Finding Energy in the Fatigue

Trying to make the most of my all-too-brief moments of rest

Earlier this spring, I had the good fortune of being able to enjoy several days at a tropical paradise. It seems impossible that there could be such a thing as a “bad” tropical paradise, but it is worth noting that this particular retreat, nestled seamlessly into the magical spot where the Caribbean Sea meets the Mayan jungle, was quite likely the most breathtaking, serene, and peace-inducing resort I have ever visited. In spite of being the only adult responsible for four adolescent and teenage girls, I felt relaxed. Calm. Peaceful. I was immersed in a powerful book, the sand was white, and the water was warm. On the days we pulled ourselves away from the beach, we swam in cenotes and hiked in the jungle. There were few squabbles I had to break up, few bad moods — my own or theirs — to contend with. There was, in short, a lot of “good energy.”

One particularly memorable day, I was enjoying a rest in one of the hammocks. With my eyes closed, I was actually doing a bit of just-barely-conscious self-congratulating: “Look at me, being so still.”

I practice yoga with a teacher who emphasizes the importance of surrendering to the fatigue of the “in-between” spaces — those moments at the beginning or end of the day, or during a siesta, or at the end of a yoga practice — when the demands of our physical bodies can give way, just slightly, to rest, even if we do not actually sleep. In that moment, in the hammock, I was neither fighting my fatigue nor empowering it. I was simply existing — suspended, quite literally, in both time and space. I was aware of my (old enough for me to safely ignore them) children playing and laughing nearby. I was considering returning to my book. Yet I wasn’t compelled to take any action. I was content to just be still.

To my incredible surprise, when I finally opened my eyes, I found that I was actually not still at all.

I was moving.

It was quite a windy day, and the hammock was positioned to catch the sea breezes. In spite of having the sensation of being still, in reality, I was swaying side to side as well as back and forth. When I quickly closed my eyes again, I confirmed that with my eyes closed, I was unaware of any movement at all in the absence of evidence to the contrary.

I recalled this memory today as I have considered the idea of how I gain energy in my daily life. Much has been written about the importance of taking time for ourselves to recharge our batteries, so to speak. Valuable suggestions include physical activity, communion with nature, and/or creative endeavors. The yogic path promises mental clarity, which, it is implied, will carry with it a lighter heart, and, therefore, a lighter total physical load. Supporters of meditation and mindfulness believe that some amount of intentional quiet and solitude, everyday, with a blank mind, will give us the emotional and mental reinforcements to get us through our days with more ease — less frustrations, less anger, less fatigue.

For me, walking outside, reading, and writing are the nonnegotiables I strive to make room for on a daily basis. Weekly, I try to prioritze cooking, yoga, and additional physical activity. But there are 24 hours in a day, and the majority of my days are spent doing things that look — and feel — more like work and less like rest. There are deadlines and to-do lists and long- and short-term projects that need attention. There are children that need parenting and parents that need assistance. There are personal goals and relationship goals and community goals. There is every manner of paid and unpaid work — emotional and mental and physical labor — that goes into the cauldron of life and leaves me usually confused, often wounded, but always exhausted. On particularly demanding days, it is hard to consider the possibility that I have any energy left at all. My emotional experiences — frustrations, disappointments, regrets — combine with any number of unwanted physical sensations —chronic pain in my shingles-addled eye or my newly-frozen shoulder, for example — to sell me the story that I am out of energy, and that I need a “break.”

As an antidote to our stressful lives, then, most of us strive to take some moments of rest — on vacations to beautiful places if we are lucky enough, or maybe on the sofa with Netflix, Twitter, or a good book, or maybe even just the 20 minutes of intentional solitude and relative silence that we greedily snatch as we sit in our cars outside of our children’s daycare facilities. We believe that these moments — these “in between” moments — are what provide us the energy we need to get through our “real lives.” But what if it is not, in fact, the rare moments of solitude or intentional rest that give us energy? What if we actually gain energy from the chaos and uncertainty of our lives? What if we are moving even when we think we are still?

If it is true that energy is neither destroyed nor created, but merely transferred, then we are, in fact, absorbing energy all along, even if we don’t acknowledge it as such. We absorb energy from our children’s tears, from our spouses’ inattention, from our bosses’ anger, and from our friends’ fears and frustrations. We are tired because we should be tired. We are tired because being human is painful and messy and nonlinear. We feel fatigue, and physical pain, and emotional exhaustion because we have been busy living our demanding lives.

But I am starting to understand that if I only see my real life as being selfish and needy and all-consuming, and I depend on my not-often-enough restful periods to recharge, then I miss a powerful opportunity to acknowledge my progress, even when I feel stuck. Just as I believed I was motionless on the hammock when in fact I was moving, I believe that my energy stores are always what I need them to be, even when it feels like they aren’t. If I can acknowledge the ways in which even a mundane work day, or a stressful, tantrum-filled, painful exchange with another human might also be an opportunity to recharge, then I can better see how I am making progress even when I think I am not, that I am strong and capable and can thrive in all of my endeavors, even when I feel weak and ineffective.

Surely I am not suggesting that we stop taking vacations. I am not suggesting that we stop meditating, or stop doing yoga, or stop exercising our creative muscles. I am suggesting that we approach the act of gaining energy more holistically, that we consider how even the things that exhaust us might be the very things that encourage us, that keep us moving, that keep giving us energy. Because the act of accomplishment —anything and everything from putting a bandage on a scraped knee to starting or selling a business to weeding a garden to waiting tables to writing a novel — will be both exhausting and rewarding. If we focus only on the way those things deplete us (as they do, no doubt), then we will always operate from a deficit mindset — there will never be enough rest to offset the realities of our lives.

Vacations are are not real life. In the few days my daughters and I were in Mexico, we were suspended from our reality. We were happy, well-fed, and rested: we were, in fact, coddled by the very staff whose work it was to see to our every need (a topic for further consideration). We had no deadlines to meet, no errands to run, and very little responsibility for our own care and safety beyond basic hygiene and an awareness of what color beach flag was flying on any particular day. But just as I was moving when I was in the hammock and thought I was still, I can gain energy through my messy life even without being aware of it. It is not that we come home from a vacation feeling rested and ready to return from the drudgery of our “real lives.” It is actually that we realize, while enjoying a vacation, that the “drudgery” of our real lives does, in fact, give us energy. We just need to be reminded of that.

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