“I think we should go camping this weekend.”
I wasn’t sure I had heard my husband correctly. While our family loves camping and we had spent two weeks earlier in the summer traveling through Colorado, travel trailer in tow, we live in Texas. July and August are the worst months to go camping in Texas. I didn’t want to hang out outside, our son was moody and uncooperative, we were all getting anxious about the start of school, and normally I would have said no.
But we went anyway.
It turned out that it was just the weekend we needed. I couldn’t worry about our messy house or unbalanced budget. The kids couldn’t hide behind their devices or video games. And my husband couldn’t just turn on the TV.
Instead, we took a short hike while we fought off mosquitoes, we all read books that had sat untouched for too long, we played a round of Oregon Trail that we finally won, and we enjoyed time without things that we had to do. We embraced the calm and lack of schedule before the madness of a stressful school year took over all of our lives.
Americans are terrible at leisure. Our businesses do not guarantee paid vacation and if we do get paid vacation it is rarely more than two weeks over the course of an entire calendar year. Employees often refuse to take all of their vacation time, even when offered it, because they don’t believe they can take the time away from their company, afraid that it will look like laziness to spend time away. When we do take time off, we take along our phones and laptops and still work while we are supposed to be relaxing or spending time with family.
It’s not just adults who struggle with leisure. We’ve filled up our kids’ lives with activity after activity from the time they learn how to walk. Mommy and me classes for toddlers, fine arts and sports classes for early elementary, summer camps for older elementary, club sports and early college programs for teenagers, and the list goes on.
We don’t know how to be bored.
And maybe that’s one of the many reasons that we are struggling so much with the way our world shut down when COVID-19 made its way to our shores. Yes, many of us have been concerned about our physical health and the health of loved ones. Yes, many lost their jobs and financial security. Yes, many were put into precarious positions as they were left alone with abusive family members.
Yes, many of the plans that we had carefully made were suddenly put on hold.
But in a society that is designed to always be moving, being told to “stop” put a tremendous mental and emotional strain on us as well.
As a teacher, I keep seeing people who are understandably concerned about the mental health of children and young adults who are missing their friends and important social interaction. And yes, as a mother I can also see the strain that lack of social interaction has put on our children and our family as a whole, even in a family full of introverts who usually relish some quiet. But I don’t believe we have been looking at the whole picture of what was happening to our psychological well-being before a global pandemic.
Not long ago I wrote this in response to the question of mental health and students in one of my favorite Facebook groups:
As someone who spends nine months out of the year with these delightful humans, and they are delightful humans, this goes much deeper than yes school or no school. We’ve trained these kids to be busy all 👏 the👏 time. We’ve told them that they will only be successful if they have a 4.627 GPA. We’ve stuffed them into AP classes and tested them into exhaustion. We’ve deprived them of leisure time and have turned family vacations into club sports trips.
And then we told them to stop everything and sit still.
Gee, I don’t know why they’re cracking…
All sarcasm aside, I stand by what I wrote, mostly because I’ve spent nearly 20 years watching the mental health of my students deteriorate more and more with each year that I’ve taught. The competition is more intense, the stakes are higher, and we’ve taken away the opportunity for any kind of true leisure. In fact, when fellow English teachers lament the fact that students don’t read, in my head I’m asking “when do they have time?” As an English teacher who loves reading and the written word, even I fill up my day with so many menial tasks that I struggle to find the time to stop everything and pick up a book, and I know that I’m not the only one.
The harsh truth is that we Americans have sacrificed our mental health on the altar of busyness. We spent years convincing ourselves that this somehow made us exceptional. Other countries were lazy because they allowed for weeks of vacation and time off and didn’t just allow for it, but required it. We mock the idea of siesta and joke about island time.
But we’re also self-medicating, hungry for therapy (but refusing to accept it), and we can’t understand why suicide rates and mental disorders are skyrocketing amongst our youth.
COVID-19 didn’t break us, it showed us what was broken. We were so busy pretending that everything was ok and that we loved the rat race that we didn’t stop to consider what it was doing to our bodies and souls. And then everything stopped and suddenly we had to slow down and face the boredom that we’ve desperately avoided our entire lives.
Yes, we are hungry for connection. Yes, people need to be in community with each other. Yes, routine is good and helpful for most of us to be able to fully function and contribute to society.
But we also need to take a collective breath and consider what we’ve had to do without during 2020, what don’t we need to rush to pick back up again. Maybe it would be good for us to take careful stock of the things that we actually missed out on and the things that were just filling up space so that we didn’t have to pay attention to everything else that was going on around us.
We are all eager to get back to some kind of normalcy. My kids can’t wait to get back to sports, there is an uneasy excitement about a regular schedule attached to school, and I’m ready to work from my classroom instead of the kitchen table.
But I hope that we also spend some time deciding what adds value to our lives and what has been sucking the life out of us.
Because if a novel virus doesn’t kill us, the way we were living before was doing its best to slowly destroy us. Maybe that’s one of the many lessons we should be paying attention to as we move forward.