A Midweek Sabbath in Snot

Reflections on Being Useless for a Day in a Workaholic World

Tuesday at 8:00 PM, I am chatting with two therapists in a family’s home where my agency serves two children and a teenager who have severe developmental disabilities, guessing with them if I will go home and work or, “Hell, maybe I’ll take the night off.” I have been working since 9:00 AM, though I qualify I did take a 90 minute lunch. I share that taking a ‘night off’ comes with all of the excitement of a mid-week weekend. Rebel that I am, I cast my worries aside and concede to take the night off and stop at my 11 hours for today.

“After all,” I think to myself, “limits are healthy. I wouldn’t want to work too much!” What a gift to be so zen and self-aware.

I did not know then that I would wake up Wednesday at 10:30 AM, exhausted because I’d been up all night coughing, at many points sweating and in fear of how much worse my symptoms would get and at every other point tossing uncomfortably in growing anger that I wasn’t asleep yet.

In no time at all, I know I am in no state to visit homes to support my staff. When you work with families with children with disabilities, you don’t work sick. I shudder at the thought of the 10 year old I am supposed to see today up all night with my cough; the increased fear and frustration she may have, her discomfort and her inability to alleviate it, and how she may express that- all night- to her parents and neighboring apartments. However, when you work in social or human services, workaholism also flirts dangerously close to altruism; we work in a bent refracted reality where more work makes you a ‘better person.’ It’s scary when your work actually can help others. As hard work comes with praise and relief for pain, so rest often comes with guilt, shame, and feelings of weakness.

I open my emails and in my unfocused stare find that I have reached the extent of my brain’s capacity for the day. My forehead aches, signaling all of its thinking capacity has been replaced with phlegm. If I could feel anything, I suppose I would feel stressed and angry. I stare blankly. My body feels frozen in place, dead-weighted and achey.

“Like it or not,” my body says to me, “no work will be done today.”

I surrender my work and look over my personal projects, but find I have just as little capacity for these. After 45 seconds of blank staring, I wonder why I thought it would be any different. It is 11:30 AM, and I am stuck in a day in which I can make no dent on a to-do list.

Petty, frustrated and useless, I remember ancient training to listen to my body and lean into its motions. I give it a shot only as a last resort- after being assured I cannot trade it for even a smidge of productivity.

Tea. Blankets. Food. A bath in epsom and magnesium salt. 
Krista Tippet’s Becoming Wise.

My body begins to bloom, finally massaged. I implement the old lessons, mindfully scanning my descending nerves in the hot scented water, and the experience is more than euphoric: it is restorative.

I am here now.

I greet myself, my old friend. “It is good to see you, how long has it been?”
Too long, too long.

I dry off, and it occurs to me, laughing, that the Common Cold must either have been invented by an evil mad scientist or a great spiritualist aimed at healing neurotic souls lost in their productive hamster-wheels. What a funny illness. It does not greatly affect us- a bit of discomfort, a chill, a sweat, a box of tissues, a stick of chapstick- but it sits us for a day with nothing to do but try to comfort an aching body while all the mind’s sharpness and fire is dulled and doused. In its throes, busy lives are leashed from producing, and those with ears to hear are invited to an entire day for nothing but blankets and rest.

The cultural reaction to a Cold is to work through the symptoms. Go to work, and there be uncomfortable, useless, and phlegmy. If this sounds unattractive, there are countless remedies which ineffectively address the symptoms of the cold, but never the illness itself. We are sharks, unable to stop our learned muscles from swimming until, unimaginably, something stops us.

I wish I was so noble that I could retain these lessons without reminders. That I resisted my 180 compromises to workaholism that seem, time and time again, to turn my ship one-degree at a time until I am spiritually backwards again. I wish I was more like the sages I read and admire, who maintain relationships with their bodies and selves instead of remembering the richness of the relationship only after awkwardly bumping into them unexpected in circumstances that force a meeting. Today, though, I am grateful for my cold and its heavy head-wind that forced me to cast anchor for a day, and get to know my crew: my burning throat and dripping nose, my aching torso and heavy legs, which too often go unnoticed and, therefore, unloved.

When a cold comes, it pulls like a rip-tide away from the coast of productivity, out to the sea of… we fear even to know what lies out there. We, good capitalists all, are taught on story time rugs to fight the current, swim against it back to the beach, and to make no excuse.

Be a boss.

Today I lay smiling, belly up in the warm-scented, achey rip-tide of sloth which my cold invited me to today; a revolution to listen, not lead. I stopped swimming and went limp, passively let my body lead and tell me what we needed today, trusting that when the tide was over, I would swim back to shore and hustle again in the things that I love, this time with the current.