Monday, May 14, 2012

Monday's Musings: Life Is A Group Project

Luce study day
Coffee, Computer, and Russian dictionary
Representative of a good portion of my day-to-day life

I have been described as a workaholic.

My work ethic is very strong and highly (possibly "over") developed. It reasons, "If I work hard enough and/or long enough, this will get done successfully." This ethic has served me quite well in college- my grades have been great and my professors like my work. A good work ethic is generally a good thing. But it can also get me into a bit of trouble.

See, I also struggle with an anxiety disorder. And my work ethic is my ultimate anxiety-fighting security blanket. As long as I am working on something, I'm okay because I'm being productive; there's nothing to worry about. As long as I'm working on that paper, I don't have to worry about it, so I will sit for ten hours straight in a cafe and work on that paper because I can't settle down if I'm not working on it. I manage my anxiety by creating lists of what I need to do and working through that list. As long as I'm working, everything is under control. (Oh, and I'm also a perfectionist, so I will be working until it's as near perfect as I think I can get it, or I hit the point of pure exhaustion.)

Of course, the more I have to do, the worse the anxiety and the work-compulsion get. During midterm paper season I have been known to have a near-panic attack because I took two hours to make and eat dinner when I thought it would only take an hour, which meant that an hour of possible "productive" time. During finals week, my house usually turns into a wreck because working on final papers is a much more productive activity than housecleaning.

Now, I have managed this work-compulsion in some ways. I've designated work zones and rest zones and work times and rest times. I work at coffee shops and at the kitchen table, while work is not allowed into my room. Sundays are rest days, Friday nights are date nights, and on an extended break I'll designate certain days as "fun days." I try not to take any work home with me when I go to visit my family. And I've learned (with some great difficulty) that sometimes the best thing I can do for my productivity is to take a creative break and go outside or do something fun and non-work related. Still, it's difficult for me to go too long without looking for a "productive" activity. This work-compulsion is hard to escape.

What it ultimately boils down to is control. As long as I'm working, I am somehow in control of what is happening. I can rely on my work ethic and my own blood, sweat, and tears to get this done. For someone like me, group projects are pure torture. My most natural tendency is to take charge and do all the work myself, which, of course, defeats the purpose of a group project. And this is a big problem because life is a group project.

Life is a group project. We cannot get through it completely isolated or completely on our own power, like it or not. We need the help of others, which requires the development of relationships, which require trust. Relationships are terrifying for me because they rip away that work-ethic security blanket. Relationships take two people. I could work and work and work and work at a relationship, but if the other person in that relationship doesn't work too, the relationship will fail. To have healthy successful relationships is to trust in that other person and their investment in this relationship without just falling back on my own work ethic.

In my life, my work ethic is often a substitute for ever needing to trust anyone but myself. If I work hard enough, things will work out, I tell myself. But life does not operate in that way. If I constantly work without stop, my life will collapse on itself due to complete and utter burnout. There are many factors in my life that are completely out of my control and that I cannot handle by myself. I need healthy relationships and support from others. I need time to allow my body and mind to relax and recuperate. And these sorts of activities require a temporary step back from the work.

I've written before that rest is an exercise in trusting God. I would add that pursuing healthy relationships is also an exercise in trust (again, relationships take two people). A healthy lifestyle, one filled with times of rest and with solid interpersonal relationships, thus requires a relinquishing of control and a measure of trust in God and other people. And beyond just the health and productivity benefits, this kind of living is more than worth it. Honestly, most of what I am working on now will probably be out-of-date by the end of the year, and these papers and projects will most likely be things I look back on and grimace at my clumsiness and ignorance in a few years. But good friendships, a strong romantic relationship, cultivated professional networks, and supportive family relations will prove extremely valuable. Humans are relational creatures; like it or not, I need other people. And thus I must continue to struggle to keep the work-compulsion in check. Quality work is a good goal, but it's not worth sacrificing everything else.

I have a favorite professor who constantly gets after me for working too much and constantly encourages me to get out of the books and go outside or out with friends. He reminds me that relationships are what really matter and that work should not the most important thing in my life. And I am extremely thankful for people like this in my life because I often need that reminder to put away the computer and the library books and invest in the people around me.

Ultimately, work ethic and diligence are no subsitute for community and conviviality. People are far more valuable than work. And this I must constantly remember.

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