I grew up in the suburbs of DC, surrounded by whip-smart politicos, ranked military officers, and lobbyists. My friends were their children. At that time, it was the best public school system in the country. Anxiety and achievement were driven into us youngsters at birth.
A year or so after my husband and I were married, we were visiting the area. I was showing him all of my old haunts.
“That was my neighborhood.”
“There’s my high school.”
“There’s where the cops busted me and my BFF for mooning traffic.”
The usual stuff.
I also took him to my favorite park early Saturday morning. After we walked a few short trails, we came upon a family scene in a small playground.
Perched at the tippy top of a sliding board was a little girl no more than three years old. Standing on the ground next to the slide was the little girl’s mother. In line behind the girl was her sister, probably five. The mother was holding her arm out in front of the little girl, blocking her descent until she could calculate a math problem.
“5+3!” She barked.
The little girl said something inaudible. It must have been the word “eight” because she was then permitted to go down the slide.
The mom’s arm went back down when her other daughter sat down at the slide:
“Eleven minus two!”
The girl stumbled and wasn’t permitted to go down the slide. Several seconds passed. I held my breath, refraining from shouting the answer. Finally, the arm raised and the child went down the slide. I exhaled in relief. The drill continued for these two little girls as we continued our walk.
My husband- native to mountains of North Carolina, where he grew up playing in the woods – looked at me and said, “How did you survive this place?”
For a moment, I had to dig a little deeper to see why he was asking me this question.
Math quizzes? Was that a problem? Moms being with their kids at the park? That seemed so, you know, American. But he kept steeling glances at me while we walked along, as if to say, “Really? REALLY? You don’t see what I see?”
Then I remembered something.
I remembered that the very week before that, I was in my car, on my way to get a massage. And I was panicked. Close to tears. Why? Because I had been a “slacker” that week. I’d been scattered and unfocused. And as I was driving, I realized that I had not done anything to “deserve” my massage.
I hadn’t lifted heavy or pushed my body to the limits.
I hadn’t ticked off the 17 points on my 17-point to-do list.
I hadn’t written anything perfect or completed a big project.
In other words, I hadn’t EARNED a massage.
I didn’t answer the math equation correctly, therefore I didn’t deserve the fun of going down the sliding board.
Whether or not someone made you answer math questions before you could slide – or whether you ARE someone who makes kids answer math questions before they can slide – you are most likely someone who doesn’t necessarily feel comfortable with being, well, comfortable.
And I don’t mean pampering. Pampering is nice. It implies sitting around in your pink puffy bathrobe and getting a pedicure. Pampering, however, is an activity. Entertaining ourselves in an activity. High-achievers? We can DO activity. We don’t have a problem with that!
We have a problem with space, even with joy.
Space and joy are more basic. We don’t believe we deserve to sit still and just be.
There’s always one more thing we could be doing. Always one more thing that might make us worthy. Always one more thing that we didn’t quite get done. Something else we need to be controlling, thinking about, obsessing on, or worrying over.
THEN, we’ll deserve it. THEN we will have earned it.
When you get ready for your next vacation, notice your thoughts. Sometimes our planning, our agenda-izing every single moment of our vacations is a military tactic to ensure our brains are occupied with at least one worthy activity – in this case, PLANNING!
Sometimes we pack every last trashy book we can so we can stuff our brains with a shadow-deserving. “I deserve this trash! I’ve earned it!” We are the woman who has been on a celery diet for 3 months sitting down to stuff herself full of every kind of pizza at the buffet table. Filling herself up, yes. But never nurturing her true hunger.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t make plans or that you shouldn’t read trashy books.
It’s simply a reminder that you can give yourself the ecstasy of doing nothing too. The point is to give yourself a chance to desire – to truly desire – something. What is it you truly want and need from your downtime, your time away? Don’t forget to answer that.
And remember – this isn’t math. There really isn’t a right answer. There’s simply letting your true voice speak.