The summer before my sophomore year in college, I worked two jobs so I could buy myself a Ford Fiesta. I was moving off campus during the coming fall, unappreciative of public transportation, and that tiny car was the only thing I had any hope of affording. By the end of the summer, I was pretty far away from the amount I needed to get it. So my parents took pity on me and agreed to top off the difference between what I had and the cost of “a real car.” I’d been aiming for something cute, round, compact. But after just a few days searching the used car ads at the back of the Maryland Gazette, my dad and I came home with this sleek little Celica GT I’d had no idea I wanted.
It was low to the ground. It had a spoiler and a sunroof. Its headlights flipped up when you turned them on like a long-lashed crush looking up to focus their gaze just on you. This car was way cooler than I was ever gonna be, and I loved her.
Greta, as my BFF named her, took me everywhere throughout college and most of grad school. She ferried us to countless meals and parties and classes. She sheltered me through Chicago’s brutal winters. All the while surviving my spotty maintenance efforts and antipathy toward car washes.
But like all dear things, Greta eventually started to run down, finally dying one morning with a spectacular bang we at first mistook for a gunshot. When the day came to donate her, I was so bogged down by my dissertation that when the tow truck guy called to say he was on his way, all I felt was annoyed by the distraction. “Can’t you just take care of it?” I asked my soon-to-be husband with testy fatigue. And he did.
I hadn’t thought, before then, that I’d need to mark the departure of that vehicle. I loved Greta, but she was just a car—undrivable at that. But when I stepped outside the next day and saw the empty parking pad, I realized that the car that had literally carried me through every important experience of the last 10 years of my life was gone. And I hadn’t even noticed.
I didn’t cry—it wasn’t like that. It wasn’t a well of emotion. It was an unsettled feeling in my gut, a dawning realization I didn’t want to see. Something had happened--it was small, but it mattered. And I’d been too busy to give it my attention.
* * *
I thought about Greta recently ‘cause it’s that time of year that asks us to choose whether we’re going to keep our attention on our work, or redirect it elsewhere. I say “choose,” but these moments don’t necessarily feel like a choice. To me, they feel like a civil war: Part of me wants to pull on my sweats and pull out unfinished knitting projects. Binge watch holiday movies. Spend hours planning, shopping for, and cooking elaborate holiday dinners complete with themed decorations.
But that’s just one half of me. The second half looks at her unfinished semester plan and wants to smack the first half across the face. Hard. Doesn’t my first half remember that the whole point of Thanksgiving break is to get some writing done?
Maybe you face a similar situation, where it’s all too easy to slip into the mode where life’s most pleasurable and meaningful experiences feel like obstacles to work. Perhaps, like me, you have a sneaky little habit of reinterpreting life’s joyful rest stops as burdens. (I poured out the Shitty First Draft of this very post on the morning of my 15th wedding anniversary, frantically typing out my ideas while muttering under my breath that we both had too much to do to take the weekend trip we were prepping for.) The problem is that if we give in to this feeling, we end up doing what I did with Greta—we let the most important things go by without noticing them because we’ve donated all our attention to our work.
You’re tired. You need the rest. You want to hang out with your friends and family. Or maybe all you want is to spa your day away. You know intellectually that focusing on something other than work is a good idea. But still, it feels impossible.
* * *
One reason taking a break feels impossible is because we tend to think of it as an act rather than a process. Technically, that’s true. If your last class before Thanksgiving ends at 3:45 on Tuesday, you could conceivably be on break at 3:47—just to give your students a couple minutes to get out the door. For those lucky souls who transition easily between one role and another, such a quick shift might be possible.
But for many people, there’s an internal shift you have to go through before you can detach from your work fully enough to give yourself true respite. It’s not just that you have to stop one activity and take up another. It’s that you have to be OK with the fact that that’s what you’re doing. You have to give in to the situation, to the choice that you’ve made and its implications. Without that internal shift, it’s hard to get out of your head, get out of your office, and get into the rest of your life.
What I’ve observed in my clients and myself is that this shift has multiple stages. Just knowing that these stages exist, and that others are going through them with you can alleviate the frustration you might feel toward your initial inability to unplug. More importantly, bearing them in mind can help you get through them more quickly. When I watch someone move from an unbending focus on work to a willingness to take a break, here’s what I usually see:
All of this takes time. It takes patience. It takes flexibility. But I promise you, it’s not impossible. Try it out and see if it works for you. The best part won’t even be having quiet time for yourself, or laughing with your friends, or connecting with your family. The best part will be looking back on those things when they’re all over, and doing so with a heart that's free from regret.
*Giuseppina Iacono Lobo “Academic Guilt,” in How to Build a Life in the Humanities, eds. Greg Colón Semenza and Garrett A. Sullivan, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 88.
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