I am having lunch with an old friend. Just as he is bemoaning all the goings on of his collapsing marriage, the phone rings. His cell phone that is. “Excuse me,” he purses his lips in that embarrassed “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I left my cellphone on” smile. Suddenly, he is all business. It’s a real estate deal. He talks for five minutes while I toy with my food and pretend not to listen. As he talks he gets a text. Of course, I don’t hear it, he has it on vibrate, but he leaps as if he has been electrocuted, grabs it, curses, rolls his eyes, and says into the phone, “Can I get back to you Jeff? Carl’s texting me.”
It seems these days that work never stops. Joggers talk to the office as they run. People do business as they shop for groceries – if they have time to shop. Even walking on the beach, ON THE BEACH! Where you should be listening to the crashing waves and drinking in the sun, they’re yelling into their phones above the surf. While walking on Siesta Key, I overheard the following: “Tell Morty I ‘m cutting that scene! I don’t care if she’s his niece! What’s what noise? Oh! It’s the Gulf. I’m on vacation! No I can’t talk to you later, I have to take my kid to a soccer match, you think it’s hard to hear me here, forget about it!”
Our culture is addicted to work. The 40 hour work week is history for many – 48 -60 hours being the new norm. In fact, since 1969, we’ve added a whole month of work a year. The Wall Street Journal reported on the hazardous increase of eating at the desk, including more vermin in cubicles and ruined keyboards. A line of office chairs features tray tables like on airline seats to make eating at your desk easier (and presumably, more efficient.) In last week’s I talked about desk treadmills – maybe soon, we’ll just have a feeding tray so we can work, walk and eat at the same time, the ultimate multi-task. I have to confess a time in my life where I experienced great personal pride in my ability to consume cold sesame noodles with chopsticks while driving down Rte 80 in NJ on my way to a gig. My lap was a mess, and eventually I admitted this was a low point on my road to “right living.” But I can still recall the adrenaline rush I experienced as I passed someone and waved with my chopsticks.
Society defines you by your job – you are what you do. I took a year off after the sesame noodle episode, to re-assess my priorities. Goddess only knows what I would have done otherwise….start grilling wild salmon while driving, listening to NPR and talking on the phone (Hands free of course) Perhaps whipping up a chiffonade of lettuce with some a food processor that plugs into the cigarette lighter. Perhaps it was time to think about a career change, go for some long walks. When I went to parties, inevitably, people would ask me, “So, what do you do for a living?” I forced myself to answer, “Nothing,, ” or “I’m between careers right now.” Their eyes would glaze over until suddenly they spied their new best friend across the room and quickly excused themselves. I wanted to shout after them, “But wait! I had a successful career for 25 years! I’ve taught all over the world! I DO have value! Really, I AM interesting!” This experience made me determined to not get caught up in whatever I eventually chose. Which of course, only lasted till I got going in my new career direction. After all, according to a recent TV report, we live in a society that rewards and reinforces work addiction. If you are addicted to alcohol or drugs, you go to rehab or a 12 step program. If you are addicted to work, you just get more stuff on your resume.
According to Irene Philipson, a Silicon Valley Area psychologist, “I am seeing people who are living to work. Literally, some people don’t have a friend outside of work, or they actually look forward to spending holidays on the job.” Dr. Gayle Porter from the Rutgers University School of Business feels that some workaholics “….overwork to compensate for self esteem, self conceit and identity issues. This plays out as a sacrifice for intimacy (with spouse and family), a high need to control, inflexibility and perfectionism.” Oh Good Lord, how long do I have to be an A student? A choral conductor friend told me of a dream she had. “I was back in high school and there was a huge concert coming up. I had four papers due and I was president of the student council. I was running through the hall trying to get to rehearsal on time when suddenly a voice called out, “Stop! You don’t have to do this! You’re not in high school anymore! There are no more grades!”
Is it about working? Or is it about doing? When I’m doing stuff, I feel important, valuable, a contributing member of society. I’ve occasionally wondered if it’s all part of some dastardly alien plot. While we weren’t paying attention, someone implanted worker bee genes into our DNA so I think if I work MORE, I’ll be more valuable, more important. Some people say that we work more because we want more stuff. Advertising (or is it the darn aliens?) has convinced we need all these things in order to live in a modern world. From video games to computer upgrades, from digital cameras to surround sound home theaters, it seems there is always more to buy. Yet what is the underlying message in all the advertising campaigns? If you buy this product, you will have a relaxing, wonderful life.
Wayne Muller, in his book Sabbath, Finding Rest, Renewal And Delight In Our Daily Lives points out that in fashion catalogs we always see the models enjoying a leisure lifestyle. They are walking on a beach, lounging on a deck chair and reading, playing with their children. In other words, buy this dress and you will have….time. Buy this $5000 gas grill and you will have a relaxing evening with your elegant relaxed friends on your patio. Buy this $40,000 SUV and you can sit on a cliff at the edge of the frontier and watch a sunset all by yourself. Interestingly, resting costs nothing.
Why is it so hard to stop? Perhaps if we stop blaming ourselves for being workaholics or compulsive multi-taskers and simply look at what is happening physiologically, we might have a clue. The autonomic nervous system has two parts – sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system governs the fight or flight response, it’s what triggers adrenaline, gets you going in the day. It’s the one that gets the job done, and feels the rush of, well, rushing. The parasympathetic nervous system works during rest. It governs healing, sleep, even learning. When the sympathetic nervous system becomes over-stimulated – whether from a huge outer demand or overwork, it becomes hyper. In the beginning, with all that adrenaline pumping, the person feels powerful, jazzed, she can do anything. Then a fraying begins, and eventually, if the person doesn’t rest, the immune system crashes. When the sympathetic system is over-stimulated in this way, it often won’t even let the body shift to parasympathetic mode. Sleeplessness, irritability, loss of clarity and a sense of urgency is the result. There was a South American tribe that went on long marches. Periodically, they would just stop. They explained that they needed to do this so that their souls could catch up with them. Perhaps this sense of a soul is connected to the parasympathetic response.
Meditation is supposed to help trigger the parasympathetic, relaxation response. Most of my meditations consist of me sitting on a cushion with my back nice and straight, my legs crossed, my hands folded…. I breathe in and exhale one, inhale two, exhale three… “I wonder if I should have cereal or eggs for breakfast? Well, I had eggs yesterday, so probably, shoot! I forgot to call Julie back yesterday, better put that on the list first thing, boy the tomato plant is looking a little peaked these days, growing indoors is so hard, there was this guy on the radio who said you have to mix sand with your soil, I wonder how Lisa is doing, we never really re-connected after that misunderstanding, I haven’t even checked if she’s still linked with my website, exhale, eighty – four – how did I get to eighty four? Geez, start again…..
I often tell people I’ve calmed down a lot since I started doing Feldenkrais. They look at me like I’m mad. “Honest,” I say. “Before, people would ask ‘Where’s Lavinia?’ and people would point up where I was glued to the ceiling with my hair on fire….”
Remember the famous story of Kekule’s discovery of the structure of the benzene ring, a formula that forever changed molecular chemistry? His own version of the story begins, “…I turned my chair toward the fire place and sank into a doze…..” Pascal once said, “Man has so many problems because he’s afraid to sit alone in a room.” So right after I finish this article, I’m going to sit down, take a load off, and wait for my soul to catch up. As Billy Ray Cyrus once said in a song, no one has written on their tombstone “I wish I had worked more.”