Careful with Coffee: Work, Worth, and Stimulants in the Holiday Season

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It’s that time of year when people start asking me about stimulants. They usually mean something to help them get their work done and let them still have enough energy for a party. I used to walk folks through information on time management and sleep hygiene, point out ways to use caffeine without letting it threaten anyone’s sanity or increase their risk for stroke, and talk about more efficient ways to work. People claimed that these little chats would help, but nobody seemed any happier. I could rant about how we all need more rest, but that’s too obvious to belabor. There was a bigger problem, and I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t see it because I am sucked into the same predicament.

Many of us lean on stimulants. One morning before her coffee, my wife could not recall the name of the character Cam’s husband on “Modern Family,” which is a bit odd because it’s the same name as her husband’s. I’ll be the first to admit I’m more bushy-eyed than bright as an early riser, but most of the people querying me about instant pep are actually plenty busy and productive. An overworked mom, a real big shot at her job and an astounding supporter of children’s sports, closed her eyes and explained that she simply wanted an extra hour of wakeful time with her own thoughts. An award-winning colleague put his face in his hands and mentioned that he needed to rise an hour early to try to get work done so that he might enjoy dinner with his family at night. A world authority on alcohol research forgot to pay his taxes for a couple of years because he was too busy being busy.

Cranking out more work is clearly not essential for these people. They aren’t the folks who won’t be able to pay the rent if they miss their third shift of the day. But, like a lot of us, they carry some odd sense that if working is good then more work must be better– as if the busy bee who gets the most work done is the proudest, cheeriest, most valuable citizen of Earth. But no matter how many energy drinks, no matter how much Adderall ®, there’s always another word to write or dish to wash or plant to tend. Somebody else might have mowed one more lawn or sold one more widget.

The core issue is a thought that bounces in many a mind: your work is your worth. Victor Frankl usually gets credit for the idea, but in his classic text Man’s Search for Meaning, his point was quite the opposite: Your work is not your worth. When you read it, you got a glimpse of how you feel about it. Whatever that little voice inside your head said is particularly informative. “I know I’m more than just my work,” is a nice reflex, but the next word is usually “but.”

Our actions speak so much louder than the words that it doesn’t really matter. Let your mind say whatever it wants, then pat it on the head. Dr. Frankl sent the point home in a memorable description of his time in a concentration camp. One day when he was so sick that even the Nazis knew he couldn’t work, he and 70 others got to huddle around each other on boards, relishing the thought of the scrap of bread and watery soup they’d get that day. Ah! To lie around in an earthen hut and get fed without doing anything! The tale puts my troubles in perspective, but there’s more to it. At that moment, knotted in a tortured jumble of bodies, he knew, he genuinely believed, that he sure as hell wasn’t his work.

Perhaps we could endure considerably less to believe the same. Understanding the idea conceptually is a first step toward making it a core belief. Maybe my phone could have a little reminder: Your Work is Not Your Worth. We could come up with a way to pronounce the acronym: YWINYW. (I admit, it’s no YOLO.) Then we’d spend time imagining what it would be like to believe it in a trusting, consistent way. What would a YWINYW person do in this situation? How would YWINYW people spend their time?

It’d be difficult at first. We’d have to take a look at what we really value besides work. We’d have to face how we really feel about how we schedule a day. As any stimulant fan can attest, sticking to work alone can organize time. Got a difficult decision ahead? Work instead. Making friends or getting a date too hard? Work. Don’t want to go to the doctor or discuss concerns with a spouse? Work. And after putting all that time in, it’s easy to think that work must be supremely important.

But the fun could begin at any moment. If my work is not my worth, how often can I distract my friends from their work? Which old pals might I contact? What dish might I cook? What song might I learn? What might I ask my kids? How many naps could I sneak into a day? As these new activities pick up speed, the work might take a back seat. The imaginary trophy at the end of eons of work might look a little duller and smaller, which is probably a lot closer to the truth. Few people relish cuddling up with their work for long. Nobody’s work consistently warmed a death bed.

So what’s so important that it requires a snorted Ritalin to do? What job is so grand that it’s worth becoming addicted? Nothing. Let’s start acting like it. Who knows, we might start believing it. And from there, anything can happen. Except, perhaps, more work.

For previous Ladybud Magazine articles about stimulants, click here.

Photo Credit: hthorg under public domain via Pixabay