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When I hear people sometimes talk about the value of hard work, it seems as if they are talking about some idealized, beautiful concept instead of the grimy, occasionally horrid reality that work can be.
Growing up in the USA, as the daughter of South Asian immigrants, I constantly had impressed upon me the value of hard work. Work as sacred, enshrined in the pantheon of good things, above all things except maybe apple pie. (Note: I love apple pie. It just seems overly exalted. Kind of like work.)
Now don’t get me wrong. I enjoy my work. I like feeling productive, in ways that are meaningful to me. But at some point, in this process of learning, I internalized the idea that taking care of myself was not work. It became relegated to the giant pile of things that weren’t “real” work, like talking to people on the phone, writing birthday cards, keeping up with news and other odds and ends. Something that should be done in one’s spare time, after work.
In fact, I took it a step further. I came to the conclusion that caring for myself was synonymous with avoiding “work” or being lazy or somehow ditching out on the sacred activity of capitalism: working for money or prestige or some related benefit. Somehow, working on my own sanity and self was something that wasn’t worthwhile or needed. Working was more important and by contributing towards someone’s vision of a better humanity, whereas taking care of myself was extra.
This continued for years, despite therapy, affirmational posts, tons of self-help books and a myriad of impromptu speeches from friends and family. One day, sitting around, beating myself up about not doing “work” while I was home, I sat down and made a list of all the things I had done in that day that I had not felt were worthy of being called work. This list included:
- emotional labor educating a privileged person on how they should work to educate themselves
- planning a trip for myself and another person, where I was trying to put in all the leg work as they were too busy doing the work thing
- balancing my checkbook/figuring out my finances and financial goals
- answered work-related emails
- planning my week
- doing a load of dishes
And that wasn’t by any stretch all of it. But somehow, this wasn’t “real” work, even though it took effort, brain power and emotional strength.
Now part of this is my socialization as a South Asian person who was raised with some traditional ideas of what being a woman means and requires as work. (My mom is lovingly feminist, just as a note, but feminism doesn’t guard perfectly against all of the implicit things we are taught as children.) This resulted in me seeing cleaning, remembering birthdays, being a shoulder to others, and maintaining a home as somehow my job, beyond my regular work. It drives me up the wall, cause I am an awesome, unapologetic, third-wave feminist and I’ve always had my mom backing me up on taking care of myself and making sure to put myself first.
And yet somehow, replenishing myself didn’t take on the same importance as taking care of someone else in crisis until I was the one in crisis.
Now, there are incredible amounts of things we could unpack here: emotional labor, femme liberation, socialization, and capitalism. But I am going to choose to focus on one portion that I feel intersects all of these.
Healing is work.
I’m not saying this as a way of justifying or seeking to perpetuate the unhealthy attitudes that exist around work. We see the impacts every day of the choices our society has made in how we value people and their labor. But what I am seeking is to find a middle path towards change in how we care for ourselves, as we seek to unpack our society’s unspoken ideas about work.
Think about healing. It requires guts, determination, a self-awareness about the need, an ability to utilize your strengths and accept your weaknesses as you move towards a goal. What part of that doesn’t sound like a full time job some days? But it's not treated as such and that’s something we need to address, both within ourselves and within our communities.
Why do we beat ourselves into the ground for not being “strong enough” to ignore our trauma or our pain instead of realizing that most of us have never had the time, opportunity or ability to heal from it?
Viewed through the lens of capitalism, our worth is only so much as the money we make. And according to that doctrine, healing “makes” no money, so it is therefore extra, worthless, something only for downtime.
But what if we thought about it differently? What if we considered what healing gives us that is not monetary? What if worth could be more than just money or production?
Healing is valuable work.
When we heal, we are able to be more to each other and ourselves. And not in that way where we say healing is valuable because it eventually makes us good productive workers in a capitalistic system. We become more invested in ourselves, and we have more of ourselves to utilize in the ways that bring joy for everyone, including us.
And what is joy really, but an incredible product that no one can make for us?
When I was exhausted and burnt out, I had no words for tragedy or large emotional states. I had no capacity to feel joy. This is fairly unusual for me, as I’m usually a person known for being sensitive and having a large emotional range.
It took 4 weeks away from work and its ever increasing “utilization requirements” for me to feel joy again in a way that felt like my former self. My face stretched in a smile and it hurt because the muscles hadn’t been used in so long. In those 4 weeks, someone looking at my “production” may have said I created nothing, I did no work. But I would say I created something utterly magical: joy in the world.
A sense of hope, a sense of wellbeing, something that made life feel like more than a grind through an endless factory to end only when I was too “old” or “unproductive” to work anymore. I suspect if I had asked myself to value that feeling, I would have called it priceless.
Joy may make no money, but joy is indispensable to my life.
Joy is part of my purpose for being alive, along with helping others and learning more about the universe. How could it be worth nothing? It's worth is like that of clean, fresh water. Utterly crucial and incalculably valuable, yet not seen as valuable by capitalism because of its inability to be capitalized on. (Water is life.)
Our ideas around work are not central to what makes life worth living. Jobs are jobs, and yes, I deeply enjoy working. Work is deeply meaningful to me. Work can create joy, but only because I take joy in it and in what I create when I work.
When I have lost the capacity to take joy in my work, more work will not solve this problem.
Healing is the only way I could get back to that place and I will continue doing my healing work until I can find a way to work in a capitalist system that doesn’t harm me or make me sick. Each day that I experience internal joy again, even for the briefest moment, feels like the greatest gift I have ever given myself.
I hoard these joyful moments I’ve gained away, knowing that they are brief right now, but they are also a sign of change, hope, and possibility.
Most of the image is white. A brown-skinned femme is pressed against the bottom of the image, face turned towards the camera. Only the top half of the person appears in the photo. Face pensive, eyes closed, they are wearing a long-sleeved black turtleneck, an intricate gold bangle, a couple rings, and a leopard print hijab.
About Seynabou Thiam:
Seynabou (Nanette) Thiam is an African queer artist living in D.C. after 27 years of hopping around the globe. Photography, writing, painting and henna tattooing are a few of her loves. She is also an energetic healer and loves to read the tarot for herself and others. See her artwork at @negrotesque and @twocameracats on Instagram.
About Shivani Seth:
Shivani is a queer 2nd generation Punjabi-American living in the Midwest. Her work and interests include social work, improvisational theater and intersectional activism. Discover more of their writing on Social Work Revolt and Twitter @ShivaniSeth05.