I am increasingly unable to bear the crushing anxiety that bears down upon me nightly. It is the reason for the insomnia and daily nightmares. I am in a constant state of fear and guilt. Guilt arising from any form of idleness. In Singapore being hardworking is equivalent to being a saint and the opposite is equivalent to being the devil incarnate.
I have been the hardworking one, the workhorse, to the point where I became a workaholic and now I admit to getting a ‘high’ with the more punishing schedule I had. But that was when I had bosses who appreciated the work I did. When I had horrible work environments where this level of non-stop work was demanded, with dismal compensation it became equivalent to modern day slavery. I then decided that the bullying had gone too far and I quit. It was the last straw on the camel’s back when I was constantly being measured by whether I stayed in the office every day till 10pm and being afraid to leave the office any sooner than 7pm knowing that I was being watched. It was not a life that could be sustained. Even a machine would have broken down. On top of that, having to deal with the politics and bullying was more than I could take.
But people heard this story, they asked if I was crazy as it was the peak of the recession and they had the audacity to say that I was weak and should have been stronger as it is this way everywhere. So if everyone is getting bullied, you should just accept it? I find this line of argument very frustrating. And I knew of people (myself included) who were happy in their vocations, not only loving what they do, but having a healthy work environment, kind colleagues and bosses who motivated rather than demotivated them. So there was hope and no need to settle. I was lucky, as I could afford to do so at that point. Otherwise I honestly would have been heading towards a nervous breakdown.
Today, even not quite idle but unprofitable activities are condemned in my mind. I have been socialized to think this way, even though deep down I feel it is unfair. I know I’m being too hard on myself, but I can’t shake this feeling of guilt that I am an unproductive member of society, being unemployed and not earning the bucks.
I have been asked “Why are you so useless” by people I thought were my friends when they found out I was unemployed. It was when I found out who my real friends were. Others were not so cruel, but the looks they gave me were enough to wither me away. That has just made me increasingly withdraw from society and all the reminders of what a failure I am. In my mind I am constantly berating myself for being a failure.
You see, it’s been drummed into me since I was little that idleness was a bad thing. As a seven year old child in primary school, I was shamed for not being able to spell the word Eleven. The teacher made me stand up and berated me. “Didn’t you study hard enough” I stammered that “I forgot” and she cruelly replied “Do you forget to eat? Do you forget to bathe?” The intention was to shame and it worked.
Since then I have had many similar encounters in the education system. All these worked towards forming my current psyche.
My partner, seeing my distress, pointing out Betrand Russell’s In Praise of Idleness. It’s amazing that this was written more than 80 years ago, but is so applicable today. Further enquiry led me to this haven of a blog which has adopted the same name. If you’re distressed, just looking at the pictures can be a form of relaxation.
From Bertrand Russell, below are some quotes that resonated with me and I wish our Singapore society would put the brakes on our accelerating need to produce more and more at the detriment of the mental health of the ordinary working person. It’s no wonder that I increasingly hear of people in Singapore committing suicide, just to end the pain. If society was not so judgemental and quick to condemn, they may not have felt as bad, and this is the very reason I write this post even though I hesitated and it makes me uncomfortable to lay everything bare. There is also a huge stigma against mental illness which makes the problem worse and results in people not wanting to seek help. I hope in a tiny way, writing this helps someone out there, to know they are not alone in their despair. The other day outside a church I saw a poster calling out to the stressed to seek refuge in god. In Singapore I think this would appeal to so many. I hope it raises awareness that Work Life Balance should not just be something nice for HR to spew and not actually implemented in our constantly being pushed and squeezed towards higher productivity and perfection. Being convinced that we have to as we have no natural resources and only people as resources. I am not convinced on that and would rather see us reach towards Gross National Happiness as Bhutan has done, than GDP. One day I hope they realise this truth – happy workers produce the best work. You just need to trust and respect them.
1. Leisure is essential to civilization, and in former times leisure for the few was only rendered possible by the labors of the many. But their labors were valuable, not because work is good, but because leisure is good. And with modern technique it would be possible to distribute leisure justly without injury to civilization.
2. Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins… In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?
3. If the ordinary wage-earner worked four hours a day, there would be enough for everybody and no unemployment — assuming a certain very moderate amount of sensible organization.
4. There was formerly a capacity for light-heartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency. The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake.
5….there will be happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia. The work exacted will be enough to make leisure delightful, but not enough to produce exhaustion.