My friend Elise* is one of the most active human beings I've ever known. On any given morning, this mother of four makes sure her kids have a healthy breakfast, are properly dressed, and have all of their homework in their knapsacks before she sends them off to school. Then she goes to her own job in the publishing world. On the days when she doesn't have a lunch meeting, she goes to the gym and has a sandwich at her desk.
She has a part-time housekeeper who keeps her home in order and provides adult supervision when the kids get home from school; but Elise is back in time to have dinner with her children and help with their schoolwork.
I love Elise, and I admire her stamina; but I'm not sure all of this activity is good for her. She doesn't take time for herself, even on weekends, when she's often ferrying her family to their various sports, art and music events (because naturally, her children are kept equally busy). Elise is married to a wonderful man, but there are signs that their relationship is suffering. And it's hard for her to grab a minute to be with her friends anymore.
I like to be busy myself, so I have empathy for Elise's breakneck pace; and certainly I support her spending so much time with her children. But I also understand that there is a limit to the value of productivity. In fact, sometimes it's really important to be able to simply waste time.
Elise, like many of us today, suffers from what the German sociologist and economist Max Weber describes as a confusion of activity with morality. With the coming of the industrial revolution, Weber says, we began to equate being productive with being good. Today we have almost come to believe that the busier we are, the better we are.
I am a psychotherapist, not a historian or political analyst, so my understanding of Weber is very limited; but what I understand is that he thinks it is a mistake to equate resting or non-productive behavior with wasting time, or, as many of us tend to do, with laziness. Today we teach our kids that if they are highly productive in school, they will get into a good college; and that if they are highly productive in that good college, they will have a successful, meaningful life. And of course, we teach them this because we believe it. But there are problems with this belief system.
Elise's oldest daughter, for example, is clearly rebelling against Elise's emphasis on productivity. She doesn't put it into words, but she shows it in behavior - for one thing, she refuses to participate in some of the extra-curricular programs in which she has been involved all of her life; and she has become a binge drinker and eater, which obviously interferes with her ability to do her schoolwork. Another child is also suffering, but in a different way. This "very good" girl is an excellent student and is as active as her mother could possibly wish, but she has also developed an eating disorder. Hers takes the form of self-starvation and over-exercising. She has become dangerously thin and is going to be hospitalized for treatment for her anorexia.
Perhaps these youngsters would have developed these difficulties even if Elise was not so focused on productivity. I believe that cause and effect is not nearly as clear as we tend to think. Parents have influence over their kids, of course, but not total. There are other influences, including the genes we're born with and the culture in which we live, both of which have been found to be highly significant in the development of eating disorders (http://www.anad.org/) (I've written more about the issue of parent-blaming in other posts and in a couple of articles you can look at on my website, if you like.)
But what can Elise do? She is not wealthy and must work. She loves her children and wants to do what's best for them, so she spends as much of her free time with them as possible. Her husband is an excellent father and is very involved with their children and has always done his share of housework and childcare. They are working on the relationship and hoping that they can save their marriage, not only for the sake of their children, but for themselves as well.
So where do I think she can find even a single extra minute that she can "waste"?
This is the problem for many of us. It's no longer just that we don't see spending time sitting in a tub or staring blankly out the window as having value - we simply don't have that time available to us!
I'm a great fan of Thich Nhat Hanh, and I like many of his sayings. Here's one that I find very useful: "Smile, breathe and go slowly." I don't always remember to do it myself, especially when I'm rushing from teaching a class to seeing a client, or trying to find time to write my blog, get my house clean and go to the movies with my husband.
But sometimes I do remember it, like when I'm walking from my apartment to my office in the early morning when the rising sun is coloring the sky pink and purple (yes, even in New York City we can see the sun rise - or at least see the sky change colors!) And that tiny moment of breathing and going slowly actually puts a smile on my face - and makes the day feel much more manageable.
So here are a few things that I have found to help me slow down, breathe and smile:
- Watching television with my husband and/or my son.
- Walking to work, a five minute walk that I do at least once a day, slowly - so that it takes ten minutes instead of five - and paying attention to what I see along the way.
- Staring out of my window and not paying attention to what I see.
- Meditating for five minutes.
- Taking a long, slow bath or shower.
- Reading something that is neither educational nor mind-improving (junk mysteries are my favorite).
- Chopping vegetables for a stew or soup.
- Slowly sipping a cup of tea.
- Talking about nothing important to a friend or family member on the phone.
- Taking a short walk alone or with a friend or family member.
- Straightening something up in my apartment.
I know that some of these activities are also "productive," but I actually learned from a client, who found that straightening up her living space and watering her plants, if she did them without stress or pressure, were both extremely soothing. So sometimes, of course, it is possible to combine productivity with relaxation. It's just important not to turn something that could be relaxing and possibly even unproductive into a high-maintenance, goal-oriented activity. Which is something most of us are very good at doing!!
I would, as always, love to know your thoughts about these ideas; and I'd love to know what you do to give yourself a little time to breath and smile.
*names and identifying information changed to protect the privacy of everyone involved