Lovely Nonsense

You may have noticed a current trend to talk about the importance of “self-care” for busy people—and lawyers are very busy people. The core idea of this is that we must take care of ourselves in order to successfully care for our clients, our families, and our communities. For quite a while, I thought all of that was lovely nonsense—I had a “to do” list as long as my arm and I just didn’t have time for that sort of thing. My reasoning (faulty as it was) went something like this: There was serious work to be done, a lavender-scented bubble bath wasn’t going to get any of it accomplished, and the measure of my worth was calculated in the amount of tangible work done in a day.

I operated this way despite the overwhelming consensus of highly-credible research that has found—over and over again—that constant work and worry leads to unhealthy levels of stress, which is, in turn, linked to just about every physical ailment known to plague modern man, including heart disease, obesity, and depression. You’d think that as members of a fact-driven profession, lawyers would be better about acknowledging these hard realities. But my work ethic contains a strong Puritanical streak, and the idea that down time is wasted time is very Puritanical.

I hate the Puritans.            

This winter, the local arts society held a “true beginner” class where, for a single Saturday morning, participants worked with watercolors—something I hadn’t done since the days of elementary school and dollar store paint sets. Intrigued, I decided that I could allow myself one morning.

While my attempts were objectively pretty awful (my boulder was mistaken for a porcupine by a Facebook friend), I was struck by how much fun it was to do something I wasn’t very good at doing. The pressure was off – no one expected my daubings to be anything other than attempts.

Feeling a sense of lightness that I hadn’t felt in a very long time, I stopped at a craft store on the way home and bought an inexpensive set of watercolor supplies and started searching through YouTube for beginner-level tutorials. I’ve painted nearly every day since, and while my efforts have gotten more polished, my greatest accomplishment is in consistently trying something new that I’m doing just to do it.

One thing about watercolors that appeals to me is that the paint dries so very, very quickly. That works for me—I can’t multi-task when I paint. Instead, I must concentrate on the one single thing I’m trying to do. In nearly every other aspect of my life, I’m doing multiple things at once, but when I paint, I. Just. Can’t. Do. That.

I lost something valuable when I decided that hobbies were frivolous. Lawyers as a whole aren’t good at hobbies—it goes against our competitive grain. We don’t want to play golf; we want to be the best on the course. Fresh out of law school, I once told a prospective employer that I didn’t want to learn things; I wanted to know them. At the time, I was quite proud of that attitude, believing it to be a strength. With 17 years in recovery, I now know quite differently. It’s a strength to be curious and to be willing to try new things, especially without expectations of immediate mastery.

I’m far happier now than I was before I began routinely carving out time to paint, and it’s far more pleasant to wake up thinking about what I’d like to paint after work today than to begin my day mulling over my “to do” list. Starting my day this way sets me up to be kinder, more patient, and—yes—more efficient throughout the day.

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