Quiet, alone time can foster ingenuity, improve concentration, and curb mental and physical burnout from spreading ourselves too thin. So why don’t we take time for ourselves more often?
Last weekend, my best girlfriend and I had big plans to grab dinner and drinks together for the first time in over a month. It was a celebratory Saturday night for two reasons: she had landed a new job, and I had made it through my first academic conference. Pushing through the haze of my fatigue, I decided to forgo a nap after being up for nearly 24 hours, scrub the day off my face, and head out for some much-needed girl time.
But a strange thing happened as we walked into our favorite bar, the site of so many jubilant toddies and toasts. The lights were blinding. The noise was deafening. The crowd was just too crowded, and my excitement gave way to unease as I began to feel more like a claustrophobic in an elevator than a twentysomething out on the town. After a shared look, we spun around and headed for the door. Greta Garbo’s dejected voice pounded in my ears: I want to be alone.
When I was a child, alone time was far easier to come by and far more understood by others. Growing up sans siblings taught me just how precious and satisfying solitude was, that time with Breyer horses and fashion plates could be every bit as stimulating as time with my friends down the street.
Years later, the other young adults and I play with toys of a different nature. Flashing phones and e-mails and videos of quirky animated cats link us to our 700 “friends” at all times, propelling my nostalgia for a time before the fragmented images of Snapchat and Tumblr.
We know that time to relax and reflect is beneficial in all sorts of ways: It fosters ingenuity, improves concentration, and curbs mental and physical burnout from spreading ourselves too thin. Unfortunately, expectations dictate behavior, and in a culture that thrives on multitasking and immediate contact, it is often difficult to temporarily close ourselves off from the world without feeling selfish or worrying that our family and friends will misunderstand.
Being a people-pleaser, I frequently have trouble saying “no.” Being a woman, I am familiar with the caregiver role and the pressure to “do it all.” But I was never more aware of the value and necessity of alone time until I became a teacher. Like journalism and politics, teaching is a career path that requires an “on” presence at all times. Gone are the days of hiding behind a cubicle or slinking out the door early on bad days: I am on display the moment I walk into the classroom, and any sort of feeling I show on my face or project in my voice is instantly broadcast to 20 waiting sets of eyes and ears.
And work does not end at the end of the work day. It lives in the e-mail correspondence with anywhere from 80 to 100 students, the private meetings with those who need extra help, the challenge to eat, pee, answer all questions, and book it across campus in the 15 minutes between classes. One of the best pieces of advice a veteran professor ever gave me was not to check my e-mail on Friday nights or Saturdays. You’re a person with a life too, she said. That time is for you.
Because I am most always reading, writing, or speaking at any given time, I cherish the space between the words. The sweet, beautiful nothing. You seem quiet. Is something wrong? my friends sometimes ask when we go out and I have little to say. But quietness does not equate to moodiness or anger. After hearing the drone of my own voice for hours a day, listening is quite the luxury.
I write this on a Friday, thankful that I could sleep in, enjoy the sound of the rain, and stare not at a screen but out my window at the dampening street below. My cell phone is not only on silent but sitting in another room. The rest of my week had gone like this:
Teach class in the morning.
Plan for the rest of the week.
Teach private music lessons.
Finish lesson planning.
Teach class all day.
Snag an hour at the gym after work.
Feed about 47 loads of laundry to the washing machine, grading papers in between.
Bedtime, two hours later than usual.
Teach class in the morning.
Drive to work at the second college.
Tutor in the afternoon.
Teach an evening class.
Pass out in bed, clothes still on.
By the time I woke up on Thursday, I was essentially useless—so physically exhausted that I had to sit on the floor while blow-drying my hair, and so mentally drained that I was not as articulate or helpful during student conferences as I could have been. The SYSTEM OVERLOAD occurred when I walked into class Wednesday feeling dizzy and jittery, and broke out into several cold sweats during my lecture.
Relationships with ourselves are still relationships that need attention and management, and when that relationship is satisfied, we are better friends, parents, and teachers. But when we fail to take care of ourselves, as I did after not letting myself properly recover from the previous weekend, there becomes less of ourselves to offer the people we so fervently try not to disappoint. If I had only listened to my body’s demand for rest—sore back, scattered brain—I would have been more “on” and present for those depending on me. Grading and laundry, in the grand scheme of things, could have waited.
Pause…is silence made designedly eloquent. One of my favorite tips for speech students is that deliberate pauses give the preceding or following words more impact, and the same is true of taking the time to disconnect and decompress in life.
Our bodies and minds are able to tell us, in multiple ways, when they need some extra pauses. Are we willing to listen?
Chelsea Cristene is a community college professor of English and communications living in central Maryland. She writes Gender on the Rocks, a blog about gender, relationships, culture, education, and the media. Find her on Twitter.