I have a very busy life, with three kids, the eldest of whom is ten and the youngest a year and a half…. I can't describe the pressures and the expectations. It never stops, I don’t have a minute to myself during the day. My husband is very good and when he comes home I can rest, but at that stage I'm exhausted. It’s like living outside myself or beyond myself – maybe I'm living beyond my spiritual means. A friend of ours mentioned your website and now I look at it quite often. Thanks for what you do…. Can you do anything for the likes of me? There must be many people in my situation. Deirdre
Not being a parent myself, I can only offer a few general thoughts. Your letter brought the words of a K.D. Laing song to mind. “I've been outside myself for so long / Every feeling I had is close to gone.” I'm sure it’s wrong to quibble about the words of a song, but let’s abstract from the song and just take the idea. The idea is puzzling, because it seems to imply that we can have feelings only when we are inside ourselves, never when we are outside ourselves. And while we are quibbling we could also quibble with ‘inside’ and ‘outside’. What do we mean by ‘inside myself’ and ‘outside myself’? It sounds clear and obvious, but it isn’t at all. It’s familiar rather than clear. The self is not a sort of place where you can be inside or outside.
Moments that shape our lives are usually moments when we have forgotten about ourselves completely: when we really saw something or someone for the first time even though we were quite familiar with them in the ordinary way. In that sense we were ‘outside ourselves’. But we didn’t think of that as a drain on our real life, imagined as being ‘inside’ ourselves. The word ‘ecstasy’ literally means ‘standing outside’. Such moments change the shape of our whole life. The biggest change that will ever happen in our life is the realisation that, deep down, our life is not compartmentalised into inside and outside.
Of course there is a bad way of being outside ourselves: it is when we are dragged into some scene or some activity that doesn’t engage us at all as persons, but only our work. We feel used and disregarded as persons. We call that alienation. Many workers have to put up with such conditions, feeling after a while that they are just cogs in a wheel.
Lying somewhere between those two extremes, there is the condition of someone who is simply overworked. Sounds like you. I'm sure there must be many moments of ecstasy, and there’s no question of your work being impersonal. There’s just the reality of overload. Everyone will tell you that you should get more rest, and a bit of variety. That's easy to say, but I imagine it’s not so easy to explain it to a 10-year-old – harder still to explain it to an 18-month old child.
Is there any way we can find rest in work if we can't find rest from work? Wise people keep telling us that we should do just one thing at a time. They tell us we should strive to live in the Now – that we should let the past be the past and the future be the future. But we take some convincing. We praise ourselves for doing the exact opposite: multi-tasking. I knew a man who took multi-tasking to new heights. He came nearer than anyone I've ever known to passing himself out physically (he was constantly doing it in his speech). He was complaining once to my brother about all he had to do. “And I have only two pairs of hands,” he added. My brother said, “Imagine the trouble you’d be in if you had only one pair.” Mentally we all have several pairs of hands: while we are doing one thing in reality we are doing several things in our mind: listening to the radio, taking to ourselves, planning, worrying, feeling guilty, reminding ourselves, remembering or trying to remember…. But it’s remarkable how quickly we reap the benefit of deliberately doing just one thing at a time. It works like magic. Unlike other experiments, this one is best attempted in the kitchen. I'm speaking now at a safe distance from the pressures on you, but if you model calmness, the children will absorb it and become less demanding. I dare to say this because it happened once before my eyes. I was in someone’s kitchen when their little boy threw a tantrum. His mother just sat looking at him in the same way (I imagine) that she looks at him in his sleep. In a very short time he had regained his peace, and she had not lost hers. Indirectly she’s the one who is responding to your question. And she doesn’t even know about it. She showed me (and now you, and anyone else who reads this) something of great value – and she doesn’t even know that she did it. That's the right kind of multi-tasking: helping people without even knowing about it.