Does Taking a Break Mean You’re a Lazy Failure?

17 October 2019 on Blog, Storystorm  

This past weekend, I was going to be super productive. I was going to revise an old story, draft the first few pages of a new one, write this blog post, and grade at least half of my students’ essays.

How many of these goals did I accomplish? I don’t even want to admit the tally to myself.

I had similar ambitions this past summer. I was going to chivvy two new stories and two new essays into workshop-shape, as well as revise several old drafts. I was going to paint three gifts for friends and relatives. I was going to knit a hat for my cousin’s newborn.

Again, I didn’t do it all. I wanted to believe that the work I was able to do was good work—the “quality over quantity” argument. And hey, at least I accomplished some things, right?

Yet, I felt nowhere close to satisfied, and I’m still berating myself for wasting time this summer, this weekend, last winter break—and, well, during every period of time when I’m not literally running from class, to meetings, to ski coaching, to emceeing my MFA program’s reading series… and so on. I feel like a failure when I can’t force myself to be productive every minute of every day.

It seems I have to learn and re-learn the importance of rest. Nordic ski coaches have tried to convince me that taking a day off each week, easing up one out of every four weeks, and treating one month per year as a break from training does not equal laziness. Allowing the body (and the mind) to recover from the hard work you’ve demanded of it does not send you spiraling into lassitude. It wasn’t until I trained myself into the ground—pushing too hard, with too little rest—and could no longer click into the gear needed for racing that I finally understood my coaches. 

Watching teammates over-train hadn’t made much of an impression on me before. I think some part of me believed that if I wasn’t regularly breaking down in tears or bonking (that is, depleting glycogen stores during hours-long training sessions), I wasn’t working hard enough. I’m still trying to free myself from this mentality.   

One of my coaches offered this metaphor: imagine pulling a balloon deep underwater. That’s what we do when we stress the body with running, skiing, rollerskiing, and lifting weights. We’re breaking ourselves down. If we don’t rest—if we don’t release the balloon—we’ll just stay buried beneath the waves. Rest lets the balloon spring back, higher than it had sat before. 

The essentiality of rest is, of course, a principle that various religious authorities in my life have tried to impart through emphasizing the sanctity of Shabbat—the Jewish sabbath. Unlike my grandfather’s parents, who kept him from advancing in his soccer career because of Saturday competitions, my parents continued to coach and chauffeur my brother and me through all our Sabbath-day sports. Perhaps it’s no surprise that I have kept this model of not quite heeding the third commandment in my adult life. 

It’s funny how sports have, paradoxically, led me back to recognizing old wisdom. Writing and other artistic efforts don’t rely on the same physiological processes as endurance training, but I wonder if I might learn from the body’s pattern of stress and rest. After a summer rich with adventure, friends, and beautiful landscapes, I truly did feel refreshed. I jumped back into the demands of the academic year with an enthusiasm I’m not sure I could have mustered, had I locked myself away with my notebooks and laptop for all of June, July, and August. My long mountain runs offered mental space to compose. Encounters with territorial moose and other creatures fueled stories I’ve written since. Without allowing myself to rest, I wouldn’t have been able to tackle the hectic-ness of learning to teach freshman composition while taking classes of my own without falling apart. 

After this weekend of greater ease than productivity, I’m telling myself that I’ve simply released the balloon. I’m bobbing back up higher than before. 

Charlotte Gross is Barnstorm’s Fiction Editor and a second-year MFA fiction student at the University of New Hampshire.

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