This post is a bit of a demonstration of itself – it’s been sitting as a fairly complete draft for ages, and before that, in less complete forms as I worked on it in bits and pieces. Not so much because the idea wasn’t a priority, as because I wasn’t happy with how I was expressing it. I’m still not, but I want to get it out there.
Some time ago, I had a discussion with another blogger about priorities.* A short time later, Lauredhel wrote a post at Hoyden About Town** that touched on the issue, which made me think a little more about getting around to writing my own post. I started this draft some months later, but still some months ago – as I said, I have not been happy with how I’m expressing my ideas. Chally’s recent post about staying silent about as a way of taking care of oneself reminded me again of this draft post, and also gave me a slightly different angle to address it from.
Through it all, ironically enough, I’ve been hit by some other priorities and have been in and out of the blogosphere.
To some extent, this post deals with what I have heard a number of people with disabilities say to me, including people who don’t necessarily identify as “having a disability”, but they have a condition, disease or disability which affects their capacity/energy/number-and-availability-of-spoons sometimes.
The conversation often takes this shape:
Other person: “I’m a terrible person, I haven’t done x, y and z. If only I didn’t have [this disability], I could have done x, y, z AND all the other things it would be nice to have done.”
Me (feeling guilty because I am currently able-bodied and I often devote my time to reading books and being otherwise “unproductive”): “Well, you may not have done x, y and z, but you’ve done a, b, c, d, e, f, g and h. I’ve just spent the past week reading. You are way more efficient than me. It’s never possible to do everything.”
This is a meta-conversation, by the way, in case that’s not obvious! But there is one person (not a blogger) in particular who, absolutely without meaning to, tends to make me feel guilty about the fact that I don’t Do More. Because she herself Does So Much (more Objectively Useful Tasks than pretty much anyone else I know!), despite having a condition which significantly affects her energy levels. And yet, she is constantly berating herself for the fact that she doesn’t Do More.
My response to this, naturally, is to try to ease my own guilt for not Doing As Much As I Possibly Could (And More) by thinking about priorities, and trying to explain why I take time out to not Do Useful Stuff by reading, or blogging. Thus this post.
First, I believe it is an excellent priority to say: “I need to take care of myself [whatever that means to you]. If I do x [an objectively useful task], I will not be taking care of myself. Alternatively, if I do y [an "objectively unproductive" task, such as sleeping, or reading, two of my personal favourite "unproductive" tasks], I will be taking care of myself. Therefore I will do y.”***
I think that every single person has a right to say this, and to not feel bad if they say it and/or and act on it. Funnily enough, I learned that from the person I mentioned above, who is very good at saying it to other people, but not so good at living it herself.
Secondly, I think it’s really important to acknowledge that many of us have more things that we would like to do than we will ever be able to fit into [a given time period], whether that be “today”, “this year” or “my entire life”. Even more importantly: that’s perfectly ok.
I think most people accept that, although people react in different ways. For some people, the reaction seems to be “I must do the next task on my list so I can get as many things done in [x time] as possible”. That might mean that the “taking care of myself” step in the logic above means “doing the next thing on my list”. For others (myself included, most of the time), the reaction to “I will never get everything done” is something like “then it’s ok if I don’t do everything, so it’s ok if I don’t do this specific thing in this time period”, and thus the “taking care of myself” becomes “doing something I really enjoy which really relaxes me so I can do other ‘important’ things better at some other time”.
For me, this reaction has a logical (and practical) corollary: it may be perfectly ok to not do [objectively useful task that I promised to do by z date], either by [z date] – or ever.
Actually, I find it hard to apply this to myself if I promise someone else I’ll do something – but very easy to apply it to someone else if they promise me they’ll do something! I suspect many other people are in the same boat. I’m trying harder to apply it to myself.
Of course, this is a huge generalisation. There will always be things that, if we don’t do them, there will be consequences of some sort. Sometimes, those consequences will be dire. But we often take those into account when we assess our priorities. For example, right now, work is a fairly high priority for me, because my career is important to me, and if I do not do some task on time, efficiently or at all could have serious consequences for my career (not to mention other serious consequences for other people – sure, being a lawyer is not quite like being a doctor, but still!). Because work is such a priority for me, other things (such as blogging) have a tendency to sink into the background for me from time to time.
I have made a choice for work to be a priority. I could have chosen – I could still choose – to find a different job which is less of a “career”, where my performance is not so important, and where I can focus my priorities on other things.
Sometimes, the thing or things in one’s life which are of the highest priority are not what one would have chosen. The person I mentioned above who Does So Much despite the condition which affects her energy levels would love to rearrange her life so that doing what she needs to do in order to live with the condition was a lower or non-existent priority. You could argue that she does, ultimately, have a choice. On one level, that is true. For a given value of “choice”, so to speak.
To come back to where I started: whether or not you choose your priorities, whatever is a priority for you is going to be something of an energy drain. The way your priorities are arranged will mean that you can’t do some things that you might like to do, or that you might need to do. That may have consequences. Those consequences may affect people other than you. Those consequences may not be so wonderful. Whatever those consequences are, however, does not make you a bad person.
I have heard people call others selfish for arranging their priorities in order to take care of themselves. And sure, taken to an extreme, such behaviour may be selfish. But the kind of selfishness which involves arranging one’s priorities in order to feel well (or as well as one can)? That, to me, is something to be admired, fostered and encouraged.**** If the result is that someone is entirely un-selfless, well, that’s ok by me.
* My goodness! I just found that email conversation in my email inbox. It was about 18 months ago. That’s how long this post has been bouncing around in my head for.
** And, of course, I didn’t save a link to it, and I can’t remember even vaguely when it was, and I can’t remember enough key words to find it. It might have been this one – it kind of fits, and I do remember being generally inspired by it (and by Melissa McEwan’s post on a similar topic) at the time. But there may have been another post that Lauredhel wrote somewhere around that time that was more on topic to this post. My apologies to her for my crap recording-of-research skills. Really, I should know better by now!
*** This is where I think Chally’s post fits in. I think Chally is saying something like this in her post (among other things), and I admire her greatly for doing it.
**** There’s a caveat to this which I’m trying to work out how to explain, without sounding judgmental. It’s something like this: I do not admire selfishness for selfishness’ sake. If you could be less selfish, ie if you could de-prioritise your own world and give a little more priority to others without damaging your wellness (using the word in the most generic sense possible, as I don’t think people have an obligation to keep themselves well, either), and you don’t, I won’t think that admirable. However, I’m not going to try to force you to change your priorities. I don’t think you should be punished. But if the result of your choice of priorities is that you are entirely un-selfless, I might not like you very much.