There is a growing trend of people who are realising that working all hours is not only unsatisfying but deeply harmful to our well-being. The capitalist or protestant work ethic of working until you drop just isn’t cutting it any more. Even our leisure time feels competitive and stressful. The working mindset – a state of constant anxiety that we don’t have enough, aren’t good enough, haven’t earned or achieved enough – is causing an epidemic of mental illness that our society is straining to cope with.
While I don’t feel that my ‘career’ as such ever really took off, I still lived in a constant state of anxiety that what I do, rather than who I am, defined me. I was constantly searching for the label that I could use to easily pigeon-hole myself so that I would feel less awkward in trying to explain to people what I was doing with my time, or indeed my life. It felt like an eternal existential crisis of the teenage variety – who am I, what is my purpose, what was I put here to do, which would be funny or tedious if it hadn’t led to recurrent deep suicidal depression.
This summer I deleted the facebook app from my phone and realised just how much energy I had been expending on endless scrolling negativity, most of which I was powerless to do anything about. Yes the world is a mess, yes our political leaders are corrupt and incompetent, yes there are groups filled with hate that we can’t turn a blind eye to, but I realised that if I became swallowed up in the misery of negativity, which I was both exuding and passing onto my daughter and husband, I was doing even less redress the balance. The little I can do is to be conscious of how I live my life and try not to become overwhelmed by the mass of over-information we have at our fingertips. While I agree it is good to be informed, I am also living proof that being over-informed can catapult us into a state of suicidal despair. And that ain’t going to help anything or anyone.
So I’ve started to look for simpler things to ease my experience of the suffering of the world, or at the very least that of my own soul. Having lately lost all faith in the art world, its under-funded nature having made it even more elitist and far-removed from most people’s experiences than ever, I have decided to make my life my art-work, for now anyway. I have started to find pleasure in simple things that my inner fine-art snob used to turn its nose up at, as it wasn’t ‘high art’ enough. Knitting, the simple act of twisting yarn into a functional object is deeply satisfying. Many people have written about the benefits of knitting on mental health, and I can testify to this. When the hands are occupied, the mind can wander, the subconscious unravelling itself as the mechanics of twining wool with clackety needles is taken care of. It’s nothing ground-breaking, it won’t win the Turner prize, it won’t change anyone’s minds about the state of the world or the political mess we are in, but it is meditative and soothing, both of which are invaluable byproducts in a world where stress has reached epidemic proportions.
Gardening too is something I have always loved, but never saw as a ‘thing’, for the same reason. It felt too safe, too middle class, too middle aged to be something I would ever admit to deriving pleasure from. But as a middle class, middle-aged woman I’m tired of pretending to be something I’m not and I love the connection, the smells of the earth, the satisfaction of planting something and watching it grow or, if it dies, wondering what went wrong and trying again. Many of us have lost our connection with the land in this digital age, so reconnecting with the natural rhythms of the earth and the seasons is deeply healing. I’m hoping to hone my skills a bit more in this area, thus helping me to make a tiny part of the world a little prettier, a little wilder, a little more restful in which to exist. And it’s another activity that has endless mental health benefits as well.
In a sense therefore, I’ve given up trying to save the world. It’s too big a task for one person. And for someone with quite a few mental health labels, which would take up a whole other blog-post, it’s just not good for me to be focusing on the negatives of this world. So I’ve decided to own the cliché that saving the world starts with saving yourself. And let the ripples spread from there, one stitch at a time, one seed at a time.