“It’s not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.” - Seneca
As a younger man, I felt shame whenever I wasted time. It did not matter if I was legitimately tired, or had just finished a major project - if I was not doing, I was slacking.
Contrast that mentality with my day yesterday. I woke up at 1:30pm, took my sister out to a late lunch and got ice cream, watched the last half of the Duke/Notre Dame ACC Semifinal with my family, then napped from 5-9pm, then I went to bed. All told, I was conscious for less than six hours, and I felt GREAT!
Even better, I felt no shame. I accepted that I worked hard during the week, ran my tail off in a competitive club college lacrosse semifinal game, and that a day of rest and “wasting time” was warranted. This morning, I feel fantastic and ready for my week. Developing acceptance for not doing anything took a great deal of time and therapy, and I have greater peace of mind as a result.
Still, I have to battle the thoughts that arise: “You should be doing something. You should be improving something. You should get ahead of something.”
Thanks to my therapist, I became adept at recognizing when I am shoulding all over myself. Recognizing that, I can put a stop to it, but it is a challenge that we all face.
Young kids are loaded down with backpacks larger than their tiny frames.
Teenagers are sleep-deprived and trying to keep up with a myriad of assignments.
Adults are rushing to work, and while we don’t take much vacation time we are finally starting to take more of it.
I had the pleasure of speaking to a small class led by my AP World History Teacher, Helen Smith, at Pace Academy earlier this year. She practically dragged me into her room, and asked me to lead the class in any exercise that might relax them.
One student had been crying, another was on the verge, and the entire room felt tense. So I turned off the lights, had everyone sit comfortably but erect in their chairs, and talked them through a five-minute breathing exercise.
After the lights came on it felt like the entire room had taken a deep and a satisfying exhale. Everyone was calmer, even Ms. Smith!
The students asked me questions - what I did for a living, how I managed my obligations, and what I did for fun. What shocked the room was when I told them that I took a nap at work every day. I could almost see the thoughts churning in their young minds - “Wait… you sleep. At your job? Shouldn’t you be doing something?” Learning to should on yourself and other people starts early.
One of my passions is finding more efficient ways to do things. Human beings need leisure time. I am a human. Therefore, I need leisure time.
To be at my most efficient, I need to incorporate some nothing doing into my day.
Some ethnographers propose that pre-agricultural societies had far more leisure time than modern humans. They extrapolate this theory by studying hunter-gatherer societies like the !Kung, Hadza, and the Yaghan. As a terrific blog, Rewild.com, puts it:
“It should not surprise us that hunting and gathering requires less time and effort than agriculture, after all. In agriculture, one must devote time and effort to planting, growing, protecting, and harvesting plants, while foragers need only harvest them, leaving all of the other steps to the plant’s own prerogative. Why would we not expect it to take less time and effort?”
Mental Agility is my attempt to meld the necessities of being human to modern life. There is nothing natural about a 9-5 job, or being in school for eight hours, or staying up past midnight to finish a history paper. For reasons I have yet to discern, we have collectively agreed that these are, if not the best ways to do things, then certainly the ones we are most comfortable with. Yet, when we look at the data we see a massive increase in the prevalence of anxiety, depression, and suicide across the country.
It is long past time we start thinking differently about how we go about our lives.