It’s a fact of life in most jobs. We hear a lot about how busy everyone is now, how time pressured, and most of all, how stressed out.
To some degree the pace of life has increased. However, our ability to seek leisure time has also vastly increased. The other day I saw a bumper sticker that read, “Unions: The People Who Brought You the Weekend.” 150 years ago, you could easily expect to work fourteen or sixteen hour days, six or maybe even seven days a week. The number of children in a family could commonly go into the double digits. If you lived on a farm you would work from the moment you opened your eyes in the morning till when you dropped into bed at night. People didn’t really die so much as they expired from exhaustion. In the time you weren’t working for pay, you would be putting a whole lot more effort into basic tasks: getting and preparing food, getting water, cleaning your living space, maintaining your home and self, keeping warm, etc. Much of our workload now is due to expectations, not necessity. We can provide ourselves with the fundamentals of life in a much shorter time; and they’re of better quality, too.
And yet we are all stressed right the hell out.
Some of these demands on us are real. We can’t do much about a sick child at 3 am, or a trauma situation in an emergency room if we are the attending physician. But much of this is of our own doing. My friend L tells me that she had a coworker once who was so manic and perfectionist that she phoned L late on a Friday night, from a back room during a family party, to argue about fonts in a newsletter. L says that she was the same way before she smartened up: she would wake up to check email in the middle of the night, or screech into a 7-11 on the way to work to send a fax.
I hear stories of colleagues going apoplectic over small perceived slights: a beaurocratic delay in paperwork, a typo in a letter, the price of coffee at the cafeteria downstairs. They shorten their vacations, stay in touch with the office from some remote location, and labour frantically on the weekends and late into the evenings.
I listen to parents talking. They are burned out from chauffering their kids to karate, to piano lessons, to soccer, to extracurricular remedial math classes so Junior can get the extra edge before university. They are micromanaging the lives of seven year olds, and as a result, they don’t take time for themselves, and everyone ends up completely freaked. My mother in law tells me that the woman down the street drives her children to school… two blocks away. There is so much structured fun I don’t believe many kids these days know how to jump in a mud puddle and lose themselves in the process of decapitating Barbies. I got an email from a mother who was trying to find time to exercise in between driving her children from formal activity to formal activity. I gently suggested that she scale back her children’s activities and exercise as a family. Every evening, why not throw a ball or frisbee around, or go for a walk with the dog? On the weekends, instead of running madly from class to class, why not go hiking, rollerblading, or bicycling as a group?
My sister had her baby at the same time as another female acquaintance, P. My sister’s toddler, who just turned two, enjoys lots of unstructured fun: making mud pies, ramming his toy trucks into other toy trucks, running amok in circles in the backyard, shaking his booty to music, banging wooden spoons on pots for the sheer joy of the noise it generates, scribbling on the couch (that last one was not such a hit with mom and dad). P’s toddler is going to classes and suffering through anxious episodes of instructional flash cards with his parents. P’s child is so flipped out from the pressure that for a period of time he took to banging his head rhythmically on any hard surface he could find.
It’s pretty sad when one can’t even be relaxed at age two. I assume that he’ll be one of the Ritalin’d and Prozac’d teenagers that show up in my undergraduate classroom, high strung and not really sure what the hell they’re doing there but my god they have to rush rush rush otherwise they will miss everything and not get ahead of the pack and not get a good career and then they will die penniless and alone. Personally I’d much rather these kids go hiking in Tibet or Greece for six months, make several screwups, have bad love affairs and some good adventures, and then worry about getting their act together. Gazing out over the tense faces of people who very recently cared deeply about Pokémon, but who are now desperately trying to handle a grownup workload, I feel a sense of profound unease.
Among all these hard, hard workers, I also catch a whiff of what could almost be termed dick waving in terms of comparing stress.
“I was up late last night fixing this.”
“Yeah, well I worked through Labour Day.”
“I haven’t seen my family in sixteen straight days.”
“I brought a sleeping bag to the office.”
Well whoopee shit for all of you.
Guess what you get at the end of it? Nothing. If you’re lucky. If you’re not lucky, you nurse a nice little heart attack, repetitive strain injury, neck spasm, or nervous breakdown. Your lover, with whom you should be eating pints of Haagen Dazs in bed, holding hands, and giggling like idiotic schoolchildren, leaves you because you’re cheating on him or her with work. Your kid forgets your name and just refers to you as “Boss”. You chew your nails so badly that you end up with bloodied finger stumps.
A colleague of mine tells me that she tried taking up meditation to chill out. “Three hours of meditation. We just sat there. God, it was so stressful.”
Something is seriously fucking wrong here.
This past Friday, I finished work at 5:30. There were tasks waiting to be done but tough luck, they were going to wait till Monday morning. My best girlfriend, OMGBFFA, had cycled up to see me, and we were going to cycle home together. As I changed into my cycling gear, my neck was stiff and my shoulders hovered up around my earlobes. All I could think about was the letters I’d prepared for Professor So-and-So about the Such-and-Such. And don’t forget to pay the research assistants. Oh yeah, you’ll need to call Whatshisname about the Blahblahblah. My computer yowled, “Feed me, Seymour!”
On the way out the sun peeked through the clouds. A light breeze was blowing. With its every breath as I sped faster, a little piece of stress ripped away from my brain and spiralled away in the wind. When we could, we rode side by side and laughed about Stupid Work Tricks, funny things that friends had said, and the goofy looking dog we’d just passed.
When I got home after an hour of navigating the city streets with the kind of glee that only uncontrolled speed and the euphoria of physical work can produce, I was sweaty and tired but had completely forgotten about work. In honour of the passing of the great Julia Child, I poured a glass of red wine, and made a toast to the grande dame of cuisine. WWJD? She would pour a glass of wine, kick back, eat kalamata olives on her pizza, throw a little bit of butter into something, and never let us forget that life, like good food, is meant to be savoured and enjoyed.