Reminder: Doing 'Nothing' Is Still Doing Something
I recently wrote a blog post about my pending camping adventure into the wilds. I was understandably nervous: it was the first time I had gone anywhere remotely uncivilized since being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. I was worried about the toilets, the food, getting dehydrated, and mostly, that my symptoms would become worse while I was miles away from the nearest hospital.
So why did I go? Because I would have gone if I wasn’t ill. Because it was a local event I wanted to support. Because it was important to my husband. Because I have overcome much bigger obstacles and come through just fine. Because I like a challenge. I also wanted to go because I had a lot of work to do, and the thought of four uninterrupted days waiting to be filled with writing and research was too tempting to pass up. So I packed my books, papers, pens, and folders alongside our camping gear and set out filled with the gleeful anticipation of productivity.
The good news is I wasn’t eaten by wolves. The bad news? I did no work. In fact, I did absolutely nothing for four days except lie in the shade, eat, and read saucy novels. For four days. And it was wonderful. It was also a revelation. I am a proponent of always moving forwards. I am afraid to sit still. Even before my illness I was constantly working, thinking, planning. Developing ulcerative colitis (and then Crohn’s) didn’t change that. In fact, being diagnosed with a chronic illness intensified that part of my personality. I became scared to slow down, believing there was a fine line between resting and succumbing. Simply put, I am constantly trying to outrun my disease.
Part of it is my pride. Chronic illness results in varying levels of dependence, and there is often a shamefulness associated with that. When people ask if I work, I want to be able to say yes. I want them to acknowledge that my little boy is happy and loved and not missing out. I want them to see I still take an interest in my appearance and in living a full and active life. Rightly or wrongly, I want to be blame-free.
The other part is my own fear. I fear the loss of my independence. I am afraid my son will feel like he has half a mother or that my husband has half a wife. That my parents will worry about me rather than taking care of themselves. I am scared that if I take the time to stop and think, I will realize how ill I really am and lose my nerve. And if that happens, I will cease to exist.
I don’t think I’m alone in this. Contrary to popular image, I believe many people with chronic illness push themselves harder than they would do if they were well. And as much as I would like to, I can’t blame this drive entirely on the stigma of having a disease. My family is constantly trying to get me to slow down, so every bit of pressure placed on me is put there by myself. I have no one to blame but me. And I know better.
But I, like many other people in my situation, push and ignore what my body is telling me, what my family and friends and my doctors are telling me, and I do myself harm in trying to do good. I can’t win. So that first night, after we had unpacked our bags and set up our campsite, my husband and I sat in the fading summer light, drinking cheap boxed wine out of plastic cups. And I allowed myself to relax, knowing that tomorrow, I could get an early start.
And I did. On doing nothing. Four days later, and we were packing up to go home. As we pulled out of the campsite, I expected to feel angry and disappointed in myself that I had wasted all that time. But I didn’t. I realized I felt better than I had in months.
At first, the reason seemed obvious: none of my fears had come true. But it was more than that. I’m always trying so hard just to get through things, that I rarely experience them. Those four days, I lived in the moment, focusing only on what I was doing at the time. And the world hadn’t ended. In fact, it felt fresher, more full of potential somehow. It turned out that doing nothing was so much more productive than doing anything.
It seems so painfully cliche, especially given the vast number of inspirational memes that saturate the internet. But living in the moment is one of those nebulous mantras that everyone reflexively regurgitates, but rarely practices. To actually do it felt like a novel discovery. It was an important lesson I already knew, but one that I constantly forget because it’s inconvenient and doesn’t sit well with my sense of self.
I will try to remember this time, for as long as I can. On Sundays now, I will try not to glance longingly at my computer the moment my son goes down for his nap. Maybe I’ll read, or play a video game. Or maybe I’ll do nothing but be quiet and still. After all, for some of us, doing nothing can still be something.