One morning in early January 1987, I awoke in pain, and by the next day had undergone emergency surgery for a rare ovarian condition. The day after I was operated on, a large retaining wall behind my house collapsed, damaging the garden (such as it was – little more than a small, concrete back yard) and rendering the central heating system useless. After nearly a week in hospital, I returned home to spend the rest of the month convalescing, surrounded by piles of sleeping bags and a portable gas heater.
At the time, I was a community development worker, based in a particularly deprived area of the city. Young and politically motivated, I believed that we were making a difference, that my presence was, in some minor way, changing the world. I was also conscientious, and it was a challenge to be off work for so long. For a while, I was too ill to be concerned about what was happening in my absence. As the month wore on, I began to wonder, and to fret about all I supposed wasn’t getting done, all those meetings that had been scheduled that I hadn’t been able to attend.
When I eventually got back to work, the shocking truth was that everything had carried on perfectly well without me. My absence really hadn’t made much of a difference. My colleagues said they’d missed me, and there was some work to catch up on, but it became very clear that I was dispensable. I’d subtly believed myself to be indispensable, and then life had shown me that this was far from the case. Nothing had fallen apart in my absence, with the exception of the wall, and I could hardly claim credit for that.
Over the next few months, I slowly got better, and the wall and the heating were eventually repaired. For a while, I remembered the lesson – that it is okay to take time off, that life does not require my continuous activity. Since then, however, I’ve fallen into the same trap several times. I’ve believed myself to be indispensable, and not taken a rest even when I needed one. Inevitably, life has intervened, and the break has come anyway, seemingly not of my own choosing.
Culturally, too, it seems that we’ve become more averse to stopping, to resting. Now that we’re constantly connected, our physical absence makes little difference, and it’s even more tempting to just keep on keeping on, wherever we are. What I do is so important that I can’t really take a break. The credo seems to be, I’m busy, therefore I’m important. Even commerce no longer takes time off; at least the old Sunday trading laws – which ruled that all but the smallest shops had to be shut – reminded us that we were supposed to be having a day of rest.
It seems that our identities are so bound up with what we do that we find it unsettling, if not actually frightening, to really stop and rest. We like to believe that there are things out there that need to be done, and that we shouldn’t really down tools until they are done. We believe that things only get done because we exert our will; that it is our pushing or forcing or activity that makes things happen. We are pleased with ourselves when we feel that we have achieved something, been constructive, ticked tasks off our lists. All this activity also distracts us from our deeper feelings, from the intractable questions that inevitably surface during the quieter times. Do I make any difference? Is there any meaning to life? What happens when we die?
A couple of years ago, I began to experiment with doing nothing, for an hour or so at a time. Not meditating, not doing, no agenda (other than no agenda). Just sitting, or lying, and seeing what happened. Sometimes, I’d cry. Sometimes, I’d lie on the floor with my legs against the wall, or I’d move around like young children do, aimlessly and entirely without purpose. At times, I’d be moved to write, or look at old photos, or read a passage from a particular book. My rigid sense of self loosened a little further each time, and I began to see through my belief that not being engaged in purposeful activity meant that I was lazy, or a little mad, or both. Being a grown up came to seem less onerous, less serious.
In the last few days, I’ve felt the need to stop again, after an exhausting time. It’s been tempting to believe the train of thought that says, There is so much to do! You can’t stop yet. You need to sort out the house, and work out how to earn a steady income. And for a while, I was caught up in those thoughts. But a couple of days ago, I remembered that I can stop, and rest, and everything will be fine. So I’ve resolved to do as little as possible for the next week. As long as I feed the three of us – Jack, the fish and me – all will be well. Three days in, and we’re doing fine.