Yes, you read that right. You are not behind. I don’t care how many things you have left to do. I don’t care what your boss says. I don’t care that you wish you were further ahead on whatever path you are treading, the idea that we’re all in a race is a lie. We’re not all going to the same place anyway. What matters is where you are right now. Go outside and breathe and look at the flowers. They are not behind, just because this winter was cold than the last and they are later than they were last year. The flowers are right on time and so are you. This post started as a love letter to myself, but in case you needed to hear it too, let me say it again: you are not behind.
What do we really mean when we say we are behind? I think it is mostly one of three things.
The first is that we have not met some external standard we think we should have met. To take a trivial example, I’m turning 40 in a few weeks (yay, impending cronehood!) and I’ve never been married. Lots of my peers have been or are married. Am I behind in life? Who gets to decide if I am behind or not? If I don’t think I am behind, then am I? Here, the questions to ask are, why does this matter to me (or even, does it matter to me?)? Why do I think my life would be better (as opposed to different) if I had this thing? In my case, I don’t feel like not being married makes be behind, although at some points in my life I have. I strongly believe that human lives can take many different paths, all of which can be equally beautiful and valid.
The second reason why we may feel behind is that there are real barriers that prevent us from doing things that we care deeply about and want to do. In this case we can acknowledge the circumstances, societal injustice and systemic barriers that block or delay us from reaching our goals without accepting the premise that taking longer means anything bad about us. A lot of universities require students to repeat whole years of study if they need to take time off due to illness or disability. This means ill or disabled students often take longer to complete their degrees than able-bodied students. That doesn’t mean these students are behind their able-bodied peers due to any fault of their own, it just means that there are systemic barriers to them completing their degrees. In this kind of situation, we can accept whatever is blocking us from what we want to do (be it disability or systemic barriers) without necessarily liking it. But we can still accept ourselves as we are. We are still doing the best we can do. We are still not behind.
This is a lesson I have learned grudgingly. I believed for a long time that I should be further ahead with my career and so I ignored everything that my body was telling me and put up with being in significant amounts of pain. But the thing about bodies is that we can only ignore them for so long. What I now accept is that when I am ill, I cannot work. I can make my body sit in front of a computer for eight hours, sort-of, but the result is more pain and fatigue. When I override the needs of my body, because I think I am behind, I end up having to rest for longer. When I notice fatigue and pain in my body and I let myself rest, I recover quicker. By doing less and tending to my needs without the worry that I am falling behind, I end up doing more of the work that matters. When I believe there is enough time to rest and I rest when I need to, I make fewer mistakes, I get more done in less time.
In the third and possibly most common case, the key question to ask is: why have I not done/am not doing this thing? Why do I think I should do this? Do I really want to do it? Do I have the capacity to do it right now? I had planned to write this post yesterday, but my body wasn’t cooperating, so I rested instead. If my brain had had its way yesterday, though, then even though I was feeling unwell I would have written a blog post, read three whole books, cleaned the house, done a yoga session, walked my dog for several hours, watched a film, studied for a couple of hours, absorbed everything I studied and knitted a sleeve. In reality I read one chapter in a book, started a blog post, tried to watch a film and fell asleep. My brain tends to wildly overestimate how much I can get done in a day and then interpret not meeting its own standards as being “behind”. But there are so many things I want to do or read or watch or make. More than a single lifetime’s worth. If I look at it that way, I will always be behind.
My solution has been to stop looking at things that way, by which I mean actively preventing the thought “I am behind” from gaining traction in my brain. I still think I’m behind. The sentence “I am behind” forms in my brain often. But when it does, I more often than not recognise it for what it is – a sentence in my brain. Even if it is a sentence that comes to my brain from someone else’s brain –say my boss sends an email containing the words “you are behind”– I don’t have to make it mean that I am behind. My boss always wants me to do more than we agreed and to do it faster, because they profit from my labour. Even if they are a nice boss, they think this, because this conditioning lives in us all. I, too, always want to do more, because I live in a society wherein doing more and pleasing other people are considered virtues. I am still unhooking from the capitalist ideology that I need to justify my existence by constantly hustling and producing. Recognising and naming these things over and over gradually loosens their grip. Our thoughts are like fairy tale monsters – knowing their names is a powerful protective magic, and reduces their power over us, but like with many demons, we need to commit to naming them over and over.
One way to build trust with ourselves that we are not in fact behind is to get really clear on what our priorities actually are. Let’s take housework as an example. I grew up believing that in order to have an acceptably clean home, you had to vacuum and dust several times a week and always remove laundry from the line as soon as it was dry and a bunch of other tasks, many of them involving Brasso. As an adult living alone and commuting daily for work, I found myself faced with the choice of cleaning multiple times a week or having spare time for things that bring me pleasure and rest, which for me are reading or knitting. I used to panic every time my mother came to visit because I thought she would magically intuit that I was behind with my cleaning. And each time she stepped through my door I would apologise for my home being “filthy” and each time she would say how clean it looked. After many years of beating myself up and feeling behind I decided a bit more dirt and my mother possibly having some judgemental thoughts were an acceptable price for having more rest and pleasure in my life.
Ultimately, telling someone that they are behind (whether it is oneself or someone else) achieves nothing. It is simply a form of arguing with reality. It doesn’t change where someone is or what they have or have not done, and it creates the kind of emotions that keep everyone involved stuck. I wonder how much would change if every time we thought someone (including ourselves) was behind, we asked them what was going on, what they wanted and needed in this moment, how we could support each other in getting to our common goals? What would change if instead of entertaining the idea that we are behind, we asked ourselves what we wanted to do next, instead of what we should do to catch up? I wonder.