I grew up believing I was terribly lazy. My kids find this bizarre, because they see me as a workaholic. In my head I still identify as a lazy person, though I sometimes wonder we were all taught that we were lazy, because we didn’t give 100% all the time. Certainly the dominant ethos that I was raised with, at home and at school, really amounted to “if you’re not giving everything 100% all of the time, you’re slacking off.”
The trouble with this idea, of course, is that the human brain is not capable of giving 100% all day every day, and it’s not capable (nor should it be!) of caring about everything the same amount. We have to choose where to devote our energy. We have to have times where we’re just doing the minimum to get through, as well as times where we are actually resting. Really resting. Lying on the couch, feet up, lazing about style resting. That’s a literal requirement of physics, physiology, and biochemistry, that downtime. We are not physically capable of sleeping 8 hours, working 8 hours, and “playing” 8 hours. We need breaks. Lots of them. And even when we’re not on breaks, we can’t be working at maximum output continuously. It’s just not how we’re wired.
But the message I grew up with was clear. Work hard. Do everything as close to perfectly as you can manage. If there is a problem, work harder. If you don’t achieve what you wanted to achieve, put more effort in and you’ll get there. If anything is out of reach, keep stretching. Want to do well in that subject? Study harder. Want that promotion? Work harder. Need to lose more weight? Diet & exercise harder. You can fix anything just by putting in more oomph.
Which is why covid recovery, for some, is psychologically brutal. Because to get better, you need to rest. You can’t exercise your way out of it – that makes you sicker. You can’t diet your way out of it – that makes you sicker. You can’t push through it and work your way out of it – that makes you sicker.
But you also can’t exactly rest your way out of it. Because if you become bedridden, you lose muscle, you lose fitness, you lose lung capacity… everything goes downhill. If you stop thinking about hard problems, you soon lose the ability to think about hard problems. And, for me at least, if you stop seeing people, you start to completely lose your mind.
There’s an art of knowing when
Never try to guess
Toast until it smokes and then
Twenty Seconds Less
Piet Hein, Grooks II
So you have to strike a balance between physical and mental health. Between not overdoing it and not doing enough. Between staying alive and having a life. It’s tough.
It’s a little like recovering from a joint injury, like a sprained ankle. If you just run on that sucker, it will get worse, fast. But if you don’t walk on it enough, it won’t get better. And there’s no convenient readout that tells you when to stop, and when to do more. Of course, the ankle is just one joint. It’s a relatively constrained problem. There doesn’t seem to be any limit to the bodily systems covid can impact. And fixing some conflicts directly with the rest required to fix others, which is a joke at least as cruel as the one that made all the junk food we crave bad for us in the long run.
Until tech solutionism does something useful for a change and develops a forehead readout that tells us exactly what’s going on with our bodies in excruciating detail, and what to do about it, there’s no way of knowing how much is too much or too little. Medical support remains thin on the ground (and, frankly, doctors are still at the ‘throwing things at long covid and seeing what sticks’ stage of treatment).
I just want nice clear rules to follow. I will work any amount of hard to fix this. Unfortunately, working hard is exactly the wrong thing to do. So here we are, fumbling around, trying to maximise our energy and minimise our suffering, and remain viable human beings in the meantime. What fun.