“I am sooo tired today.” I say to my friend at lunch. “I really needed eight hours of sleep last night and I only got six because I was up late doing the reading for class.”
“I only got four, I’m like, dead. I had so much homework to do! I’m taking 18 units this semester so that I can graduate on time.”
“Wow, that’s a lot! When do you sleep?”
She laughs and takes a gulp of her coffee, “I’ll sleep after college… or when I’m dead.”
Conversations like this were so commonplace in my college years that perpetual overtiredness, burnout, and emotional instability seemed like facts of life (to the point that I didn’t get diagnosed with a fatigue disorder until my fourth year of school). After school, many of my friends and acquaintances still live life at a pace that renders them exhausted and stressed almost constantly, except now it’s called “hustling” and apparently it’s what you need to do in your 20s in order to have a successful life. But does life actually slow down after that? Is feeling perpetually stressed and worn out inherent to adulthood, or is there something else going on?
American capitalist culture prioritizes productivity, and not simply productivity that is personally satisfying and meaningful, but productivity that “proves” our success to the rest of the world while supporting and feeding a system powered by a frantic belief in scarcity and an overwhelming imbalance of resources. The pressure of this system and its values causes stress, poverty, and violence in the lives of many by depriving people of resources, but also by undervaluing essential aspects of life and humanity because they are not lucrative. Community, emotional support, personal growth, and time set aside for peace and reflection are all essential to spiritual, mental, and emotional health. And while we’re expected to find happiness and success, the cultural messages we receive every day undervalue the work and rest it takes to cultivate personal and communal health and thriving. This is largely due to the fact that this productivity culture hates, fears, and shames limits, despite the fact that being human is an inherently limited experience. We are often encouraged to push our minds, bodies, and boundaries past their limits in order to achieve more, even to our physical and mental detriment.
I have recently come to terms with the fact that due to my chronic illness, I cannot work for the foreseeable future. This is a frustrating situation to be in within the context of a culture that equates independence with maturity, productivity with value, and shames humans for engaging in natural interdependence. The admission of my limitations and inability to join the workforce is often met with awkward pity or misdirected envy. Well-meaning friends and strangers either can’t imagine how awful it must be to be incapable of living a “normal” life, or they fantasize about a life free from the prescripts of rugged individualism and cannot imagine a way out for themselves. I’m not going to pretend that I’m at peace with being chronically ill, or even that I’ve totally accepted it as my reality. But I am trying to view aspects of my limitations as an invitation into a life that is more whole. I realize that despite illness to the point of disability, I am in a very privileged position to be able to accept this invitation. As I embrace and cultivate a culture of interdependence and balance for myself I benefit from a financially stable family who are able and willing to keep a roof over my head, ensure that I’m fed, and help me pay for health care and medical expenses. Some people in my position don’t have the security and privilege I have to explore alternative ways of living within their limitations. Many disabled and chronically ill people have no choice to work even when it causes them excruciating pain and exhaustion, or makes them sick, or significantly reduces their quality of life. I’m sharing the invitation I feel called to accept not for the purpose of telling other sick people how to live their lives, but to argue that all of us, regardless of ability, health, class, etc. have the collective power to change these cultural narratives that ultimately do us far more harm than good.
In the past two years, I have had to slow the pace of my life significantly. At times, this makes me feel like I’m missing out on life, or being left behind. But just as often I notice new space for things I didn’t know I needed. My emotions are more stable than when I was constantly overworking my mind and body. I enjoy time with my family more than I have since I was a kid. There is space in my life for creativity. I have more time for reflection and emotional processing. My life isn’t stress-free, and I strongly believe that some stress and negative emotions are natural and healthy parts of being human. However, I have learned that the amount and degree of stress I’d taken on previously was unnecessary and encouraged by a culture that upholds chronic stress and busyness as some perverse badge of honor.
Additionally, my limited energy necessitates that I prioritize how I spend my time, mental and physical capacity, and emotional stamina. I like to think I’ve always been a fairly intentional person due to my upbringing, but dealing with chronic fatigue has demanded that I think even more carefully about what is most important to me in life, and guess what, there’s a clear winner: relationships. Journeying with and supporting others has been the single consistent calling of my life. Leaning into this role has never been lucrative, nor have I necessarily wanted it to become lucrative, but it is crucial to my sense of purpose. After basic health and hygiene, relationships are the first thing I want to give my energy to. Deconstructing my relationship with productivity has allowed me to embrace the priorities and gifts in my life that aren’t lucrative in a new way. When I embrace relationships and offering support to the people in my life as an inherent part of who I am that deserves energy and has value (despite not producing anything), I am more present to the people in my life, less resentful of the energy interpersonal dynamics take, and I feel better about my role in the world.
I realize that most people reading this are employed, and I am not arguing that working is a problem. However, in a culture that assigns worth and value based solely on work and productivity, we all miss out on essential and life-giving aspects of living that no one will pay us for. I am convinced that for all of us greater health lies on the other side of slowing down and valuing our unmarketable gifts and passions enough to let them thrive. I know this is a complicated issue to which I am presenting one highly simplified perspective, and that there is tons of important organizing, thinking, and writing done about deconstructing capitalism. I agree with many others that this system, in which people spent the vast majority of their existence selling their lives and labor in order to survive, ought to be dismantled. But without a substantial cultural shift towards valuing our rest, our relationships, our passions, our health, and our humanity, we will not have the momentum to create lasting change.
Since I began writing this reflection I was offered an exciting, one-time opportunity. However, this opportunity would have required me to abandon (for a week) the commitments I’ve made to myself and my goals this season. It would have been a cool experience, but it would have taken a great deal of energy and it wasn’t aligned with my larger goals, so after some deliberation I turned it down. Limitations force us to make choices and sometimes that feels unfair and frustrating, but ultimately choices are what give our lives meaning. Right now I am choosing to honor my limitations, focus my energy on the things that are most valuable to me, and to embrace interdependence, balance, and rest as crucial aspects of life.