In the early Seventies, I was the divorced working mother of three kids, a community activist, peacenik, teacher — and a fool for weak men. In those days, Redbook magazine ran short stories by women, about women, for women. One night after kids and boyfriend were tucked in bed, my ad for the food co-op written, my lesson plan for my next class written and I was too wired to sleep, I opened Redbook. By the time I finished that month’s story, I knew sleep would be possible. And that I was neither depressed nor crazy — I was exhausted.
The writer had taken me through a day in the life of a dead woman who did not have time to die. The young wife and mother suffered a fatal stroke as she was racing up the stairs with three bags of groceries so she could start dinner, clean the apartment, stuff dirty laundry in a bag to take to the laundry and get to the school to pick up her kids. She knew she was dead. And, she had to keep going.
I think about that woman a lot these days. That crazy busy dead woman did not have an I-phone, a computer; she did not have constant access to reminders that there was one more crucial thing to do. She did not carry, as you might, dear sister, the contemporary mass media distortion of the early Feminist message that we women could be anything we wanted to be: You must do and be everything perfectly. We pause. For the space of one paragraph, you have nothing to do but be.
If you’ve read this far, you might be envying that dead woman. After all, night would come, she would fall into bed and could peacefully die. Indeed, by the end of the story, the frantic dead woman had begun to regard death as a long restful sleep — in her own company! No demands. Nobody clutching at her life.
I’ve been giving presentations this year on environmental Feminism, and teaching writing circles for classes at our local university. It’s been four years since I last did that. In that time, an epidemic has taken over the young women I speak with — and their women faculty. Many, indeed a majority, report that they are exhausted and stressed out. “There aren’t enough hours in the day.” “I work, go to school and I’m on a team, a committee, an internship, my dorm council…” “There is more and more pressure.” “My life goes by faster and faster.” “All I want to do is sleep!” And these are women in their late teens and early twenties — without kids. The older women students tell me the same things. As do their teachers.
I have asked them to put away their cell phones and computers. They do, but I watch them sneak glances at the devices. Later one of the faculty says, “It’s not just the way academia is now big business — fewer faculty, more demands, fewer chances for my students to have time with me — it’s the constant presence of those chances to ‘connect’, those reminders of what hasn’t been done, what needs to be done, who to call, who to text.”
If you’ve made it this far, you may already know this. And, if you read self-help articles with cheery impossible titles like “Five minutes to a stress-free day,” you might also know that at this point the author/expert begins to give you a prescription, at best a cheery motivational saying out of some dilution of Eastern philosophy; at worst, a list of yet more to do to have less to do. Be glad I’m not an expert. I’ll only ask you to try two experiments.
The first is simple: Go to a place you will not be disturbed. Leave your little electronic “connection” pals somewhere else. Do nothing for thirty minutes. (You will need a timer — not on your cell phone!) If you meditate (or keep telling yourself you’ve got to find time to meditate), don’t. Too many of us have added meditation to our list of got-tos. At the end of your nothing time, pay attention to how you feel. (You’ll be tempted to skip this part of the experiment, to guess how you might feel. In fact, you won’t know till you give yourself that time.)
The second experiment follows from the first: Be willing to consider Dr. Wikipedia’s formal definition of behavioral addiction: “The term addiction is also sometimes applied to compulsions that are not substance-related, such as compulsive shopping, sex addiction/compulsive sex, overeating, problem gambling, exercise/sport and computer addiction. In these kinds of common usages, the term addiction is used to describe a recurring compulsion by an individual to engage in some specific activity, despite harmful consequences, as deemed by the user themselves to their individual health, mental state, or social life.”
Recurring compulsion. Harmful consequences. What do you deem?
No matter the results of your self-exploration, please remember this: with any addiction, there is a dealer getting rich off the addict’s misery. Who has so many of us in their grip? Who is profiting off our frantic efforts to stay ahead of impossible expectations? What could it mean if we began to refuse to comply?