you are beloved and worthy of rest
This is the Sunday edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing.
Earlier this week, I did something called an FTP Test. It’s basically a way of maxing yourself out (in this case, on a Peloton bike) for twenty minutes to figure out your “functional threshold power,” which can then be divided into seven zones, which makes it easier to train. Zone 1 is easy, recovery; Zone 2 is the pace you would keep if you needed to bike all day; Zone 3 makes you open your mouth to get enough air; Zone 4 makes is “comfortably uncomfortable,” Zone 5 feels like the air is getting sucked out of your lungs, you can only imagine where Zone 7 is.
Is this wonky and weird? Yes, absolutely. I was never an athlete as a teen, get stressed out by competition, but also enjoy very gradual, very private improvements in strength and endurance. That’s what Power Zone training, as it’s called, makes available. You test, and then you use the results to help you train for the next few weeks. But the test itself stresses me out. I don’t know if it’s because I’m out of test practice or just that I’ve always really dreaded on-demand performance. But I also think it has something to do with what it asks of you: ten to fifteen minutes of really strenuous exertion, and then you’re told to “empty the tank” in the last few minutes.
I understand that this is part of competitive athletics. The end of the game, the end of the race. But when I was re-testing earlier this week, and the instructor told me to access the fumes at the bottom of the tank to push through those final minutes, I remember shaking my head and almost laughing, if you can laugh while you’re about to throw up from exertion. Are you fucking kidding me, I thought, there’s nothing left.
I’d been doing power zone training for weeks in preparation. I’d slept as well as anyone does in a pandemic. I’d hydrated and fed myself. I reached my modest goal for the test, but I’ve found myself returning to that moment, that realization, in those last few minutes. When the tank is empty, it’s empty. You can’t increase your functional threshold power — physically or mentally — when it’s been depleted for months.
A lot of us feel this way in our non-exercise lives: like there’s nothing left to give. You keep going, but the returns diminish, your capacity diminishes, your feeling of control over yourself, your words, your surroundings, every day there’s less of it. So little changes these days, it’s just one test of a day after another.
But here’s the thing about the end of that power zone test: it was a form of catharsis. I recognized it as an extreme, and then I treated my body accordingly. I cooled down, even though it was tedious. I stretched, even though it was boring. I got off the bike, and, with time, I felt great, in part because I allowed myself time and space to recover. I woke up the next morning with a deep, tenacious hunger, and impressed myself with my ride this weekend. I know it’s hokey, but I’m trying to learn something from exercise science when it comes to thinking of rest as work, as essential as any workout.
Even before the pandemic, we lacked these moments of completion, catharsis, and rest. That lack has only become more pronounced now. Any accomplishment or completion (or birthday, or celebration) is muted, quickly subsumed by the next concern. The low-hanging cloud of anxiety, despair, and precarity shades all attempts at rest with even more guilt than before.
I write about this a lot, but I’m not always the best at heeding my own analysis. I still feel that I should try and tap that tank for more, instead of giving myself the gift of space to fill it once again.
So I’m taking the next two weeks off. Email auto-responder, very limited engagement online, lots of time reading immersive thrillers (from here!) and playing double solitaire and, I dunno, laying on the bed and listening to Taylor Swift lyrics like I’m 15. I’m doing it because I need to start January in a place where I’m ready to (co)write a book, but also because I’ve worked nearly non-stop for the last year, and it’s time to rest.
My hope is no matter what you spend your days doing, you can recognize the year for what it has been: testing the absolute limits of your threshold power. It’s time to cool down, whatever that might look like, and find restoration. I know parents are very, very sick of people telling them to “take time for themselves, take a bath, indulge in self-care!!!!” because that’s just not available to them. But there are other roads to rest, and sometimes they look like giving yourself permission to lower your standards (lower the bar, then lower the bar AGAIN), saying yes to a long, meandering telephone conversation with someone who’s important to you, walking by yourself and letting your mind echo in the early morning light, saying no to a gathering or activity that will make you feel like shit, giving yourself space to actually feel what you need to feel, or finding the words to articulate what you actually need.
Alternately, if you’re like me: you really just need to give yourself a fucking break. Whatever you’ve done this year in your personal or professional life, it’s enough.
You are beloved and worthy of rest. Not because of your capacity to work, or your relative capacity to subsist on fumes. You are beloved and worthy of rest because you are human, not a robot. This year has emptied us. Give yourself permission to continue to seek fullness.
Things I Read and Loved This Week:
Chris LaTray on crying
The “prolonged grief disorder” to come
An interesting look at the past/future of the “creator middle class”
I always love Craig Jenkins on T-Swift (in this case, evermore); and here’s one of my favorite country journalists on “Cowboy Like Me”
Tracing the origin of the Sunday scaries
This week’s just trust me
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That Sunday scaries piece is essential reading and I'm sharing it all over the place. It describes what happens when people have little or no agency over pursuit of right livelihood for decades on end. You can have a job that suits your talents, but your time and even your right to occupy a space of your choosing is still profoundly not your own. It's your company's.
Viktor Frankl points out in Man's Search for Meaning that a complete lack of tension or focus is actually bad for people: it was the people who felt they had something to live for, no matter what it was, who typically kept going despite extreme adversity. Too often, workers in capitalist society become so used to having The Job be their focus uber alles that without The Job they don't know what to do with themselves. And so, many older men, in particular, die in their first year or so of retirement.
I'm still grappling with this as a somewhat retired person. I most likely have a couple of months of contract work coming up, which is fine because I can use the extra cash. Sadly, I feel an odd relief that several hours of each day will be hoovered up again. And I regret that I have such a hard time finding meaning in my days that I welcome paid work again.
It's been a turbulent year. I struggled with 2020 as much as everyone else: unemployment, lockdown, depression. Though I'm luckier than most to have landed on my feet again, I am just so, so tired. We deserve this hard earned respite.
Thank you for writing. Here's to a brighter 2021.