The idea that we should be able to triumph over nature, transcend its limits and move beyond it informs how people think about technology and spirituality alike. For me, it’s also become a very personal issue. So I’m going to talk about the personal, and let the implications for everything else just hang in the ether.
I was born with my feet pressed back against my shins and walking did not come easily as a consequence. For as long as I can remember, I have had to fight my body to get it to do things others find easy. In my teens I started encountering bouts of really debilitating fatigue. Unable to persuade my doctor to take me seriously, I defaulted to the thing I knew how to do, and I started fighting. I learned how to push through, how to keep moving when it felt like my bones had been lined with lead, how to use will power to overcome exhaustion. I honed my will, it was the one weapon I had against this endless fight with my body.
In my twenties, the pain and stiffness started. At first I ignored it, and as it grew steadily worse, I fought it. I got used to cycles of burnout, illness and depression. Last year, in a final, heroic effort, I pushed myself so hard that I ended up crying all the time and unable to do anything much. I have found the limits of will, and by midwinter, I knew I had to make some radical changes.
I stopped pushing. I started to look for signs of impending exhaustion and escalating pain before I hit points of dysfunction. I started rationing out my time and energy, looking hard at my priorities and saying no to things that aren’t viable. I mostly say no to late nights, aside from this week when I chose to say yes, twice, and am suffering the consequences. But that’s ok because I’ve budgeted this weekend to be gentler, with more rest and downtime so that I can get over it. If I make good choices, I have more room to say ‘yes’ than I did before. If I mostly work within my limits, there is more room, and more scope for pushing out now and then when something matters. If I’m always up to the edge, there’s nowhere to go if something really good or important comes along.
If I co-operate with my body and don’t spend all my time pushing through pain and exhaustion, I am less vulnerable to depression and anxiety. Not immune, but more resilient, and the habit of saying ‘no’ allows me to make more room around the things I find hard, so that they take less of a toll. There’s a lot I want to do this year, but I’m only going to manage it if I pace myself. I have to balance the things my body needs. I have to start looking at what my body needs in terms of rest and exercise, sleep, and the right food. I have also come to recognise a profound need for affection and inspiration. Hugs and novels are good.
Things are discernibly easier now that I’ve stopped fighting and am trying to work with what I’ve got. It obliges me to ask why I fought so long and so hard in the first place. I have had to question all the beliefs I carry about what I should be able to do, and the beliefs I have around entitlement, or the absence thereof. For most of my life, one of my mantras has been ‘it’s only pain, it doesn’t matter’ which allows me to do to myself things I would never consider it ok to do to anyone else, for the sake of keeping going, being useful, getting things done.
I think I was waiting for someone to come along and say “it’s ok, you’ve done enough, you’re allowed to ease up now.” It took me until the winter of my thirty seventh year to work out that the only person who could or would do that effectively, was going to be me.