Last night I dreamed that I died,
On a thundering, rumbling, aeroplane ride.
Have I lived enough?
Have I left enough behind?
Will I wake into something unkind?
Which side is the dream?
Brought to life with a stifled scream.
That was six months ago. It was one of those rare nightmares that feels very real, unlike those which may be scary but where you can tell it’s just a dream.
Few things are as jarring as losing control in a big metal box 37000 feet up in the sky. Four months ago, on my way home from a lovely holiday in South India, I experienced what felt like a panic attack in the airplane. I’ve never worried about flying before that, and used to quite enjoy it actually. That particular flight though, was frightening, upsetting and exhausting, because I wore myself out trying to just keep calm. Since then, each of the eight flights I’ve been on has been slightly better than the last. Fear, in any situation at all, can be crippling and debilitating. Left unchecked, it can play horrible tricks on our minds.
A few months and a lot of thinking later, I realise that much of what I’ve been going through is deeply connected with serious and unattended-to stress and exhaustion in my life. This is affecting me in unexpected and unpleasant ways. In the last couple of months, I’ve also experienced what felt like mild anxiety attacks, due to exhaustion, lack of proper sleep, and an inability of ‘switch off’ due to being almost hyper alert for long hours.
Admitting that things were not okay was more difficult for me than seeking help. Realising that things were not okay – and that this in itself was not the end of the world?- was also difficult for me. The process of trying to make time to think through why I’m struggling, and the kinds of changes necessary to feel better has helped me learn a few important things. I have shared three of these here.
The first: being in control.
I think my sudden fear of being in the air wasn’t so much about the possibility of plummeting to earth as it was about (my poor aviation knowledge and) accepting not being in charge. Maybe it’s impossible to completely “let go”, but it is possible to accept a situation as it is, with its risks and possibilities. (For instance, I drive every day. Did you know driving is much more dangerous, with more than 5 million accidents per year? compared to 20 accidents in flying? I am 19 times safer in a plane than each time I get in my car. 1 in 2 people die of cardiovascular problems, 1 in 7 million on a commercial plane.)
There’s a fine line between being responsible and being in control. I can recall at least two instances of near breakdowns due to feeling completely overwhelmed, alone, anxious and burnt out. The social sector in India for entrepreneurs can be really difficult. Working with communities living in various states of deprivation, that lack basic amenities and a decent quality of life; and often lack hope and unable to imagine the possibilities for their lives; can be profoundly crushing. This reality of poverty, juxtaposed with so much affluence is frustrating and confusing.
I constantly struggle with having to rationalise to myself and others why I work in the non-profit sector in the first place. At times I feel like a jack of all trades and master of none; the work can be thankless and demoralising; and to make everything worse, our jobs offer less than ideal security or benefits. I also struggle a lot with the responsibilities that leadership entails, and learning how it is different than needing to feel completely in control of a situation. The accountability, strength and resilience you are required to demonstrate, irrespective of what’s going on inside can also be challenging and tiring. A very big part of why I wanted to work in education and in the non-profit sector in the first place was to change precisely this reality and these problems, to make this kind of work viable and aspirational. Ten years ago, when we established our small project, I couldn’t have imagined the shape, size and form it would take today. This gives me immense encouragement every day.
The low lows have also taught me that I have a strong support system in my life, if I reach out for it. I receive love, care and concern from my family, friends and colleagues every day. I have the courage and means to get professional help, if I need it and want it. I feel listened to, and I feel safe to express my fears and vulnerabilities. This may not change the complex reality of different kinds of struggles in my life, but it plays a critical role in keeping them in perspective.
The second : being “busy” is not synonymous with being successful, or things going well, necessarily.
(Whatever your definition of success may be.) Typically, if you’re always just busy, it means you’re doing a terrible job of managing your time, have poor prioritisation abilities, and are probably not doing well maintaining healthy relationships with people around you. (Even if simply in the interest of expanding our vocabularies, learning new adjectives as responses to when someone asks, “How are you?”, or “How’s work?”, would be useful!)
As children, we grow up in an academic culture of doing whatever it takes to be the “best”. Making mistakes is punished. When we become adults, still striving to be the best, we continue to do whatever it takes, at whatever costs, to get ahead of others. And the price of failure grows bigger.
We’ve built and caught ourselves in a trap of unrealistic and imposed expectations, impractical timelines to achieve these unrealistic deadlines and myopic ideas of capitalistic “success” (with a distaste for anyone who thinks of “success” differently). We do all this while cultivating affable and attractive personas that may be deeply disconnected from what we really think and feel. I used to think doing less, taking a break, switching off, admitting I was tired – all these meant I wasn’t doing enough, wasn’t working hard enough, and wasn’t setting a good enough example for others around me.
As leaders of organisations or businesses, managing teams big or small, recognising the wellbeing of our teams is so critical. Most of today’s workplaces, in both the business or nonprofit sectors, demand inhuman hours and outcomes of their employees, and typically don’t even reward them properly.. They reinforce the misguided idea that to be the best, you do whatever it takes, no matter what.
I’m more familiar with the manifestation this takes in the burgeoning world of social start-ups and entrepreneurs. While you would imagine that at least here, those with the ability to break these often exploitative moulds would do so, it’s rarely the case. For many entrepreneurs themselves, the line between work and everything (or anything) else in their lives ceases to exist. While many may claim that they wouldn’t have it any other way and they are completely devoted to their work, chances are, if you scratch just a little under the surface, it is hardly (used rarely above already) ever true.
The third, change begins in our homes and workplaces.
We have a “Feelings” meeting at my office every few weeks now. The first one was funny, uncomfortable, awkward even, but that changed quickly over the weeks. Checking in on how your team is doing, what’s worrying us , what’s going in our lives, helps us to understand one another and to be sensitive and aware in our words or actions. It’s amazing sometimes to learn how much we don’t know about the people we spend most of our time with! Through our work, my team and I are working hard towards initiating various kinds of routines and practices to build a values-oriented culture amongst our teams of teachers and in our classrooms.
Integral to being productive and switched on at work is being switched off at home. Maybe that means tech-free for some time on the weekends, and cultivating other interests and activities outside work. We don’t really live in a 9-5 world, and that’s okay, but finding time to switch off nonetheless is so important.
Food is one of my passions, I love to cook. I also feel happiest when I know my diet is varied and nutritious. I feel most at ease when my exercise regimen is regular. I am trying to find ways to make these everyday habits as important as getting to work. In my recent experiences, I’ve seen how the lack of sleep and being too tired can cause ugly kinds of stress problems, and I’m taking small steps towards pacing myself, and doing only as much as I know my mind and body can.
Things will invariably continue to shake and get bumpy up in the air and down on the ground. And I realize that both are really okay.