Do You Work?

When we meet someone for the first time, after exchanging pleasantries, the next question we usually ask is, “So what you do?” The answer usually is—I am a teacher, doctor, student or accountant. We tend to identify ourselves with our professions so much that we talk in terms of what we do. If you are not working—how would you answer? I don’t work, I am a homemaker or I took a break to be a full-time mom. When I hear this, I wonder whether being a full-time parent is actually different from having a job outside the home. Isn’t it just a different choice of work—and a more difficult one—since there is no incentive of a monthly paycheck?

On my recent time off from work due to personal reasons I was supposedly on a break doing “nothing,” though there was a long list of things that were part of “nothing.” And while I was doing “nothing,” I wondered (apparently you can’t stop thinking when you do nothing) why are we so hardwired to earn rewards? Probably it gets ingrained within us while growing up. Getting rewarded for academic achievements is a good way of encouraging kids, but our brain is not good at defining boundaries. It develops one habit and this creeps into every area of our lives. And we start working hard towards earning the basic necessities of rest and sleep. Sometimes when I doze off I catch myself asking, “What did you do today to feel this tired? You didn’t even go to work today.” Why can’t we reward ourselves just because we deserve it without feeling guilt? Why is slowing down so underrated? Or are we scared of our own thoughts and that nagging voice which keeps reminding us, “There is work to be done and things to be learned. You are lagging behind while you sleep. There are goals to be achieved.” Then there is another weak voice which rebels and says: “No, I am tired, please go away. I need time to unwind, to look at my kids, to look at the sunshine, rain, clouds, my house, which I see every day but I need to pause to witness everything. Above all I need to look at myself—not just in the mirror but look within me.”

This internal conversation reminds me of an incident where one of my friends, who was on a sabbatical from her job, mentioned that she fails to understand why people ask her: “So what’s the plan now?” If I were her, I would answer: “This is the plan—my sabbatical.” Another friend who was looking forward to her break after resigning from her job got so tired of her new schedule that, after a few weeks, she looked forward to going back to work. She couldn’t justify her break even to herself.

It takes time for the change to sink in. Sometimes we think we are ready for it but when we dive in, the brain’s synapses refuse to change immediately. And, I am not surprised. After spending years on a tightly organized schedule, that becomes our refuge. The boundary that we have created between “work” and to “not work” doesn’t exist. We realize its non-existence only when we cross that hypothetical line. I am working when I am developing software but I am also working when I am not.

So coming back to the question, “Do you work?” Can I say, “Yes I am working. I am working on the knotty business in my head called thoughts and trying to deal with one knot at a time. It’s a very intense form of work. When I am watching television shows, listening to my favorite songs or talking to my friends, I am working on increasing my feel good hormones called serotonin and oxytocin which probably means fewer doctor visits and improved well-being. When I read a book, I am doing my brain a favor as reading improves memory and reduces anxiety. When I am cooking for my family, I am working towards their well-being by giving them healthy, home-cooked food. When I take a nap, I am working to ward off diseases like Alzheimer’s in later years. When I sit in silence, I am trying to build a connection with my soul which is constantly trying to talk to me. My “nothing” is not empty. In fact for the first time in years my “nothing” is fuller, better, and much more.

When we sit and do nothing, only then do we face our demons. When you decide to do nothing, it’s legitimate to feel a little insecure, fearful and lost. All of a sudden you lose the comfort of your daily routine and the security that comes with monthly paychecks. Treading a different path even if it’s only for a short time brings some instability as you might have to prune old ways of thinking. But when you look back you won’t regret the change. It’s just a different type of work. It brings with it the rewards of slowing down. It acquaints you with yourself more.

It’s time to trade some old, worn out, repetitive patterns of thinking with a rejuvenated form of thinking. Just like we get rid of old clothes with new purchases, the wardrobe of our mind needs some cleaning. I realized this only when I slowed down.

My definition of “work” has crumbled and has undergone a radical change. Speeding is not driving. To enjoy this ride don’t accelerate, just drive. I don’t intend to reach my old age all out of breath and sweaty. There is no such thing as “work-life” balance. Both are the same. All we need is the balance.

First published in India Currents magazine.