Less Sometimes is More: How Chronic Fatigue Saved Me From My Achievement Addiction
Disclaimer: Here I'm broad-brushing and (possibly) over-generalizing and over-simplifying, but isn't all opinion-writing that way? I'm saying, don't be offended unless you need to be; in which case, by all means, be offended away.
Probably the most depressing thing about life is that no matter how hard you work, you'll never do enough. You'll never read enough books, write enough articles, drink enough coffee, buy enough cars, visit enough foreign countries, watch enough movies, start enough companies, make enough money, earn enough degrees.... You'll never do enough. Maybe what's even worse is that no matter how hard you try, you'll never be good enough either. But what's absolutely the worst thing is the reasoning behind it all: it's because you're unable, incapable, and severely limited.
But our culture has learned to sidestep the whole thing with a totally different story, like, You can do whatever you want, Life is yours to take, Carpe Deim, Just do it, etc. etc. Well, but is that true? Can I really do whatever I want? Fortunately for us, the truthfulness of the story doesn't matter, which is to say, we aren't concerned if it's true or not, only if it makes us feel good. So yes, it's true because it makes me feel empowered, inspired, and totally limitless. And aren't all of those good things?
We respond to our limitation by ignoring it, and since we are so easily distracted, all it takes to ignore those things (limitation, boredom, Death, etc.) is stuff: projects, schedules, deadlines, TV, etc.
We humans are dying to measure our lives, to quantify them in some way and legitimize our complaining about how busy or tired we are. We have this innate belief that we have to earn our value as humans. If we want happiness and peace and fulfillment, we have to earn them. So in some people, like me, that manifests itself as a Type-A productivity master who gets a thrill like a sugar rush from completing a checklist. In others, it's a detached futilism, as in, I'll never be that guy, so I'll just kick back and enjoy the "easy life."
Chronic Fatigue for the Win
Three years ago, I developed chronic fatigue syndrome. And no, it's not that kind of fatigue. It's crippling. Many have it far worse (one girl I follow on Instagram has to get around in a wheelchair) but for me, it was revolutionary. I had no idea how to cope. I was an athlete (cycling), a musician (piano), a college student, and an overall addict to anything and everything energetic. For months I was bedridden, unable to sit upright for very long, study, or even read. I used to measure my productivity in how many miles I rode or how many hours I studied, but there in my bed, all that came to a stop. Because I guess I just realized how boring it all was. There's not much more boring than telling yourself stories about yourself and how busy or powerful you are. And there's nothing more sad when all you've been able to do that week was hobble to the shower a few times. With that realization came a new kind of freedom.
But that freedom was the devil to pay. For what was probably a solid year, I experienced an existential crisis because I wasn't getting anything done. I felt less human. I blamed God for dehumanizing me by taking away the one thing I had that made me, well, me. Which was my free will. I lost the ability to do anything, and I realized I had little left to define myself by. I felt existentially shallow because I couldn't check off my to-do list. And that made me feel small and wasted and inhuman because I'd come to define Life and humanity by productivity and busyness. My humanness was directly reliant upon my ability to produce, to add value to, to assert myself. When it came down to my core existence, there wasn't much there.
In the following months, and in the years since then, I've learned to enjoy an entirely new view of Life, and a new definition for what it means to be human. As my health begins to return and I'm able to do more things, I'm noticing a fundamental difference between myself and my friends. For me the jury has come back in and given the verdict. I am worth something because my value is ascribed to me, not because I earn it in any way. I am set free from those doubts, from that nagging feeling that you'll never do enough. But I'm left wondering, why did it take all this to teach me something as simple as that?
Productivity is Calvinism's Pet Idol
This conversation is possibly the single most important one to be having as humans, but we aren't having it. The only time this comes up is in the small hours of the morning, when you can't sleep and you stare at the ceiling asking yourself questions, like, What am I doing? What does it matter? Am I wasting my time? You want to know that you're work means something, not necessarily that your work is taking over the world, breaking records, or setting trends, but that it is meaningful. But sin has perverted your value system so that, to you, meaning is those things. So to do meaningful work, you have to be changing the world.
The only response, other than suicide, is to pony-up and grind harder. You wake up earlier, put in more hours, start new projects, add a pin to the 12 you're already juggling. You chase meaning down like Nimrod overtaking a gazelle, and you experience the thrill of the kill...for a little while at least, until the next time you neurotically wake up in the middle of the night. The alternative, which is the path of most small-time Americans, is to commit intellectual or existential suicide. You (like your retired great Uncle Ned) unplug from the game--you admit defeat. You just put your face in your hands and tell yourself over and over how much you matter to the seemingly indifferent world until, finally, you start to believe it.
And because of sin, I am absolutely convinced that every single human being falls somewhere on that scale between Nimrod and Uncle Ned. Both are perversions, but one is the more popular in our Evangelical subculture. Can you guess which one?
We've bought into this great American ideal of a man who is supposed to bite off more than he can chew, otherwise he's not trying hard enough. Pain is weakness leaving the body, etc. This is a fairly modern phenomenon culturally and historically, and it's found fertile ground in the new Calvinism which defines our Gospel Coalition-ish, Young, Restless, and Reformed-ish circles. We in Reformeddom have latched onto this "crazy busy" mentality because it scratches our itch (that itch being The Puritan Work Ethic, the Judeo-Christian Work Ethic, the Protestant Work Ethic, et. al.).
But we're confusing work ethic with dopamine.
With our bodies we serve the master of Work Ethic but with our minds we serve the seductively cruel master of Dopamine. When we get things done, we get a huge hit of endorphins and dopamine which give our bodies the feeling of pleasure--the same feeling we get with any pleasure, like junk food, drugs, porn, etc. And the thing about this reward circuitry is that it's highly addictive. Which all has very sad implications on the Young, Restless and Reformed and the Work Ethic they are supposedly serving. What if underneath the vigor to do ministry and be sanctified and get things done is this addiction to the feeling we get when we get things done? What if our passion and efforts to serve God are really about us and the way it makes us feel?
We literally point and jeer at Biblical Israel for going whoring to other gods made of stone, but we get downright offended when anyone suggests we've done the same with our addiction to productivity and achievement.
Freedom to Be Productive
What God showed me in those depressing months was the truth: that I found my identity in my busyness, my power to get things done and my passion for life. When life came to a standstill, I had nothing left. But through God's Word and Tim Keller's great little book The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, God taught me experientially both what it means to receive my identity from Christ and what it means to serve God the way God designed (i.e., for Him and His mission not for me and my Dopamine). Yes, I still had to detox from my addiction, which took a while, but now, when I have bad days and weeks where I can't really do much, when I wake up neurotically in the middle of the night with another midnight crisis, I rest in God. I rest in the Truth. I rest knowing that my life has meaning whether I feel like it does or not. And I rest knowing that I don't have to get up and work extra hard tomorrow in order to gain back my self-respect and self-esteem. I'm finally free from the addiction, and I couldn't be more thankful.