When I visited the medium in Florida last month, the last thing she said to me was, “You need to relax. You spend too much time stressed out, and it causes you problems. You really need to try to relax.”
That was hardly a mind-blowing thing for a medium to say, because there are an awful lot of overstressed people these days, so statistically it could have been a good guess. And my first reaction was a variant of well, duh. But as I arrived home and settled into my life post-tornado and post-Florida, I realized how much time I spend in a state of anxiety or unease. The first two months of this year culminating in the trip to Florida were the least stressed and least anxious months I’ve had in many a moon. So when I came home and found that my usual and customary work had picked up and that life was returning to the way it used to be, I realized what the effects of that are. I feel as though I wear a kind of heavy cloak or a mask that separates me from the world. And it’s not a protective cloak, either – it’s more something that makes the world seem far away and blunted. And yet the fears are always close, stuck between me and the cloak.
I had the cloak off for a time, and this week has found me under it again, a heavy and awkward burden between me and the richness of the world. I understand it’s a bit ridiculous for a lawyer to have an epiphany that she’s overstressed and anxious and find it profoundly enlightening – I hardly know any lawyers who aren’t – but the last two months stripped all that away, making it clear to me why it’s so difficult to balance that with my creative pursuits. For me, unease is lethal to creativity, halting the quick and endless connections that zing about constantly in my brain when it’s calm and peaceful, and generate the ideas that spill out here. Chronic unease makes my mind more sluggish and less willing to take flight. I don’t think I would’ve realized that on such a gut level without the long break I had. With that realization, I now know I have to patiently remove the cloak of unease, every day, every minute. That’s difficult in a career in which the penalty for lack of perfection is often steep.
There’s a concept in the law called strict liability, in which an actor is held responsible for outcomes without regard to fault. Some of us realize one day that at some unknown point along the way, we started living the entirety of our lives under a self-imposed strict liability standard. This is particularly true for those who have had success in situations in which the odds weighed heavily against them. That success doesn’t deliver the end of anxiety – it just means the standard keeps climbing ever higher. When that happens, a choice is inevitable: unhook yourself from the illusion of endless control and responsibility, or lose yourself in the cloak. This is my project for now, unhooking myself from the illusion that I have much in the way of control in terms of outcomes, and keeping myself out of situations where I’m tempted to indulge in my addiction to that illusion.
Life is short, Toto.