Once again I face my lifelong nemesis, my inner over-achiever. I am determined to scale back my efforts before leaving Ghana lest I return to the States and throw myself headlong into my old life without taking time to consider my alternatives. Superwoman I do not need to be.
These past 16 months I’ve been living in a culture where time doesn’t really mean much. In Africa you learn quickly that most of your day will be spent waiting. This attitude towards time couldn’t be further from the culture of my birth where Time is Money and Every Second Counts.
Even so, it took me 10 months before I was able to scale back my To Do list. Looking back it seems ridiculous, but for most of my first year in Ghana I ‘earned my keep’ by working every bit as hard as I had back home. Despite being unemployed, I found myself working between six and ten hours a day.
Fortunately, Amy arrived in January and after months of working together in the kitchen and many conversations it became clear that I was over doing it and that I was driven by perceived external expectations. And so I woke up and throttled down, throwing myself instead into a few long-neglected personal projects.
Six months later, with one project completed, the second well under control and only two weeks left, I’m happy to report much success. In addition to Amy’s insights, these other sources of inspiration have been immensely helpful:
I. Jennifer Radtke’s essay Riding the Demon in Lyle Estil’s book “Small Stories, Big Changes”
>Snip< Some people are addicted to drugs, some to TV, I’m addicted to work. It’s an addiction that gets regarded in our culture. And it is praised, which makes it harder to see it as an addiction. Addictions are things you do to avoid your life, avoid feeling your emotions, avoid being present. When I’m stressed about something in life, I work like crazy and think of nothing else.
Perhaps life loves us so much that if we don’t learn a lesson the first time it will keep throwing us that lesson again. Life believes in us and knows we want to learn this lesson and are fully capable of learning it. I had been working on my workaholism for years, but hadn’t quite gotten to the core of it. Life orchestrated the perfect trap for me and I fell right into it. I get all passionate about something (well usually about 10 different things) and terribly excited, plan a bunch of activities for the year and realize in the middle that I”m too busy and it’s no fun anymore. I’m committed and I push through and get burnt out. We expected the permitting process and construction for the new station to take less than a year. Instead it dragged on for two years. The roller coaster ride of fear and extreme work took their toll and I went past my edge beyond burn-out and into major adrenal fatigue.
In a dream I saw a picture of my adrenal glands. They were black and burnt to a crisp. I slept 12 hours a night and took naps during the day. The rest of the time I sat around. I worked three days a week and spent the other four days resting up in order that I could work again. I remember teaching a biodiesel class once when I was experiencing complete exhaustion. I felt like a cartoon character with toothpicks holding up my eyelids. Slowly, over three years, my energy built back up. When you push your energy so low, it takes years to recover. I am thankful that I surrendered to the process and the exhaustion. I made it a priority to rest, sleep, rest, and sleep some more.
Not having energy made me look at things differently. I learned that I can be the idea person, but don’t need to carry out the ideas. As I enter my forties, I can be a mentor.
II. Robert Levine’s “A Geography of Time”
After taking a year’s sabbatical to study the cultural nuances of time, Levine prepared to step back into his life. As he walked up the steps towards his office at California State University he was suddenly awash in anxiety. So he did the right thing. He turned around and went for a walk to think about his reaction.
Out of that walk was born the resolve not to step back into his old shoes. To accomplish this he vowed to ask himself two questions before saying “Yes” to anything. 1) Do I have to do this? and 2) Do I want to do this? This simple formula made so much sense that I embraced it immediately.
Two of my mother’s sayings have been ringing in my ears lately. “All things with moderation, dear” and “Pay the price.”
Surely, had I exercised moderation I wouldn’t be paying the price with my left leg. In January, after six months of “earning my keep”, I started having problems with my left foot. All that time on my feet had turned my varicose veins into painful reminders that I’m not getting any younger. I began wrapping my left leg in an ace bandage to mediate the pain and allow me to stay on my feet. Finally, in May I realized that I didn’t have to do this and I walked away from my role as housekeeper.
On August 11th I crafted a mid-year New Year’s Resolution, a personal manifesto to help me avoid falling into the “Over Doing” trap again.
1. No one can make my life complicated but me.
2. At 59, it’s time for me to mentor more and serve less.
3. I’m a lot happier if I don’t feel obligated to get involved in whatever the people around me are up to.
My manifesto seems to be working. I spend a lot more time doing what I want to do these days and sometimes that means doing nothing at all. At least once a day I resist doing something for someone that they can do for themselves. I buy myself time by saying “I’ll think about it” and later ask myself “Do I really want to do this? Do I have to do it? Is there someone else I can inspire to do it?”
Armed with my new skills, I soon return to the industrialized world where qualities like “stressed out” and “over-booked” are built into the culture. It is my fervent hope that I don’t get there and slip into my old over-doing ways. Wish me luck!