Your exhaustion is not the enemy. Being tired is not a failure on your part. Fatigue, in spite of the fact that your “to-do” list got longer rather than shorter today, is not proof of your insufficiency.
It may sound a little crazy, but exhaustion can be a really good thing.
So many of us run through life juggling the workload equivalent of a dozen flaming chainsaws but don’t seem to think any of this should cause us fatigue. Being tired is rarely seen as a valid reason for skipping out of running a non-profit organization in the spare ten minutes you have between taking the kids to astronaut training and tilling the organic farm you felt compelled to run in your backyard.
We humans get tired. It just happens. Exhaustion is a normal part of life. Training for a half marathon two weeks after giving birth is not. Holding down a full-time job while going to school, parenting, and learning Japanese in between brushing your teeth and putting on the all-natural deodorant you made by hand last Saturday at the crafter’s guild, is perhaps, err, not normal either. But how quickly we find the exceptional (maybe I meant “bullshit”) lives on Facebook everyone else is allegedly living and fool ourselves into thinking that they’re the normal ones, and we’re the screw-ups because we decided we couldn’t both meet our children’s emotional needs and have a clean house in the same week.
To make it all worse, we throw in a regular dose of fear-mongering (“recent studies prove…”) about the disastrous health consequences of not sleeping eight hours a night. Nothing fuels insomnia like making people anxious about the consequences of not sleeping. So now when you’re tired, it’s not just proof that you’re doing it all wrong, it also becomes evidence that you’re going die sooner (but hey, at least you’ll get to rest then right?) The problem is that rest and relaxation and sleep, rather than being our permission to be okay with ourselves just as we are, become yet another performance variable on which to be judged. Exhaustion, in this mindset, is proof that you haven’t been doing the right kind of yoga, or putting the right kind of superfood in your smoothies.
If any of my sarcastic and mildly angry rant has resonated with you, I’d like to make this suggestion: Let’s rescue exhaustion and being tired from the cultural machine that seems determined to take everything in life and make it into a competition that proves what disastrous and insufficient human being you are.
If you’ve poured out your creativity, your energy, your skills, your expertise, or even just your time and attention – you’ve given something that depletes you. If it’s accomplishing something useful or good in the world, that’s even better. But the reality is that giving of yourself is going to make you tired at some point, and giving all you can give will produce exhaustion. And yes, I’m aware that some activities don’t feel like expenditures, but instead feel like they fuel us. Even physical exercise can increase our energy levels – but only to a certain point. Doing those things you’re passionate about might give you some boosts, but overall at some point they are also expenditures and require some form of recuperation.
This seems obvious, but a lot of us don’t treat exhaustion like it’s anything other than the enemy. The real problem is not being tired, it’s our refusal to accept limits. We always want to push the boundaries and deny that we humans can only do so much.
It’s something that many of us are programmed to do, even by well-meaning cultural forces, and it turns it out it’s been going for some time.
Recently I was at a ceremony honouring elderly ladies (several were 80+) who had served the community for many years. It was heart-warming to see their care and dedication respected and acknowledged. But the word of the day used over and over to describe these model citizens was “tireless”. That’s not a car without tires, but rather meaning: seemingly unable to become tired. It’s not a word most of us use on a regular basis, which is why I probably noticed it so much. An internet search of the term revealed that indeed, use of the word “tireless” peaked in the 1940’s and 50’s and has been on a steady decline in recent decades. I don’t think I’m being cynical or negative to tell you that the whole thing started to create a little discomfort for me as I heard these women be lauded and praised for seeming to be inexhaustible. I think it was mostly meant to highlight their virtues of consistency and dedication. But I couldn’t help but wonder about the dark side of people acting in superhuman ways -like appearing to never run out of energy.
Our culture worships the idea of extending past limits. We thrill at athletes who fly, hit, kick, run, and move in ways the defy what the human body seems capable of. The danger of this however is when the extraordinary (the anatomy and physiology of people like Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt is freakish – go look it up) becomes considered normal. We take our idols and believe the only difference between them and us is determination and work ethic…and while those may be true, they are not the only differences. We begin to expect ordinary folk like me, and probably you, to push way past the limits of our physical and emotional capabilities as if it were normal and ideal for everyone to be exceptional all the time. We expect people to be workers, cleaners, entrepreneurs, bathroom renovators, artisans, chefs, parents, lovers, nurturers, and to excel at it all without breaking a sweat. And even when the demands people are supposed to live up are contradictory, we leave them little room for failing to achieve them nonetheless.
People ask me all the time why the demand for psychological services and psychotropic medications are dramatically on the rise these days, and I’m pretty sure that part of the answer is the completely absurd expectations we hold for ourselves and each other. No one can live up to the ideals being presented as normal, but it doesn’t stop many of us from trying does it?
Perhaps the word “tireless” is used more infrequently these days because it’s become redundant – we just assume everyone should be tireless all the time, rather than highlighting it as an exceptional trait. Either way, it’s an expectation that people should live an illusion that defies what we truly are as humans: limited and prone to becoming tired when we’ve spent ourselves in daily pursuits. Maybe that’s what bothered me so much at the ceremony honouring local ladies who have served the community. I didn’t want to hear them called tireless because it seems dehumanizing, even if that’s not how it was meant. I didn’t want to clap and affirm that they were good because they’d played along with the illusion that people don’t get worn out. I wanted to apologize to them on behalf of whomever had given them the impression that human worth comes from being extraordinary, rather than just from being completely ordinary.
Let’s stop asking and encouraging and tempting each other to pretend that we’re not normal human beings that get tired.
Let’s tell the truth, at least to ourselves, that sometimes we’re exhausted and have reached our limits.
Let’s stop treating our fatigue as some kind of enemy rather than the natural product of expending ourselves.
Let’s allow limits to be our friends – humanizing forces in a world that is always asking us to be more.