I keep rereading what is now old news, those amazing stories about the French Open. Not the stories of grand slams and surprise victories, but the stories about sensible withdrawals. I want them to mean more than they do, on the surface. I want them to herald a widespread return of common sense.
Naomi Osaka has been warning us all along that she is an introvert, easily thrown off balance by all the hoopla we insist must descend upon every promising athlete. (And why? To justify all the money spent on these tournaments. To keep the public in thrall so they continue to attend, watch, follow, buy.) She is only twenty-three years old. But because she is now the highest-paid athlete in the world, pro tennis and its media decided they owned her. Press conferences unnerve her and leave her depressed, she says—to which the sports establishment replies that she is contractually obligated to endure them.
This reminds me of an alt-weekly editor who advised a young, anxious reporter to get a prescription for anti-anxiety medication if he wanted to keep his job. Or of myself, when I was working fourteen-hour days and snapping at my friends and husband that they did not understand, I had to keep up that pace if we wanted to get the magazine out.
When I was so exhausted I no longer recognized myself, I finally mustered my nerve and quit. When I blurted my resignation, the publisher asked if I would stay as a staff writer—something I had never dreamed would be possible, because I was so caught up in our low budget, tiny staff, pressured meetings, tense deadlines.
We internalize the expectations and limitations of our jobs in a way that would have seemed ludicrous and obviously unhealthy in, say, the 1950s. My father and two of his buddies from Washington University started their own ad agency back then, and l now have some sense of the long hours and nerve-zinging stress that would require. Yet I hear stories of them throwing parties, playing practical jokes, enjoying long martini lunches, traveling, sneaking off (my dad and one of the partners; the other was more Serious) to play golf on sunny afternoons. . . .
These days, we relegate all the fun to the future, promising ourselves that when we can finally retire, we will play more, see our friends more, take our time, travel. . . . Yet many of us are fast realizing that we may die before we get to retire. Even those who do manage to retire early are by then so stressed, so broken, that I know several people who dropped dead of a massive heart attack before their first big trip.
This is why the second big announcement of the French Open, Roger Federer judiciously withdrawing to protect his newly rehabilitated knees, gave me even more hope. How many athletes have punished their bodies beyond redemption for the sake of one more win? It is noble to suffer, we believe; macho to endure pain and swallow anxiety. Until recently, pulling back in any way was usually a hasty attempt to hide a scandal, placate critics, or pre-empt forcible ejection. All those politicians who stepped down “to spend more time with family”? I never believed them. Exactly the right reason to leave a high-powered job—but not their reason.
So how did we get so stupid?
“Our prospects as individuals, and as a species, depend on copying and imitating each other’s thinking,” the philosopher Nathan Ballantyne remarked during an interview for the John Templeton Foundation’s newsletter. “And yet this same behavior can prevent us from thinking well.” Montaigne wrote with disgust about people’s craven need to conform.
If a society has its values in order, following shared rhythms can make a day’s rituals quite pleasant. Think of the savoring of relaxed meals and good conversation that are de rigeur in France, Spain, Italy, Greece; the hygge that draws people to simple, convivial pleasures in the Scandinavian countries….
It is this nation, the rebellious new world that scoffed at conformity, that marches in a soul-killing lockstep. We are the ones who so addicted to our jobs that by 1971, the label “workaholism” had to be created.
The compulsion to work long and hard at the expense of pleasure need not be soul-killing; often the work carries more reward and endorphin kick than a round of bridge or an evening of TV. In those cases, psychologists correct the term to “work engagement.” Engagement is something you can step away from when it turns destructive or exhausting.
But in a capitalist society, working hard helps the bottom line, so bosses reward it—and set up an EAP to deal with collateral damage. Sadistic managers send emails or texts on evenings or weekends and then time how long it takes an employee to respond. Even people with sane, supportive bosses feel obliged to be available at all times, simply because machines have made it possible.
We are not alone: Japan even has a word, karoshi, for “death by overwork.” But in a study by Project: Time Off (its name a clue), almost one-third of Millennials felt like work martyrs, ashamed to take time off. More than half wanted their boss to see them as a work martyr, staying late and leaving vacation days unused. In 2015, more than half of working Americans left, collectively, 658 million vacation days on the table. This, in a country where the average vacation granted is 10 measly days, not the solid month common in Europe.
All that talk of a COVID reset? It just might have nudged our attitudes toward work toward a real, not just rhetorical, balance. A lot of us got time off whether we wanted it or not. And we found out that, even taken in a vortex of anxiety and global catastrophe, time off was restorative.
We also remembered that life can be short. That commutes add stress. That working at your own pace, in the comfort of your home, with a dog at your feet, can counteract the crazymaking pressure people put on one another in the workplace. Why? Because it brings instant perspective. You are still yourself; the workplace might costume you and hand you a script, but it does not create you. That sense of excitement and purpose is tied to the work, not the place.
We get caught up because we are a competitive society and an insecure one, trumpeting individualism even as we check over our shoulder to see what everybody else is doing. We are eager to succeed by the world’s definition, fulfill its expectations, win. But refusing to make yourself sick because it has been decreed an obligation? Protecting your body instead of your ego? Those are real victories.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.