By Iain Espey
Vacation as we know it arose parallel to the tuberculosis sanatorium. Whether one took the waters or sunbathed at a brisk altitude, 100-odd years ago, programs of rest and recuperation at resorts and mineral spas were but a step removed from the best available treatments for long-term lung disease. Even if you weren’t a hopeless consumptive, a retreat to the seaside or the mountains had health as its primary rationale, and secondarily, it served the bourgeois idea of travel as self-cultivation, a leftover from the eighteenth century. Today, our reasons for vacationing are much the same: physical pleasure, cultural engagement, family commitments. Above all, we look to vacation to alleviate the built-up stress of the day-to-day, spitting us out happier, healthier and less stressed than when we left. As students, we’re particularly blessed by this most recent period of enforced convalescence, spring break.
I, for one, am poor at de-stressing. Last summer, I set myself a date halfway through the month I spent at home, which was to mark the end of my allotted days of torpor. Until that day, I bore no responsibility to anyone, least of all myself. Life was only for lounging. I banished the specter of productivity as best I could, but before long, saw it arising again in the approach I took to each leisure-game I attempted. Reading a book became staying in this precise spot until I’ve finished fifty pages or more. Likewise, lying out on a chaise lounge in the garden gave way to assessing the most efficient chair positions for working on my tan. Each night, I prepared increasingly complicated dinners for my family, regularly spending upwards of two hours in the kitchen. In short, I was tilting toward the pathological.
Absent external influences — except partly for the implied injunction of vacation itself, to relax — I came to see all I did as goal-driven. What sort of rest is that? When the day came to tackle my longstanding to-do list, I was restored in body only, and in that, only barely. This was, to some extent, an inevitable outcome of my personality. I’m drawn to extremes of experience and intensity of feeling. Everything is always all-or-nothing. I like my dogs large and my pasta al dente, and find moderation hollow in those who don’t also probe their own upper bounds of both self-indulgence and self-denial. No wonder unwinding doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m my own antagonist!
In the deep of winter quarter, my wages looked the same no matter what I did: burnout. Feelings of burnout can’t be definitively dealt with in an afternoon and are by nature a can for kicking down the line. Still, I set aside spring break to make some progress on that front. As I cozied into a fancy-schmancy cabin in Tahoe with my best friends, I set myself modest goals for my round of spiritual exercise. This time, I told myself, I’d learned. I was determined to have a truly unstructured few days, not to slip up by fulfilling or accomplishing anything. I watched sunsets and the snow, played Tekken 2 and had a bath. Each activity was harder than anticipated, as at the pause between them I found myself terrorized by the desire to be productive. Nothing needed doing, yet I couldn’t relinquish the feeling that I should be doing something.
If this is de-stressing, I thought, it isn’t for me. I concluded, in error, that a day of rest is merely a day for turning one’s attention to a slightly different set of projects, not a holiday for my attention itself. The spirit — or mind, if you prefer — doesn’t sleep even when it languishes. In simpler terms, I mistook my inability to relax for proof that I didn’t need to relax in the first place. Like an insomniac whose belief both predicts and causes his staying awake, I ensured my failure at de-stressing precisely by attempting to de-stress as efficiently as possible. It’d certainly be easier for us if we were blind to the motivational games we play with ourselves. As it is, their brute power derives from the fact that at some level we consciously participate in them as both victim and victor.
I made a methodological error too. In an appallingly obvious round-hole-square-peg situation, I tried using means I knew of managing stress — planning, evaluating, sweating the details — to organize my de-stressing maneuvers. How can one hope to de-stress if neither by trying nor by not trying? What I need — and I’m guessing you do too — is the tao of Zhuangzi’s Cook Ding, mastery beyond skill in cognitive communion with being. All the vacation days in the world aren’t enough to find your way there, but if you need one, spring break is an excuse to try. Lao Tzu points out that a clay vessel is made useful by the empty space it contains, but personally, I’m still not sure what degree of permanent unsettledness I can accept. For now, it’s enough to start the quarter with a new set of questions.
Contact Iain Espey at iespey ‘at’ stanford.edu