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The Persistent Optimist | When Full Feels Like Empty

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I woke up today with aching hands, a line of hot tension snaking down from my neck to my fingertips. Why am I in pain? I asked dumbly, while my neurons felt like gravel rocks being shot out of ancient iron cannons between my synapses. These are telltale signs that I’ve been working hard. Too hard, perhaps, to be sustainable, but not “in the fields” hard; not building things with my bare hands or sweating under hot sun—and so I tend to discount it. Ignore the aches and the burning sensation at the base of my skull until at last my body protests in the only language it has, the only one that gets my attention: pain. And pain in the very parts I use most to work.

There is a state of being I’ve come to identify as “a fullness that feels like emptiness.” Too much work or stress or pushing yourself wears you down, bit by bit. So you may be “full” of ideas, and work, and plans, your calendar, your social life, your time, but it’s an over-fullness, your human animal can’t sustain it, and it leaves exhaustion in its wake.

I am guilty of not practicing what I preach from time to time, of not taking enough breaks, of saying yes to too many things and believing that it all must get done now, rather than pacing myself. I’m guilty of turning away friends, and even my own child, to stay immersed in a level of work that isn’t even healthy.

So I’m grateful to my hands for their alert. The last time I ignored the signs of burnout, I came down with Scarlet fever.


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I think my hands are trying to remind me that it’s summer, with its audacious blue skies and cacophony of blooming flowers outside my windows—my favorite time of year, whose beauty I’ll be lamenting around the darkening gloom of winter. When I take my notebook out to my garden with intent to write, I wind up watching the fat black carpenter bees pollinate my squash blossoms, ethereal white moths flitting amongst my green beans. What gets my attention is not words, but clouds and cawing scrub jays, the whip of hummingbird wings, my cat’s lazy paws at my ankles—these are far more compelling than work. I’ve spent more than a year deep into my keyboard, writing books, writing articles, laboring until I swear I can feel my brain giving off heat at the base of my neck like a circuit about to blow. And there’s always more calling on me, but not so much time to savor these moments that summer has graced me with, the feeling of sun gold warmth on my shoulders, the strange sweetness in the air, the gangly, still-babyish nature of my seven-year-old, who still wants to spend time with me.

There is always a to-do list looming in our lives, a litany of “should” calling on us all, tempting us like an evil wizard away from the very important work of just being.

Let’s not wait until we’re in pain to remember to take a gentle stroll with our loved ones; to gather up our still-tiny children; to hold hands with our spouses, or take a friend out for a glass of wine. Join me in filling yourself up the proper way: with experience and silence, warm summer sun, and pausing. There’s always going to be time to hop back onto the harried wheel of busy. For now, let’s remember to take advantage of these moments between the hurry.

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About Jordan Rosenfeld (41 Articles)
Jordan is Managing Editor of Sweatpants & Coffee. She is author of the novel Forged in Grace, and three other books. Jordan’s essays and articles have appeared or are forthcoming in such publications as Brain, Child, Modern Loss, The Nervous Breakdown, The New York Times, Ozy, ReWire Me, Role/Reboot, The Rumpus, Publisher’s Weekly, San Francisco Chronicle, The St. Petersburg Times, Washington Post, Word Riot, Whole Life Times, Writer’s Digest magazine and on The California Report, a news-magazine produced by NPR-affiliate KQED radio.

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