March 6, 2019
A friend asked me recently, “You’re under a lot of stress, right? Like, all the time?”
I had to say, “Yes.”
I am under a lot of stress all the time. Maybe it’s been that way my whole life. Maybe I do it to myself. I used to ask Ethan, when he was little, “What’s the going rate on trouble?” To which he would respond with a blank look in his little, blue eyes. And then I would explain, “Because you’re borrowing a lot of it.”
My little future economist would not then ask me to explain usury, because, of course, he knew it inside-out by the age of two. He would, however, ask me what it meant to “borrow trouble.” It’s a high art form for a lot of us, imagining all that can go wrong, stressing over it, planning for how we’ll handle it. It’s the natural state of a lot of science fiction writers, of which group I am (quite) nominally a member. It can be a valuable skill, anticipating what could go wrong, so you can prevent it from doing so. It can also drive you batty.
I also used to tell Ethan the tale of the three Sillies, the fairy tale about the man who went out in the world to see if he could find three examples of people stupider than his fiance and future in-laws. The deal was that, if he found those three, he would marry into a family of idiots.
Naturally, he found the three.
The in-laws folly was always my favorite: The girl went down in the basement to draw beer from a keg for her father, and spotted an axe, embedded in a ceiling beam. She began to think that, someday, if she married and had a son, and sent him down here to draw beer, that axe just might fall on his head and kill him. She sat down and wept. Soon, she was joined by her parents, who heard her tale of imagined woe and also sat down and wept.
They flooded the basement.
Her fiance arrived, and, after ascertaining the root cause of the issue, solved it by removing the axe. How he drained the basement was never related.
A lot of us borrow trouble, like that idiot family, and are in danger of drowning in the flow of negative emotions flow that results. Contrary to the tale, we’re not stupid. We just have a blind spot when it comes to removing the axe from the beam. That story, by the way, was in a Giant Golden Book of Fairy Tales that you and Mother bought for us, probably before I was born. You bought us many books, and I have always been grateful for that.
Stress isn’t only the result of borrowed trouble, of course, but I guess a lot of us allow our stressors to play a bigger role in our lives than they should. I know I have that tendency.
But, when my friend asked me his follow-up question, “How do you deal with it?” I actually had an answer.
“I compartmentalize,” I told him.
I meant that I have taught myself to keep the different parts of my life–all of which are stressful, a lot of the time–from overflowing into each others’ areas. And I keep the parts of my life that aren’t stressful especially protected.
The unfortunate fiance was compartmentalizing when he took down the axe. He was able to separate his problems: 1) The basement was flooded, 2) There was an OSHA violation in the ceiling, 3) His prospective in-laws might be idiots, 4) His half-idiot child (or anyone else) could be killed or injured by (2). He solved (2) and (4) first by removing the axe. He developed a strategy for dealing with (3), that being going out in the world and performing a feasibility study to see if he could find superior breeding stock for the theoretical child he had just theoretically saved. He tabled (1) as not immediately addressable. Or perhaps he delegated it to the other three, clot-headed as they might have been, assuming any idiot could get a basement dried out. (Shaky logic, that.)
I compartmentalize first by protecting one of my most precious commodities, my leisure time. I have standing items on my daily “to do,” list, including three 15-minute sessions of reading. Yes, I set a timer. There are three 20-minute sessions of writing or editing. This blog entry is being written during one of them, as the timer ticks away. (It just went off.) I allow, non-timed, but often with video accompaniment, 15-20 minutes for yoga or physical therapy. (Because, for months now, my left leg has had a pain in every joint imaginable.)
Getting these things done is important to me, and they comprise pretty much the only time during my day when I’m not either mentally engaged on a task, or being pulled in fifteen different directions by friends and co-workers who need my attention. I’m not complaining, really. Being in-demand says to me that I’ve got knowledge and abilities people need, which they don’t see others as having. And that’s just the way I want it. I suspect that’s the way you wanted it, too.
And I don’t read the full 45 minutes every day, or spend the full hour writing and editing. Nor do I, every day, manage to fit in exercise time. But they’re always on my list, and they’re always priorities.
Another hint I gave my friend, if you decide to do something which should be relaxing, like watching a movie or TV show, don’t make a habit of also working. Yes, I’ll put on a TV show while I clean my office. But, if watching something is part of your relaxation time, then that’s not the time to edit a story, tweak the project plan, or do your taxes. I do play solitaire or do Sudoku on the iPad, but that’s to keep my hands busy.
Finally, I learned a trick a long time ago now: keep lists. Everything goes on the list. You don’t have to remember it, because it’s written down. You can shuffle the list as needed (I do it a few times a day) for priority’s sake. But, if you don’t get the 13th thing on the list done today, it will be there tomorrow. Stress builds up because you’re worried that you’ll never get to everything on the list.
You told me long ago that it was better to die with things undone, than to not have enough to do. So I tell myself not to worry how long the list is.
Mostly, I don’t.