I tried to kill my feeling of emptiness and perpetual worthlessness with a busy schedule, with excess, with needless indulgences until eventually I became a burned-out, emotional ragged adult.
I was elbow-deep in avocados on a quest to find the perfectly soft, ripe avocado for guacamole, which is basically impossible in early spring in North Dakota. The skins were hard—trying to leave the imprint of my thumb to test for ripeness was like pressing a stone. Frustrated and exhausted from work, I made eye contact across the produce section with an old college acquaintance knocking on cantaloupes.
It was too late to avert my eyes or pretend to answer my phone to avoid the regrettable chance encounter and forced socialization that Seinfeld creator Larry David has dubbed a “stop-and-chat.”
“Oh my god, is that you, Tessa?” the cantaloupe tester squealed. It was the point of no return. It’s not that I am rude or despise running into old acquaintances, it was that my stomach was growling and I was on a war path for my dinner prey.
We do that whole mundane exchange of a Cliff’s Notes version of our lives for the past few years. Then she asks what I am up to tonight. I tell her I’m making make homemade enchiladas and tinkering around on my bass guitar.
“You play in a band?” she asked as she texted on her bedazzled iPhone while applying a fresh coat of pink lip gloss.
“No, I just play for fun,” I replied.
She snickered. “Oh, how do you ever find the time? I wish I had time to do those types of things. Which reminds me, I better get going. Off to my second job, saving the whales, choreographing a Russian ballet for 2-year-olds, and then I have a wine tasting on Easter Island.”
Obviously, I am exaggerating, but what I don’t exaggerate is the feeling I left with having my proverbial tail between my legs, wondering why she demeaned me for enjoying my valuable leisure time.
The pressure to be busy and over-achieving in our fast-food society is palpable. Elizabeth Kolbert recently wrote about the time crunch and overscheduling ourselves in the New Yorker. In the article, Kolbert interviews University of North Dakota researcher Ann Burnett who states “busyness has acquired social status.” There is a “busier than thou” attitude similar to “keeping up with the Joneses.” Americans are so clueless about how to relax, entire conferences and swaths of sociological research are devoted to time management. Washington Post reporter Bridgid Schulte calls this need to be busy “the overwhelm.”
Essentially, “the overwhelm” means that Americans overwork themselves in a constant competition with peers to fuel consumerist needs. To put it bluntly, Americans want to buy a bunch of stuff they will rarely have the time to enjoy due to being overscheduled. I think Chuck Palahniuk’s anti-hero Tyler Durden articulated it best in the cult class novel Fight Club. “You buy furniture. You tell yourself this is the last sofa I will ever need in my life. Buy the sofa, then for a couple years you’re satisfied that no matter what goes wrong, at least you’ve got your sofa issue handled. Then the right set of dishes. Then the perfect bed. The drapes. The rug. Then you’re trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you.”
While I’ve never had enough money or things to be owned by them, I used to yearn for my morsel of the American dream. Despite my countercultural tendencies, I compared myself to others and assessed myself as woefully inadequate for not having a house and never owning new furniture that my bum was the first to sit on. I have been both a prisoner and martyr of a busy schedule. During college, I would literally have to sprint from class to my car to get to my shift at work, then speed leaving work to get to a group project afterward. Sleep a few hours. Repeat.
Sure many people’s college years are like this but my harried schedule seeped over into adulthood. I was the yes-woman. I said yes to prove my worthiness, perhaps in a vain attempt to attain the intangible social status of an American. I was a cog in the machine. I felt like Harry Angstrom in John Updike’s classic novel Rabbit, Run, “What held him back all day was the feeling that somewhere there was something better for him than listening to babies cry and cheating people in used-car lots and it’s this feeling he tries to kill.”
Though I didn’t have a baby or work in a used car lot, I tried to kill my feeling of emptiness and perpetual worthlessness with a busy schedule, with excess, with needless indulgences until eventually I became a burned-out, emotional ragged adult. I did the whole cliché finding myself thing. “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything,” Tyler Durden says in Fight Club.
I was freest and most in tune to myself after I burned out, when I was vulnerable, emotionally raw, and unemployed. It was then I learned that there is a thin line between altruism and being the queen of yes. It was then I learned that sometimes the most radical thing you can do in a society that tells women to constantly give to others until you bleed yourself dry, is to take care of yourself. Taking care of yourself means not jamming your schedule with back-to-back activity—it means leisure time.
Leisure time is rebellious in our culture. Capitalism exacts the pressure and societal ideal of a busy schedule upon us so we can afford to consume more. Resisting its pressure is subversive and can be difficult. Yet it is one of the most liberating things I have ever done.
Tessa Torgeson is a social worker by day and aspiring writer, yogi, friend and cat lady by night. She works and freezes her bones off in Fargo, North Dakota.