“Do as I say, not as I do” is an infuriating philosophy to have in life. So why is it that the more I say, the less I do?
Since I have yet to acquire any children to boss around with this particular trope, the place where I find myself most at odds with—well, myself— is when preaching self-care and work-life balance. “Take care of yourself,” I text my friends, from my office, at 7:30 pm, not even close to heading for home. “Your job is only a part of life, it’s ok to prioritize other things that are important to you,” I spout on the phone right before I hang up and go back to a night in of grading. “Your body needs rest to function,” I mutter to myself as I set my alarm for 7:30, for no other reason than I’ve drunk whatever Kool-Aid contains the information that not being out of the house by 9 am means being late for some mythical white rabbit counting down my poorly-structured graduate school work time.
The thing about my words is that I absolutely believe them. The thing about my actions is that I’ve seen their ugly aftermath. And the thing about me is that I’m going to keep trekking on.
In the year Two Thousand and Nineteen of the Common Era, I came to know what true burnout feels like. I couldn’t get out of bed, and when I could, I made it as far as the couch. I went home for three weeks and scared the shit out of my parents, floating in a state between random bursts of tears and sweet, sweet catatonia. I watched TV all day, because there were so few other activities I could even fathom performing, and I grew incredibly jealous of the characters I witnessed who had jobs that (presumably) didn’t haunt their waking hours. I fantasized about going home at 5 pm and not feeling guilty every second I wasn’t working until the following morning. I fantasized about working a job I was overqualified for. For all my wanting to run away from graduate school, I thought about my—can I call it a job?—all the live-long day.
But time passed, and I got some rest, and therapy by the bucketfuls, and now here
I am. Not burnt out—but definitely on fire.
I started staying in the office later and later in December. I told myself that it was just to finish the poster for my upcoming conference.
Then I stayed in the office even later in January. But that was only to finish my grant application, I reasoned.
And now it is February, and I should really stay late to make progress before I go on a work trip for most of March.
Because then it will be April, and my semester will be over, and I will not have done anything.
I know where this ends—it ends right back on the couch, fantasizing about living somewhere where sheep outnumber humans by at least an order of magnitude and running a decrepit second-hand bookstore. It ends somewhere between the tears and the catatonia.
But the really sucky part is that I’m getting rewarded for this behavior, in a way I was never rewarded for stepping back and taking the time and space I needed. Not that I was explicitly punished for the latter—but it’s just so damn hard to stamp out that small, misanthropic ember which whispers “good job” to me every time I pass 7 pm in the halls of my office building. And even when I can’t lie to myself and say “just until this finite path is crossed,” even when I know that the tunnel is long and the light a mirage, I just can’t stop pushing myself to get “just one more little thing done.” Because at this point, it’s a race against the clock; at this point, it’s only a matter of time until I stop being productive at all; at this point, since I’m already going to go out, I’m going to go out on a chariot of fire. If I’ve already set myself up to be driven into the ground, I’m going to make it worth my while by clearing some truly lengthy to-do lists beforehand.
Of course, I could try to course correct. I could turn my computer off at 5 and leave it at the office. I could just declare organizational bankruptcy, stop being a hypocrite, and put my money where my mouth is: stop just preaching self-care and begin performing it, in earnest.
In my haze of burnout last year, I had a truly illuminating conversation with a friend. He has been feeling similarly, and he reminded me of a simple, salient fact. In a system where the majority of one’s value is calculated through what they produce, there is no incentive for anyone else to tell them to stop. There is no objective, ethereal “enough” when more is always better; everyone has to set their own “enough,” and do so without a guilt trip. Aye, there’s the rub.
Ultimately, the guiltless “enough” and the sincere match between action and prose both hedge on a simple acceptance: the acceptance of all the things that could get done, but won’t; the acceptance that all the things that should be done today could also be done tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after; the acceptance that it doesn’t even matter.
Maybe if I say it enough, I’ll accept it. And then I’ll do as I say.