice in cases of chronic disease. Yet when we find ourselves addicted to work and schedule-induced frenzy, we routinely tell ourselves that a little yoga or meditation (or some martinis or valium) can deter damage to our bodies and souls. I want in no way to depreciate or treat lightly the pain of those with crippling diseases, whether physical or mental. Rather, I seek to identify a new disease—one of epidemic proportions. It is the disease of spiritlessness; its cause is anomic drivenness; and it is not subject to facile remedies.

It may sound like I, too, am offering easy solutions. “Just say ‘no’ to overwork” is not a particularly thoughtful or helpful mantra. Simplifying our lives means undoing countless habits and resisting prevailing customs—struggling against the powers of the age, really. Complicating our lives is all too human; simplifying them is the work of gods. It would entail a long—perhaps lifelong—process of incremental gains, frequent setbacks, and uncertainty about how to proceed. There would be many personal, practical questions: Will a new smart phone simplify or complicate my life? Is it wiser to hire someone to rake my leaves and plough my driveway or do it myself and save the money? Do I decline a job promotion that pays more but would require more hours at work and a longer commute? In the name of simplicity, do I refuse to participate in community groups concerned with housing for low-income families, shelter for the battered, environmentally sound development for my city? There exist a few guaranteed timesaving devices such as turning off the Internet or TV. Other than these, there is little that is simple about this process. Simplicity is a complicated task.

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Another great temptation is to put off simplification. We tell ourselves, I’ll slow down later—after I pass my exams, graduate, land that job, get that promotion, buy that house, put the kids through college, retire. After I die. The commercial market responds to our addiction to overwork by prescribing timesaving devices and measures supposedly engineered to mitigate our frenzy and bring us closer to perfection.

None of these comes with the warning: “Increased efficiency may be hazardous to your mental and physical health.” The danger lies not with any single timesaver, any one shortcut. Rather, the risk is their accrual by a life and a culture obsessed with maximizing performance. As each task takes less time, we multiply the number of tasks for which we feel responsible. Our hectic pace renders us unable to give sufficient care to, or draw meaning from, our work. And while we dash through our lives, we lose sight of good work: work that is both useful and beautiful, that honors both nature and culture.

Improved technology and the concept of “time-management” were intended to bring prosperity and leisure. Yet most families and communities have not experienced either, with real dollar wages declining and workweeks lengthening year after year. It’s incontrovertible that since World War II, Americans have had less leisure time; we put in almost twice the hours at the workplace that we did fifty years ago. We consistently choose money over time, speed over slowing down.

The leisure time we do have we spend on TV and Internet entertainment. It seems incongruous to me that members of our high-speed culture watch a daily average of four and one half hours of TV and spend two and one half hours online. We curse the red light that delays us fifteen seconds, yet we insouciantly watch hours of screen entertainment daily. It’s as if we exist in two time zones: the frenzied, high-speed zone of our workaday lives and the sluggish, insipid zone of our tele-recreation. This is less ironic than it seems; hectic work calls for intense recreation. Marx complained that religion is the opiate of the people, consoling them and easing their pain, but making them numb to the dysfunctional conditions that foster their need for metaphysical comfort. Today, TV, Internet, and video-game recreation is our people’s opiate. It blinds us to our condition. It calms us by desensitizing. We therefore tolerate and indulge our opiated state, just as we tolerate and indulge the insomnia, obesity, diabetes, and poor school performance that it visits on our people.

There are alternative routes to rest and stillness. A less busy workday might reduce our desire for intense TV and Internet entertainment. Some productive, if paradoxical, counsel goes like this: Citizens, if you want more time in your life, do things the slow way. If you have an especially busy week, try to walk to work instead of driving; cook an elaborate meal instead of buying prepared food; make plans with friends instead of staying overtime in the office. The idea is that by slowing down, we will perceive and experience more time. Will we be as efficient and accomplish as much? Probably not. Will we do what needs to be done with more grace and excellence? Yes, and with pleasure.

There are many ways to begin this slowing-down. As is often the case, the voluntary ways are less painful than the involuntary. A car accident can slow us down. A stroke can slow us down. Economic recession teaches many of us to slow down the hard way. It’s true that for some, the pink slip paves the way to a welcomed retirement, and for others, it promotes an intentional, sometimes radical, desire for simple living. Mostly, however, we do not see the recently jobless celebrating newfound freedom. Mostly, they want their old lives back. For most, unemployment brings a personal identity crisis (“What good am I?”) and a practical financial crisis (“How will I pay these bills?”). The sixty-hour workweek never looks so good as when our hours drop to zero. It is vital to note that, while the pain of over-employment runs deep, the pain of under- or unemployment runs perhaps deeper still.

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As I have said, different kinds of pain come from over- and under-working. As an educator in search of a course, I’ve noticed how students in residential colleges are sheltered to a great extent from menial or manual work—work that could bring daily opportunities for significant learning and health. I have in mind such tasks as cooking meals, cleaning rooms, or raking leaves. Keeping students from humdrum chores is supposed to be a good thing—we wish to protect them from dull adult life. We treat our students thus as Disembodied Minds. Everything is arranged so they can read and write and think with efficiency, so they can be unburdened by the tasks of Embodied Living (save, perhaps, the treadmill workouts at the college gym). In the process, we shelter them from opportunities for spiritual and emotional maturation. We deny them, for example, the experience of dishwashing as a form of thanksgiving: there are dishes to wash because there is food to eat. Each plate, fork, spoon, and cup is an object to be treated mindfully; each can teach care and attention. And if a student learns to wash a bowl with great care, she can develop the capacity to read a sentence with attention.

Excerpted from In Search of A Course by Mark Cladis. 

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