The Netherlands is not known for an abundance of warm sunny days. So when such days arrive, you really appreciate them—especially during the summer months, when it stays light til quite late. As the sun started going down on a recent summer night, I hopped on my fiets and headed for the nearest bike lane, with no particular destination in mind. I simply wanted to enjoy the feel of fresh air on my face. In truth, I also wanted to break my inclination to overwork. Off I pedaled, thinking: You deserve this. That’s right, you deserve this.
Many of us have trouble giving ourselves a break. But I can’t—there’s so much work to do! Such nagging thoughts want us to believe that if we rest, let alone enjoy ourselves (How selfish of me!), the world will crumble—and it’ll be our fault. Sometimes, we buy into thoughts that we’re not good enough until/unless we receive acclaim for our paid work (if we’re lucky enough to have paid work; if not, thoughts about self-worth can turn quite nasty). You know what I’m talking about, right?
As an American, I’ve struggled with beliefs about rest and worthiness my entire working life. Part of that is a carryover from growing up in the ugly grip of poverty and then as an adult being tossed back into poverty through layoffs and underpaid work. I can pin a lot of it to an American belief system: If you’re poor or without a job, it must be your fault. Even as I know this belief is ridiculous, the sagging feeling is there, because it is a conditioned “norm.” An embarrassing truth: I have repeatedly worked myself to the point of illness and utter exhaustion because I’ve wanted to be “seen” and valued by society.
At present, the dominant concept of value is defined on economic terms, because that’s what the so-called “free market” dictates. If you’re a Hollywood celebrity who earns $20 million per picture, you must be valuable because your face sells a lot of movie tickets, generating wealth for the studio system. If you’re an undocumented farm worker, you supposedly don’t count for much, even as you provide the invaluable contribution of feeding people. If you work for a nonprofit and can barely afford to cover your basic necessities, well how noble of you to sacrifice a livable wage for making the world a better place.
We’re adored if we make the “right” amount of money or make the “right” amount of sacrifice. A lot of the way I’ve worked in activism has been replicated from the hardline corporate work “ethic”—because that’s the economic, social, and political conditioning of the times. Is working without leisure or adequate sleep doing us or our causes any good? Are we gaining ground by delaying and denying joy and well-being?
An extraordinarily effective activist friend of mine nearly lost her husband to divorce, because she worked too much, piling multiple campaigns on top of her full-time job. His threat to divorce her snapped her out of it, though she admits that she experienced withdrawal-like symptoms. She came to realize how much she ignored the toll of exhaustion on her body, from a temporary loss of mobility in one wrist to arm numbness.
Work can be a harmful addiction, even activism/do-good work, and it would serve us well to address the symptoms and causes. Let’s admit it: they’re brought on by “norms” established by corporate economics, and we’re not immune to them, even if we’ve never stepped inside an office tower. Real heroism challenges our burnout culture by slowing down and remembering that we can’t be awesome at everything—and by remembering that we are worthy human beings, regardless of our titles or pay scales.