Discover more from The Clearing by Katherine May
What is enough?
When do we stop working - plus new day retreats for May and June!
Briefly: Enchantment is an instant bestseller in the UK & US - thank you all! | May and June day retreats in Kent, UK | The Enchantment Project - collecting your enchanted places | The Shift X How We Live Now | Katherine on BBC Radio 4’s The Digital Human and A Good Read
The first time someone told me I could never work too much, I was eleven years old. In our inaugural French lesson at the beginning of secondary school, the teacher impressed upon us the enormous effort that was needed to pick up a language. ‘Whenever you get a spare five minutes, don’t waste it,’ she said. ‘Every time you’re on the loo, consider that an opportunity.’
I’ve never been able to visit the bathroom since without wondering if I’m making myself useful. And at times like the ones I’m in at the moment - busy ones, when there are real consequences to how hard I work - I find it hard to ever believe I’ve done enough. When I’m sick, or when family demands keep me from my desk, I boil with guilt. And yet, I’m a creative person. My writing depends on unproductivity. It needs abundant space around it to throw out roots, and it’s my duty to make a buffer between it and the hostile realm of emails and meetings. The notion of work as an end in itself, rather than the process through which good things are made, runs deep in me. I must be seen to work hard enough to merit this.
But I was lucky, in retrospect, that it took so long for me to hear the gospel of endless work. It’s just something that we pass between us now, as though it’s a fact: we are never, ever doing enough. There is always more to be done. More money to be earned. More surfaces to be cleaned. More exercise to take. More social events to attend.
The demand isn’t always overt. For exactly 556 days now (I know, because the app tells me), I’ve been learning Spanish on Duolingo. In many ways, it’s been brilliant. But right from the start, the app made the assumption that I’d want to learn every day. That’s every single day of my life: no weekends, no holidays. It never asked me if I wanted to do this. But when I drop a day, the app slips a little bit of grit into my experience. The nice, orderly line of orange calendar dates on my homescreen gets disrupted by a blue one. It takes a whole week for this glitch in my behaviour to disappear from sight.
Of course, nothing bad happens because of this, but I feel like my transgression has been seen and punished. Perhaps I had a migraine. Perhaps I was busy. Perhaps I just needed a rest. This is an aberration, and Duolingo notes it. At the same time, it also puts a message on my screen every single day to ask me to nudge my mother, who used the app for a week and didn’t like it. I didn’t ask for this information. My mother didn’t ask it to be shared. But there it is: she has not done her work, and I must be alerted so that I can bring her into line.
My son, meanwhile, is subject to an even more insidious pressure. Every week, he has a list of ten spellings to learn, delivered by an app that plays buoyant music while it tests his recall. Quite often, he’s learned all these words by Tuesday, and starts to receive ten out of ten on each test. Fine. But here’s my problem: after that, he continues doing the tests, over and over again, because that’s what the app encourages him to do. There’s never a moment when it says: Great! You’ve learned your spellings for the week. Now go out and play! Instead, there’s a leaderboard that scores how many points he’s earned, and he doesn’t want the (perceived) shame of appearing at the bottom of this list, and so he keeps on going, typing out the same spellings ad infinitum.
This might all seems very positive* until we consider what is being rewarded here. It’s not learning - it’s putting in the hours. He’s being trained to perform working, rather than to work. In doing so, he’s failing to learn some very important lessons about living: the profound gifts that rest brings; the value of imagination, problem-solving and creativity over rote learning; the wisdom to know when to stop. But this is all that we adults can pass on now, because we don’t know when to stop either. We are replacing the complexity of living with the monotonous liturgy of hard work, of hours clocked on, of observable effort. Yet again, biodiversity is subsumed under a monoculture. Is this what we really want of our students and employees? Is this how we really want to be?
I wonder, sometimes if this is how we deal with abundance - by trying to consume it all. It’s not greed that drives this sisyphean act of swallowing, but guilt. Capitalism gives us too much of what we want, and not enough of what we need. We can’t keep up. We should be invigorated by all the incredible TV shows on Netflix, but instead we feel as though we’ve failed by not watching them all. We should feel excited by the astonishing array of ingredients in our supermarkets, but instead we feel gloomy about the mundanity of our own meals, the flatness of our appetites, all the while simmering in shame because we know that plenty of other families are queuing for food banks. We hate how hard we have to work to stay afloat, but we don’t know how to escape it, so we teach it to our children as a necessary evil, as the only way. We pass on our fear instead of our wisdom.
Today’s children are graduating into a world that works too hard, but with a twist. Their drudgery is visible in a way that ours never was. At least my teacher couldn’t know whether or not I learned French verbs while sitting on the loo. I grew up learning a hundred ways to evade the surveillance of people like her, to hide from view whenever I could, and, if necessary, to lie, wide-eyed, that yes of course I was cramming in work at all hours. Nowadays, it’s there in plain sight to be measured and monitored, to attract praise and approval, or the absence of praise, which is, let’s face it, quite close to admonition.
The question is no longer whether we should resist the endless drive towards long hours, because that much is obvious. Instead - and urgently now - we adults need to learn what to do with space that opens up when we’ve worked enough. And when we’ve fathomed that, we need to find a way to pass it on.
*Quite aside from the fact that it’s unjust to make spelling a competitive sport when twenty per cent of the population are dyslexic. Don’t get me started on that one.
If today’s newsletter made you want to explore your own relationship to rest, I’m running two day-retreats in my native Kent on 24th May and 28th June this year. Set under the enormous skies of Elmley nature reserve, they are an invitation for burned-out people to enter a process of reflection and slow change in a gentle environment. We don’t offer quick fixes or make grand promises - we just open up a space for you to come home.
You can find out more and register your interest here. Booking will open for Patreons tomorrow, and for everyone else on Monday.
I love running these retreats, but I do have to fit them in when my time and space allows, and I always want them to be energising for me, rather than draining. That’s part of my teaching, I think. So the usual caveats apply: I can’t run them regularly, and I can’t tell you when the next ones will be. Please book early to avoid disappointment. They are absolutely not writing retreats - there are plenty of good ones out there, but I don’t offer them :)
Take it easy this week. See you soon.