Have you ever felt your life is like a treadmill turned up one speed too fast? That, on the occasional day you take a break and step off to catch your breath, you are no sooner forced to get “back to the grind,” finding yourself fighting to keep up. Even with all your best efforts, you inch closer and closer to almost slipping off. It is as if school is a marathon and graduation is the finish line – the point when we finally win the race of busyness. Well, I hate to break it to you, but when you are stuck on a treadmill the race will never be over. Life will always present itself with another list of lofty goals, another person’s expectations that need to be met, and another box to check off on the to-do list that will never get shorter. This type of avoidance feeds busyness.
Today busyness has become a falsely productive way to work toward leading a successful life, not only as students but also as parents, professors, business owners, and nearly every high achieving person alike. Universities in particular are breeding a species of hyper-competitive perfection obsessed individuals who appear to thrive on to-do lists, and jammed packed schedules; a lifestyle where the haunting concept of ‘self-care” is foreign to our vocabularies. Whether we know it or not, I feel like so many students take pride in being able to deny their very basic needs, revealed in sayings like “Self-care? Who’s she?” “I haven’t eaten all day,” “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” “I haven’t had a good night sleep since I was in the womb.” We seem to fail to realize that this self destructive behaviour, as heroic and strong as it can make you feel, is going to do nothing but harm us in the future. It will cause an inevitable “mid-life crisis” when years of living this way becomes far too unsustainable.
As a generation that loves being able to connect through memes with the internal suffering of our peers, one example of a post that has been cycling nearly every social media site reads: good grades, social life, and enough sleep — pick two. Why is it that we live in a society where balance has become an impossible standard that has slipped so low as to be mocked and ridiculed rather than striven to be met? Perhaps this triad cannot be balanced, or this treadmill is not designed for one speed, but rather we are required to embrace the concept of wholehearted living. “Wholehearted living”, explains Brené Brown psychologist and author of The Gifts of Imperfection, “is about engaging with our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion and connection to wake up in the morning and think, ‘No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.'”
Unfortunately, here lies the major issue, with resumes to build, universities to apply for and “personal brands” to develop, wholehearted is not necessarily one of the top ten characteristics that land these major positions. In a competitive scholastic setting where someone else is always working harder, balance simply doesn’t cut it. As someone who is most definitely sucked into this toxic state of mind, I find it hard to pull myself back without risking falling out of the competition all together. A withdrawal must be a collectively supported effort in which we give each other the permission to say “no” to that executive position, where refusing to step onto the rungs of the corporate ladder is a wise decision, and where community involvement is a life enriching experience rather than another resume booster, because if something is not bringing you joy or enriching your life in some form is it really worth pursuing? I think we need to go through life trying to balance each other out, rather than compete for perfection. In her new book Present Over Perfect, when describing the “best people” in her life, Shauna Niequist advises “Instead of competing for who’s busier or who’s more tired, who’s keeping more balls in the air, we’re constantly looking for ways to help each other’s lives get lighter, easier to carry. Closer to the heart of what we love, less clogged with expectations and unnecessary tasks.” It is these relationships that are fundamental in leading a sustainable, wholehearted life.
Now, opinions are not going to change on their own. Employers, professors, and decision makers will not alter their standards if we keep meeting them, conversely they will continue to inch out of our reach. It is time we learn to say no to a false sense of busyness, and yes to living each moment with intention. With enough awareness, enough support, and enough collective engagement, we can step off the treadmill and onto the untrodden path where we are given the freedom to run in the life we have been designed to live.