On Down Days

Last week was a pretty down week for me. Both in terms of the emotional energy I pulled out of it and in the amount of mental energy I put into it. I pride myself on rolling through life relatively staidly, coasting through the bumps and bends without taking too much of anything to heart, so it felt strange to have this heaviness hit me and to have to acknowledge that sometimes I can’t just roll out the other side unscathed.

Sometimes you have to sit with emotions. While its more enjoyable to hold on to happiness, I’d suggest its infinitely easier to sit with sadness. Sadness rises up to meet you and you sink into it, and where an emotion like joy needs to be fed and re-fed to maintain itself, sadness tends to feed itself in a self-fulfilling cycle. The sadder you feel the more you feel like retreating, the more you retreat the sadder you feel. I had a very physical response to this emotion, spending five days sinking into the couch with a book and a coffee. At any other period in the last thirty years this would have felt luxurious, but this time it just felt a little lonesome because it wasn’t self-imposed, it was thrust upon me by the wider world.

I think I started feeling sad because I’d planned myself a big period of doing things. I’ve got two weeks off teaching, so I’d made a list of things to do, little realising that having such a large block of free time actually makes productivity harder. I work a ton better in small blocks, give me two hours here to play drums and I’ll sit down and play them, but give me an open three hundred hours and ask me to accomplish something and I tend to falter.

I’ve also realised that a lot of the goals I give myself don’t work well as open-ended activities unless I spontaneously fall upon them. ‘Learn this Tallest Man on Earth song on banjo’ is a good goal that sets up boundaries and expectations. It is time-bound, it is achievable (cough cough hello SMART goals). Once I’ve learnt the song I’ve accomplished the thing and off it gets ticked.

Instead one of last week’s goals was to ‘play banjo’, and play banjo I did, for about twenty minutes on Monday morning, and then I found myself attempting to tick it off the list and beating myself up for both accomplishing something and not accomplishing anything at all.

Compare this to the day where I ate dinner and then retreated to the shed to revamp my website (any thoughts on the new design?). I picked up the banjo to move it to the other side of the room and surreptitiously retuned it in the process. Next thing I know I’d played banjo for two hours. No plan, no goal, no sneaking sense of self-doubt, because I was enjoying the process instead of doing something out of some sense of duty. Strange how the mind works hey? (worth checking out Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book FLOW: The Psychology of Optimal Experience for a deep dive in to why this is a thing)

So I spent this week sitting with my sadness and a vague sense of tiredness and a healthy dose of apathy. By Friday I was slightly itching to accomplish things again, but not quite enough to do anything about it, so I microwaved myself a pizza and watched Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a stunningly emotional film that everyone should watch. It comes with a strong language warning. I followed it up by binge watching the documentary series Chernobyl. I spent most of Saturday listening to Fleet Foxes new album Shore (album of the year), topped it off with a spin through Sufjan Steven’s new album The Ascension, pottered my way through Murakami’s odd short story The Strange Library and by Sunday I was feeling motivated enough to get off the couch and run seventeen km. Back we go to some semblance of normality. 

I guess this is a roundabout way of suggesting sometimes you need to take time off the things you’d planned to fill your days with. It hits a point where if you’re not choosing to do it yourself then the universe will intervene and do it for you. And that’s ok too.

Last week’s version of Fridays with Fridays (Episode 3!) features the fantastic Justin Yap. This is our take on Willie Nelson’s take on Daniel Lanois’ song Cruel Cruel World. Made famous via the soundtrack of Red Dead Redemption 2.


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