Note To Self: When You Fear You’re Not ‘Productive’ Enough

To Do checklist
By D. JoAnne Swanson

[Author’s note: this is the first in my “Note To Self” series of personal narratives, written from the perspective of a council of beings offering support, guidance, and self-care from within.]

Dear Self:

Whenever you start feeling shameful or critical of yourself because of your slow progress on your book manuscripts and other long-term projects in recent years, consider this.

As a writer in the USA who is divorced, living alone, and with an income below the federal poverty level, you are fighting an uphill battle.

But you’re not fighting that battle because there is something wrong with you.

We know that everywhere you turn, there will be people who will tell you your situation is entirely your own fault, and you just need to set aside your artistic ambitions and try harder to get a “real” job, and so on. And it isn’t easy to resist that kind of social and cultural pressure. But nonetheless, do your best to resist it.

Let us say that again, with emphasis.

You are not fighting that battle because there is something wrong with you.

You’re fighting it because of structural injustice and oppression.

You live in a colonized country in which the dominant culture dismisses art as mere frivolity compared to “real” jobs (i.e., jobs that serve capitalism). Artists in the USA often spend untold energy and time justifying the value of their work – to their culture, as well as to themselves.

You live in an extreme capitalist country with a toxic job culture; a cruel, inhumane, and exorbitantly expensive health “care” system; and a shamefully inadequate social safety net that makes grossly inadequate provisions for its ill, elderly, disabled, and homeless. If you fall between the cracks in the USA – and really, they’re not so much “cracks” as “gaping canyons” – you are left to your own devices. You’re on your own.

No wonder so many Americans live lives of near-constant anxiety.

The only way to survive in a culture like this, for most people, is to spend the bulk of your life “earning a living” – selling your hours to employers for a paycheck.

Why is it so painful for you to do that? To sell the bulk of your time?

Because it is a normalized form of abuse. Because your soul has always known that “earning a living” is not why you are here on this earth. That’s why you resist it. That’s why your soul declares mutiny.

Time is precious. You cannot get time back, once it’s been spent. It’s gone forever.

And you live in a culture that expects you – requires you – to sell those precious hours of your day to employers, or to whoever has money. Just so you can eat and keep a roof over your head. If you protest openly about this structural coercion, this endless pressure to be “productive,” you are quickly branded a “complainer” or  “lazy bum.” You are blamed for your own plight, and treated as an ungrateful, work-shirking wretch who deserves to suffer whatever privation may befall you.

Worse yet, many people who sell their time to employers and work their fingers to the bone don’t even have food security or a roof over their head. And you’re well aware of your precarity; you (and most Americans) are just one streak of bad luck away from a similar fate.

Consider the ways your time is consumed – colonized – by the cultural milieu in which you live. You live alone and without a car, so you must do everything yourself and rely on public transit. You must handle all the unpaid work – meal planning, shopping, hauling, cooking, cleaning, paperwork, etc., while also prioritizing the paid work (“earning a living”) and trying to properly care for your health. In other words, like most women, you have two full time jobs. You have no assistance in the tasks of daily life, and you live in a culture that doesn’t make it easy to arrange for that assistance if you don’t have much money and aren’t married/partnered or part of an intentional community. You have no one to cover for you when you’re sick or injured. Friends may want to help, but they’re mostly in the same boat, or are carrying even heavier loads.

You want to spend the bulk of your hours on what matters most to you: your writing and your spiritual life. That’s a perfectly reasonable desire. But sadly, that choice is only available to those who have a safety net (usually wealth). People who are living hand-to-mouth have little choice but to sell their hours doing what pays, even if it means the work of your heart and spirit is relegated to the margins of your life.

If you don’t take whatever work you can find that pays, the world will exact a hefty price. And if you do take whatever work you can find that pays, your soul will exact a hefty price. Because your soul knows that you’re a writer, and you have a calling to bring these books into the world. So every day that is consumed with “earning a living” instead of pursuing your calling as a writer is a day that will add to your pain.

And few people will sympathize, especially if you have a job that looks cushy compared to theirs. “Must be a nice problem to have!” they’ll say, because they’ve been conditioned to identify with a culture that dismisses artistic pursuits as mere frivolity. “Real work” is something else. Besides, why should you get the privilege of doing what you love when the rest of us have to content ourselves with whatever jobs we can find?

But back to the price the world will exact if you resist wage labor: poverty. You live in a country in which vast numbers of people live in poverty, and once you fall into poverty in the US, it’s next to impossible to get out. Poverty is structural violence. And to make matters worse, you live in a country that kicks poor people when they’re down, and leaves them on the streets to suffer and die. As if poverty weren’t already cruel enough.

You live in a country in which health insurance is tied to employers or marriage, too, which creates a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation for people who are unmarried and don’t (or can’t) work for employers who offer health insurance.

The middle class has been gutted.

And right now, as we speak, people in power are trying with all their might to take away the last meager scraps of what you have.

Small wonder that you feel exhausted and anxious most of the time.

Don’t be hard on yourself when you aren’t writing as often as you know you could if you had access to the forms of support you need. Just write and work on your projects as often as you can.

Big changes take time to manifest, especially when you live in a culture where structural violence is normalized.

The world needs the work you do. It needs who you are. It needs everything you have to offer. Your work matters.

Pray. Meditate. Listen deeply.

And work on your projects whenever you can.

We Love You,
Your Inner Council

P.S. Remember this:

“While individual Americans might be the most generous people in the world in their daily actions and deepest desires, they are stuck in a society that ensures none of the fundamental opportunities that people need to achieve even basic middle-class comforts. This condemns Americans to an anxiety-ridden battle where a person had better be special, because the alternative is not succeeding at all. The United States is remarkable among the advanced nations for the way it forces its people into lives so stressful they may have to turn against even their own values.”

~Anu Partanen, The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life

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