I’ve been working hard the last two and half months to finish some paintings for a four man show at the Gallery at Avalon Island in downtown Orlando. I managed to get three new pieces completed and framed, and when I delivered them on Friday I felt a weight lift off my shoulders. And the shooting pains in my fingers and wrists eased up for some reason. I finally was able to relax.
I told my wife when I got home that I had not been feeling all that well (dizzy, fatigued) for the last two weeks and said that I had probably been doing too much. She laughed and said, “I could have told you that.” I answered with my standard reply: “I never know that I’m overdoing things until they are way overdone.”
Judy’s noticed over our thirty-two year marriage that I have a few unfortunate work patterns. One is that I procrastinate until my failure anxiety overcomes my dread of doing work I dislike. Then I rush into action like a coiled spring suddenly released. Another pattern is to cycle from periods of extended, adrenaline fueled overexertion to recovery periods where I appear to be the laziest man alive. I have trouble working at an even pace on even the most routine jobs and find myself pushing my limits of endurance. My father drove himself into a heat stroke when he was in his late thirties, and I apparently have inherited his “do until you nearly die” genes.
Now that I’m pushing sixty I can no longer bull through. I’ve begun to be forced to pay attention to the signals that my mind and body are sending me. When I’m under a lot of stress, for instance, a vertebra in my middle back decides to shift to one side at odd moments. A wave of intense pain circles around my rib cage to the center of my chest. I’ve never had a heart attack, but the symptoms correspond. They usually subside quickly after I swallow two Advil and lie down with my back flat on the bed for ten to twenty minutes. I’ve learned that when an episode happens it means that I need to take a day long break from anxiety inducing endeavors. Sometimes I actually do that.
Judy was always able to work long hours and accomplish a lot. But she knew when to stop and take a break, when to distract herself with soothing activities, when to take a nap. She felt little need to test the limits of her endurance, but managed to endure better than I ever did. She often advised me to take it easy when I first started a new exercise routine and that I should make it enjoyable. I rarely followed her advice and would throw myself into a breakneck pace that would lead to muscle and joint pain, which would usually lead to injury and an abandonment of exercise. Even when I took up walking I found myself competing against my time and distance from the day before. I turned a stroll into a race.
I don’t think that this is a gender issue, however. I’ve met Type A women who are aggressive and highly competitive. They don’t seem to be taking good care of themselves. And I’ve met men who find ways to enjoy a steady flow in their efforts.
My grandfather worked at his business until he was in his mid seventies. He did a lot but never seemed to be in a rush. He knew that a good job had its own tempo, that speeding things to completion often led to bad results. He was confident in his competency and acted as though he had nothing to prove to himself or others. He made a good living and didn’t feel the need to push ever harder to make his pile of earnings grow into a mountain of cash.
And perhaps his attitude is the real key to endurance and happiness while working. He was sure of his skills and experience; he accepted setbacks as natural occurrences; he cultivated a calm doggedness in the face of difficulties.
There’s an old adage that advises us to “eat to live, not live to eat”. I still have to work to live, but it might be a lot better if I put my focus on living well while I work.