I have a really hard time allowing myself space to breathe. I’ve operated for years thinking that the ultimate goal of anything was to consistently prove my resilience, my capacity to be resilient in any circumstance. Over the last few years, for reasons both personal and related to the Larger Scheme of Things, I’ve begun to realize that, perhaps, I have been very wrong in my approach to life.
Part of this reckoning has come from a number of good mentors who have appeared in my life, and part from becoming better able to listen to advice from respected friends and family members that though I’ve heard it often, I was never at a place where I could understand it. A good deal of being ready to reconsider things has come about simply because this is a year of milestones for me: a decade crossed, a degree finished, a new stage of life entered, and such change lends one to reflection. It did not come about overnight, rather, several years of building a set of habits centered around my mental and emotional wellbeing, including therapy, yoga, exercise, and designated work and rest times, has slowly made me more aware of how long I have lived in a paradigm that does not value gentleness – and how I need to apply that value, actively, every day to how I choose to exist in the world.
We do not exist in a global society that emphasizes or values gentleness, care, or protecting those who might not have a potential commercial value in some way, and so we do not learn to apply that lens of care to ourselves. While there have been recently published books on the importance of sleep or rest in the context of this kind of world, these are ideas always framed in the context of increasing productivity: work less to make more. At their hearts, these books, these ideas do not actually allow us to be gentle with ourselves, and understand our mental, physical, and emotional needs, but rather, are still about some kind of optimization.
I no longer want to optimize. I no longer want to be valued because of my capacity to produce, or withstand. I no longer want to feel defined by some kind of resilience.
I no longer feel like I have to, and it is such a gift to let go of that pressure to be more, rather than to simply be. I already do enough. I am not competing; there is nothing to be won by becoming more busy. Being busy or busy-seeming, or constantly engaged has nothing in actuality to do with my ambitions. In this year, I have finally found to some small extent the ability to give myself permission to stop, and only worry about where I am, not where someone else expects me to be.
In the face of two major life milestones in the same month, and a confusion of not exactly feelings, but the awareness that some feelings should maybe be there, beyond the current spate of sleeplessness and mild panic at the State of Things, a good friend keeps telling me that whatever I am feeling in this moment is probably valid. That, I don’t have to be feeling immense amounts of excitement or anticipation, and the pragmatism I’m facing the world with right now doesn’t change how I feel about the bigger contexts of things happening or what they signify, ultimately. Other friends are ready to be excited for me, while I muddle through the messiness a little while longer, holding on to my planning and organizing, and continuing to make contingency plans for everything that has to come afterwards. On one hand, I’m grateful to have people in my life like this; on the other hand, I do have to question why I keep waiting for permission to be kind to myself in whatever moment I find myself in.
It’s not just about knowing when not to run, or when to take a day off because one is sick, though those things are important. It is about learning the little signs of one’s whole self trying to alert you to the fact that part of you needs to stop, and while you might be able to push through, well, what is the point of such a push? It’s about recognizing needs before they become desperate, and then not punishing oneself for having those needs in the first place, no matter how they might disrupt other plans.
I think that learning gentleness, truly, will require a letting go of expectations more fully, especially of those I hold for myself. It means being okay with passing on opportunities or deadlines, on not being able to do everything I want for everyone I want to do it for at all times. It means letting myself breath, and not being down on myself because the intention to start the day with a couple hours of yoga became sleeping in and engaging in thirty minutes of breathing exercises instead. It means being okay with not being an optimized machine, with sometimes not being able to execute logistical plans, and with asking for help. Because as hard as all these things and more are for me to balance conceptually with my lived reality, I also know that if I don’t learn to be gentle with myself, no one else is going to extend that gentleness to me. And if I cannot learn to do this for myself, how do I help to build a world where gentleness, not optimization, becomes more normalized? After all, as Alex Soojung-Kim Pang notes in Rest, when Malcom Gladwell wrote about the 10,000 hours it takes to reach a certain degree of proficiency in any thing, Gladwell focused on the hours of work only, and glossed over the greater proportion of time spent in deliberate rest, and the even greater proportion of time spent sleeping. Imagine how the paradigm of discourse around success might have been different if such glossing had not happened. Could the insight touted from that book shifted the gears towards a far more different world than the one we live in now?
Gentleness is a muscle to be stretched, a skill to be learned much like napping or playing piano. You cannot progress at anyone’s pace but your own, but regular practice makes things easier. Being gentle with others is often easier than being gentle with oneself, and sometimes a better place to start. Gentleness, in this paradigm, is not this same as forgiveness: the latter implies that there has been an error or a failure. In fact, in these moments it is more necessary for me to realize I have not actually done anything wrong nor have I somehow failed; in essence, there is nothing to forgive. I am slowly learning this; I wish I had started much earlier.
This month is full of big moments for me, and this year is full of milestones and change. I don’t always act with the grace I should, but I am going to try to learn to extend a little more of it to myself. I have nothing left to prove to anyone, including myself, so I might as well allow myself the space, the breathing room, to learn to live and enjoy my life fully. I write this after a day of deliberate rest, at least my version of it. I baked biscotti and challah for one set of gifts. I prepped cookie dough for a gift waiting to be made and gifted later this week. And then I sat and read a book like I had not read in years. It was not for work; it was not for anything but pleasure, and I devoured it in almost a single sitting, interrupted only by an oven timer every so often. For the first time in a long time, I did not begrudge myself doing things for my soul, because they made me feel more me than anything else. I am not tallying work not done to make up for it tomorrow. And to do this with any degree of success for one day, is what I am right now calling enough. And maybe another day will follow, or it won’t. But I can hold on to this day, knowing that when I am ready it will happen again as I slowly continue to learn to be gentle with my whole self.