When I was in my final year at uni, there was a week where all my modules coincided and suddenly everything was due in at once; my dissertation, a short story, a logbook of mini essays and a group presentation. For a normal, organised person, this event would have been planned for. However, I’ve always been a last-minute kind of gal.
In one night, I bashed out 5000 words on Christian feminism in the works of the Brontës (which I only started at 8pm), wrote my own, wildly anachronistic, Victorian-era story at around midnight, and then, between the hours of 2am and 6am, used the last of my energy to squeeze out 10 mini essays on different book-to-screen adaptations. Then I slept for an hour, went into uni, handed in my assignments and spent the rest of day rehearsing and performing a fake radio show on dystopian fiction.
That 24-hour period is perhaps the one I remember most from my days as a student. I tell this story a lot, and I tell it with pride. I relay all my tips for pulling an all-nighter (hot squash, Lucozade and plenty of room changes to keep things fresh). I boast how I got a first on every assignment, even though my last mini essay comprised of 500 shoddy words on the colour green. More than anything, though, I’m proud of how I pushed myself to the limit; that I stayed up all-night and used up everything I had and still made it through a whole day of uni without losing it and stabbing someone. Fast-forward five years, however, and it’s a completely different story.
On Tuesday night, I went to bed at half 11. Usually I’m in bed by 10, but I’d been in Brighton for the evening and my train was delayed and so I was 90 minutes later to bed than usual. Not a big deal by most people’s standards, not an all-nighter by any stretch of the imagination, but come Wednesday I was miserable. And I wasn’t “Oh, I’m so tired and want to go to bed” miserable; I was “I hate my life and need a new job and everything and everyone sucks” kind of miserable. It’s a good thing someone in the office had a birthday and brought in plenty of cake – otherwise I really might have had a breakdown at my desk.
But where had this girl come from? Where was the super student who could pull an all-nighter and be completely fine the next day? I wasn’t just having a miserable day; I was embarrassed at how lame I had become. Suddenly I was this old person who had to be in bed by 10 to function as a normal human being the next day. I didn’t have the energy to bustle around and be busy and important. But then I thought: why is that embarrassing?
Why do we value busyness? Why do we push ourselves to the limits just in day-to-day life? We come into the office and announce “I need a coffee today,” relishing the drama. We fill every evening with plans and then complain, “This week has been a nightmare”. And then we see someone who has more than one job, or kids to look after, or a long list of volunteer roles, or an open university degree on the side and we say “I don’t know how she does it” with awe and reverence.
Because pushing ourselves and running on fumes makes us think we’re winning at life. We’re going above and beyond and bossing it. We’re juggling work and socialising and family life and coming out on the other side of the week unscathed. There’s no need for a full eight hours’ or three square meals a day – I’m Wonder Woman, damn it! But are we really thriving under the pressure, or are we just surviving it? Is filling every minute of the day the same thing as living life to the full?
The problem with being an “I don’t know how she does it” person, is that I know how I do it – I don’t. When I don’t get enough sleep, when I don’t draw boundaries with my time and stick to them, when I don’t eat properly or look after my basic needs, my world falls apart. I get grumpy and hate everything. I resent the people I love because they keep making demands on my evenings. I get the very strong urge to run away and never look back – all because I forget that I’m human.
Don’t get me wrong; you were made to live an amazing, full and rich life. You were made to dig deep and go beyond, to seize the day and make your life extraordinary. But the mistake we make is that, in trying to be extraordinary, we forget we’re also ordinary. We are spiritual beings and human beings, and there is just as much value in looking after our basic needs and boundaries as there is in pushing beyond them. Sleeping enough and saying “no” to things and eating vegetables is an act of worship. It means you value the body God gave you and you’re not going to abuse that gift.
Because if you keep running on fumes – if you keep working late or going to too many events or volunteering for every rota – you’re going to burn out. You may be making time for other people but you’re not really building relationships because you’re stretched too thin. You may be staying late so the boss notices but you’re not really there, and your work ends up suffering. You may be helping a lot at church but you end up resenting being at church at all because you feel you should be there.
I’m not a student anymore. I have responsibilities and a life beyond my grades and that means I can’t stay up all night and pound a Red Bull and be fine. And so on Wednesday, when I was tired from my 11.30 bedtime, I was making big plans and bad decisions. I was ready to troll job boards and change my whole life. But maybe when we get to that place of burnout – when we’ve got Life Fatigue and can’t see the point of it all – maybe it’s not about changing your life altogether. Maybe the existential crises you keep having aren’t to do with anything outside of yourself at all. Maybe it’s just time to go back to basics.
Written by Chloe Satchell-Cobbett, Deputy Editor, Liberti