A Sabbath Rest

I am tired. I recognize that I’m privileged, that I don’t have kids, that we were able to keep our jobs, etc., etc. But I’m still tired. I lived through a pandemic, I lived through completely retooling my teaching for a format it was never meant to be in, and on top of that I bought a new apartment. Originally this summer, I was planning on starting a book project — a fun one, even — but I kept… not starting. It would have been my third book in three years. I couldn’t.

I deferred that project and since then have been doing this thing called “relaxing.” I’m working slowly and steadily toward things that I eventually need to get done — class prep mainly, but also a small handful of shorter writing commitments — but the majority of my days are free-form. Some days I read comic books, other days I dip into scholarly works I’m curious about. I play my NES Classic Edition and play piano. I sit around and argue with people on social media, or stare out the window, or do one of the hundred minor chores available to a new homeowner. In other words, I do some things that could be classified as “work,” but not Work in the strong sense that has dominated my life since college and maybe even before.

Looking back, my life has been dominated by a sense that the life of the mind I was enjoying was a temporary fluke and I must get the most out of it while I can. Soon my luck would come to an end, the improbable career in academia I have managed to cobble together would fall apart, and I would be reduced to an office drone with no time or energy for serious intellectual work. I was more or less following the motivational poster’s advice to live each day as though it was my last. I did a lot during that time. I studied important texts in multiple languages, I published books on a wide range of topics, I taught everything they threw at me.

I got a lot out of all that work — not just a feeling of accomplishment, but also genuine pleasure and even joy. And I kept pushing myself harder and harder, especially over the past few years, when my program was undergoing a major review and, despite multiple verbal assurances that turned out to be true, I couldn’t get it out of my head that this could be the end. Thinking it was the end, I nearly killed myself in 2019 getting out my Agamben monograph (writing at twice my normal sustainable pace, all summer, up to the very day classes started) and one last Agamben translation (which I did during the regular semester — something I’d never attempted before — while teaching a writing-intensive course that required mountains of grading). And then in 2020 I put together an essay collection that serves as kind of a career retrospective, while producing almost a full book’s worth of new material. The latter task was probably necessary to keep me from going insane over summer vacation, as I didn’t know how to share our small apartment without some identifiable “work” to do — but it carried its cost.

If I lost my job right now, I wouldn’t feel as though I had left something undone. But I’m not losing my job and — realistically — probably never was going to, at least not right this minute. This is not to say that my relative job security has anything to do with all the work I’ve been increasingly pushing myself to do. It’s become clear to me that I am never going to write my way into a tenure-track position and that if I ever get a better job, it will be out of sheer luck and happenstance. I told myself all along that I was doing my Work for its own intrinsic reasons, but now that I have arrived at a relatively stable place in my career with no specific prospects to aspire to, I realize that I did nurture a small, unspoken hope that someone would notice my labors and swoop in to give me the position I “deserve.” To the extent that I could “deserve” a position in such a cruel and arbitrary job market, I have all I could reasonably hope for: the teaching is enjoyable and diverse and the load leaves me enough time to pursue my research interests. That’s all I’ve really been working for, and I have it — largely through luck and happenstance.

After a few weeks off from Work, it’s shocking to me to look back and realize how much every single moment was devoted to the Work or preparing for the Work. To the extent that I had a social life, I was always trying to discuss books and ideas and form relationships with other academics. I had to get home and sleep in my own bed every night so that I could wake up refreshed for the Work. I lived in abject penury, working the absolute minimum to pay my bills so that I would have more time for the Work. My online life was about either doing the Work directly — trying out ideas on the blog — or promoting the Work or raising my public profile so that I would be in a position to promote the Work later. Getting together with My Esteemed Partner “civilized” me somewhat, so that I normally took weekends and evenings off from the Work, but I told myself that it was in service to sustaining the Work. I dreaded three-day weekends because I was losing a day for the Work. I hated vacations because it kept me from the Work — unless, of course, I could wear myself out going to every museum as a way of Taking Advantage of this opportunity to fill my mind up with more and more.

This downshift was a long time coming. It’s been several years since I gave up on using every minute of my commute “productively” and let myself scroll through social media, or play games on my phone, or read dumb Star Trek novels on the Kindle app. I resisted the siren song of podcasts, reluctant to productivize the dog walks or other short trips that I had always allowed to lay dormant. But even looking back to recent weeks, I can see how the Work was dominating my thinking. The process of buying a house is always stressful, but I had the extra layer of thinking it was keeping me from the Work. In fact, as compensation for my failure to start the book project I later deferred, I was pushing and pushing myself on my Qur’an research — taking thorough notes over all the suras I had read in Arabic, reading and taking notes over major works of scholarship, even continuing to read a page a day in Arabic nearly every morning. And when My Esteemed Partner dreamed of the day that we could remodel things to make them truly “ours,” I resisted — remodeling would take up a lot of time that should be going to the Work.

People talk about workaholism, and I do think that’s more than a metaphor. It really did feel like an addiction, and as with every addiction, it wasn’t always fun. What’s strange about my experience, though, is that it was so self-imposed. There was a toxic productivity culture at Kalamazoo College, and Shimer College, and North Central College, but it was centered around imposing ever more work on yourself for courses or taking on ever more admin and committee work — not “my” kind of productivity. I really did think I was trying to live life to the fullest on my own terms. And I don’t even know that I’m going to radically reform my life as a result of this three-week period of letting myself get by with the bare minimum. But the terms do need to be renegotiated, at least somewhat. I was already at an unsustainable pace when I finished Neoliberalism’s Demons and then I somehow sped up — which makes me realize that all I’m doing with this supposed break is returning to my previous pace of a book roughly every two years….

Not sure how to end this! All I can say is that I have successfully procrastinated from developing the Blackboard site for one of my courses and that feels like a win.

3 thoughts on “A Sabbath Rest

  1. What you describe may be an occupational hazard. When I was still in graduate school, ahem ago, and constantly talking about how “I have to do work,” my daughter, 7-ish, and partner were having a conversation about presents, and after running through what would make each of them very happy my daughter said “And then, we can get Amma some nice work.”

    If it’s any consolation, I think you, at least, have some nice fruit to show for all that nice work. Best wishes, and keep up the good relaxing.

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