Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There!

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“Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is a nobler art of leaving things undone.” – Lin Yutang

I admit it – one of the most enjoyable ways to pamper myself is to sleep. On a weekend, when I’m able to take a 30-minute nap, my body feels like it has had an extra night of sleep and my mind has slowed down to focus only on the present moment. During the week a big treat for me is to change into my cozy jammies and get into bed early. I might read, pore over my cookbooks, plan my garden or listen to the radio – or do nothing at all. “Yummy bed”, I think to myself. If I can precede my early bedtime with a hot bubble bath, all the better. It’s ironic that the very things I used to hate as a small child – taking baths, taking naps and going to bed early – have become my most treasured luxuries.

Sleeping was definitely not encouraged during my childhood. If I tried to sleep late on a weekend, I would be angrily awakened and ordered to get up and do something constructive. The few times I would attempt to sit on the living room couch to relax, I would immediately hear, “Don’t just sit there – do something!” – a common refrain. Working and keeping busy was touted as a good use of one’s time by the people around me. It was revered even to the the exclusion of vacations, fun and social activities. Relaxation was viewed with disdain. The irony is that I also observed how the people espousing these ‘values’ did not seem like happy relaxed balanced people. In fact, they seemed pretty grumpy. All that work and busyness didn’t seem to lead to anything except more of the same. They were like hamsters on a wheel, in constant activity, but getting nowhere. For them, it was activity for the sake of activity.

At one of my first jobs as a teenager a group of female colleagues would compete about who had woken up earlier that day. “I woke up at 5:30 to do laundry”, the first would claim. “5:30? Huh! We’re up at 5 am!” another would counter. This competition would escalate until the last person had woken up before they went to bed the night before!   These were the same women who, rather than digging in to a plate of brownies left in the common room, would stand around saying loudly, “Oh, no thank you”. When did self-denial become admirable? And more importantly – why?!?

I remember when my wise Aunt Bea told me that laying on the couch on a Sunday afternoon watching movies was a perfectly acceptable way to spend my time. She was a respectable professional, successful, mature and responsible. More importantly, she was a pretty happy balanced person so I trusted her judgment. You mean she wasn’t slaving away every minute of every day? This was a revelation.   She worked hard – and yet she also took vacations, spent a lot of time with her family and always had a story about her latest fun adventure. This seemed like a really good way to spend one’s time. I thought I would give her approach a try.

One day, while trolling the psychology/self-help/spirituality section of my local library – long before the internet was on the horizon – I caught my breath when I saw a book titled, “Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There!” by Sylvia Boorstein. I reread the title, realizing that yes, it said the opposite of what I had heard countless times as a little girl. Reading that felt like a balm. I was so encouraged that someone had figured out a way to just stop and enjoy life. I dove in.

That book set me on a path of discovering an approach to life that flew in the face of what I had been taught and what I see so many others trying hard to emulate – that if you are overwhelmed you just need to work faster and harder to get it all done. Thankfully, that approach doesn’t work at all. How awesome a discovery is that?

Instead, I learned one of the greatest ironies in life: when you are feeling overwhelmed, just stop and sit there.  At first, it is difficult to walk away and take a big breath right in the middle of a stressful situation, but the benefits are amazing. Even if you are able to quiet your mind a little bit, you are more clear and more efficient when you focus your attention back to the original situation. In the longer term, adding more down time to your day results in accomplishing more, doing a better job, being a more likeable person and experiencing greater satisfaction and balance as a result.

Remember that scene in the movie City Slickers where Mitch asks Curly what is the secret to life? Curly raises his finger and says, “One thing. Just one thing.” He then explains that each person must decide what his or her ‘one thing’ is. I completely disagree with that philosophy! I believe the secret to a happy life is ‘Everything in Balance’. Practicing law takes focus and a lot of hours, which is what makes those naps and early nights especially luxurious. Yes, I will get up early on some mornings but on others I don’t set an alarm. This way I’m well-rested, neither grumpy nor anxious and I’m able to do my job effectively. On the one hand there is no need to rebel against the rat race by becoming a beach bum but at the other extreme, it isn’t satisfying to work too much, sleep too little and to live a brownieless existence.

There are lots of messages of self-denial and there is much praise of workaholism all around us. However, taking care of ourselves is the most responsible way to truly be at our best. I, therefore, resolve to stay strong and nap without regret. I proclaim my love of sleep (and brownies) proudly!

“There is virtue in work and there is virtue in rest. Use both and overlook neither.”

― Alan Cohen

 

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