I stop at the red light and my subconscious internal monologue floods into focus: “When am I going to wedge in that phone call?…I’ve got to remember to respond to that email…oh no, what’s that text about?…man, I’m thirsty—I need to be drinking more water—maybe then I would be able to lose this extra weight I’ve put on recently…I need to get a bite to eat between appointments this afternoon…” About that time, a warning flashes on my dashboard: “SERVICE BRAKE SYSTEM.”
Not the first time I’ve seen that one recently. My thoughts shift: “At least I got it checked out and know its not hazardous…at least not yet…” My eyes slide over to my gas gage… “Maaaan,” I whine, “I don’t have time to stop for gas…besides the checking account balance is low…”
Since the intrepid Mayflower beached at Plymouth Rock (tongue firmly in cheek)—certainly at least for the last several generations—the instinct to work hard…stay busy…avoid idleness has served Americans relatively well. You don’t have to be Protestant to feel the cultural pressure of the so-called Protestant work ethic. And seemingly, the rule has been that the less “free time” you have, the higher the probability you will be successful. The down side? We have been literally killing ourselves to get ahead. Stress-related diseases—heart-disease, obesity, asthma, depression, and anxiety to name a few—have steadily climbed the charts of statistical killers as the pace of life has continued to increase.
Recently, we have witnessed a shift in the tide. More people than ever are talking about work-life balance—about the benefits of taking time off—about slowing down in order to move forward in a more focused way. This appears particularly true of the Millennial generation—so much so that they are often vilified as lazy and entitled by the old guard. Where should the pendulum settle? Hopefully time will tell.
However, old habits die hard, and it is far too easy for me—a performance-driven, people-pleasing perfectionist—to find odd tasks and new projects to fill the empty spaces. The To-Do list is never ending. There is always another task…another accomplishment…another expectation staring me down…or coming up from behind to steamroll over me. And listening to those around me, I have a hard time imagining that I am unique in this.
If life is a rubber band, many of us live our lives just wincing and waiting for it to snap. We instinctively know that we are incapable of going on like this. But how can we keep the rubber band from snapping? We must either reduce the tension or add strength. Reducing tension involves incorporating rest—reducing activity and creating strategic reserves; strengthening the rubber band involves incorporating resilience—adding that which makes life feel more purposeful and meaningful.
One of the most challenging books I’ve read over the years, originally written over a quarter century ago, is simply titled Margin (1992). In it, a medical doctor named Richard Swenson offers an impassioned yet reasoned plea for us to slow down—to create strategic reserves in four key areas of our lives:
Emotional Energy: Sometimes how we feel about something is more important than any other aspect. This is exactly what makes two people experience the same event and have completely different reactions. We only have so much emotional energy to expend. When we start scraping the bottom of that barrel, we are dangerously close to hurting ourselves and our significant relationships—the very relationships that often offer resilience.
Physical Energy: Similar to emotional energy, and much more tangible, is the concept of physical energy. Once again, the varying amounts of physical energy with which each person is endowed as well as the amount of effort required to complete a specific task make it unfruitful to compare the effect of a single task across two different people. However, the effects of depleting physical energy are predictable: body and mind break down, productivity suffers, and personhood is threatened.
Time: Time is the great equalizer. No one gets more than 24 hours in a day, and no one gets any less. And like it or not, as much as we say we “have to” do something, we ultimately do what we want with our time. This is not denying that we ultimately reap the consequences for those choices, but with few exceptions, it is a resource over which we have a great amount of control.
Money: When billionaire John Rockefeller was asked how much money was enough, he famously replied, “Just a little bit more.” I think we can all relate. However, more often, even though a little more income would be nice, the bigger change we can make is to reduce our spending. Often the byproducts of spending less—living less complicated, more contented lives—are of greater benefit than money in the bank.
Unlike rest and margin, resilience is created by judiciously adding things to our lives that will enhance our ability to weather stress. Many times, the specifics of what enhances resilience in one over person over another is intensely personal, but some broad generalizations can be useful:
Relationships: We were created to be in relationship. Even the most introverted among us needs a solid support system. Often the emotional energy and time needed for the healthy pursuit, maintenance, and strengthening of interpersonal relationships must be carved out of other activities. Devaluing these relationships to the point of misspending this energy over a long period of time results in impoverished and risky psychological health.
Exercise: Any cursory internet search on the subject will undeniably point to the link between exercise and positive mental health. Exercise shunts stress while building a deeper long-term reserve of physical energy. However, the short-term costs in terms of time, and physical energy—and sometimes money and emotional energy as well—often appear too insurmountable for many to reap the long-term benefits.
Nutrition: Often less appreciated than exercise, what we eat can also have a great effect on our ability to weather stress. Without focusing on specific nutrients or micronutrients, studies indicate that a wide variation of whole foods (as unprocessed as possible) in moderated amounts stoke the fires of physical and emotional wellbeing. Adequate hydration is also important. As with exercise, however, many times the short-term costs of eating well in terms of money (real food tends to be expensive), time (fast food is easier), and emotional energy (our appetites are often trained to prefer more processed fare) overshadow the potential long-term resilience good nutrition provides.
Leisure: Treated last in this list, but by no means least important, leisure is often pantomimed in our culture as laziness or idleness. Thus, leisure is often disregarded as luxury rather than true resilience-building activity. While true leisure is probably more than binge-watching Netflix (although there might even be a time and place for that), it is nevertheless a critical component of maintaining positive mental health. It may cost in terms of time, money, and sometimes physical energy, but quality leisure activities can quickly restock emotional reserves.
Taken together, rest/margin and resilience are often difficult to plan, to develop, and to maintain. But the long-term benefits always outweigh the short-term costs, enabling us to not only survive but to truly thrive in today’s stress-infested climate.
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