Discover more from My Sweet Dumb Brain
The pleasure of discipline; the discipline of pleasure
I heard what I wanted to hear — not what I needed to hear.
A few weeks ago, I took a mid-morning break from work to walk around the neighborhood. I was strolling at a good clip while listening to a podcast, as I often do, when the guest made a comment that caused me to slow down. She was talking about the discipline of pleasure — of forcing yourself to stop working, to relax, to be in the moment, no matter how hard or uncomfortable that could be. Having to find discipline in pleasurable things resonated with me: I’ve long found a weird sort of pleasure in discipline — in getting shit done, in being productive, in crossing yet another item off one of my many to-do lists. But the flip side? That was harder.
I paused the podcast and my walk long enough to jot down a mantra to remember: The pleasure of discipline; the discipline of pleasure.
Like so many things in life, I thought, they balance each other out. Both approaches — together — make a life worth living.
That walk was one of the few breaks I took in the week leading up to a three-day conference I was orchestrating. I was responsible for a significant portion of the work: writing speeches for notable folks; assigning behind-the-scenes tasks to team members; building slideshows; finalizing the agenda; and making sure everything stayed on schedule. I was responsible for details upon details, and because I was doing this work as a contractor, I didn't have as many options for delegating the workload to others.
By the time the event rolled around, I was beat — but also wired from all the adrenaline of planning. The eve of the conference, I had a fitful night of sleep. The next morning, I dragged myself out of bed far earlier than I wanted to, tired but ready to put all of my careful planning into practice.
My newfound mantra served as a drumbeat getting me through each busy day. The conference was chock-full of both pleasure and discipline — the satisfaction of seeing all my hard work fall into place; the benefit of once again meeting with colleagues I admire in person; the trial of 12-hour days. Before the event even began, I already had my eye on the prize of it being over. I had plans to take the following two days off from work, prioritizing pleasure just like that mantra told me I should.
The conference was a success. I returned home, eager to enjoy my well-earned time off. The first day, I did a lot of lazing around on the couch and also organized my daughter’s latest influx of hand-me-down clothes (organizing is an activity some people might find disciplined, but one I largely find pleasurable). I also spent my free time thinking about what I’d do the next day. Go to a museum? Treat myself to a long lunch? See a movie? All I knew was that I would choose something that brought me pleasure — and write about it here in this newsletter.
The next day, I woke up sick. The day after that, I tested positive for COVID.
My Sweet Dumb Brain wouldn’t exist without the generosity of readers. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
A funny thing happens when I have a clear idea of what I’d like to write about. The thing I planned to document never works out exactly like I envisioned. Just as journalists are advised not to go into an interview assuming how it will turn out, it seems that folks who write about their own lives shouldn’t make assumptions about what experiences and lessons they’ll be sharing.
I knew — ever since I took that pre-conference walk — that I wanted to write about the pleasure of discipline and the discipline of pleasure. I figured I’d get through a few pleasurable days of work, then treat myself to a few disciplined days of time off. I figured the relaxing side of things might be harder for me, like it always is. But the struggle would be worth it. I’d have some great insights to share!
Of course, reality was more complicated than that. By Sunday morning, the time I’d typically be working on a newsletter draft, I was in bed with a fever, chills, and an extreme level of exhaustion I hadn’t felt in a long time. I couldn’t even muster up the energy to write a short post announcing that I’d be taking the week off. Not long after I tested positive for COVID, my daughter and partner got sick too. It was like a slow-rolling train wreck in our house, each person eventually becoming sick and grumpy and sick of being grumpy.
Our week, normally centered around work and preschool schedules, was quickly thrown off course. We stayed home. We canceled plans. We put up out-of-office messages. We missed our friends and the playground. We found whatever fun and entertainment we could.
On a normal week, the pleasure of discipline is the part of the equation I’m good at. But this past week, with a foggy head and flagging energy, there was nothing to be disciplined about except resting. Friends texted offers for help and reminders for the days ahead: “Sounds like a week for movie marathons and pizza in front of the tv!”
So we did just that, and all the resting (and movies and pizza) paid off. Yesterday, my daughter returned to preschool. I returned to writing this newsletter. And, weeks after I first encountered it, I returned to that podcast episode, eager to hear the phrase I’d been repeating in my head.
Friends, THAT MANTRA WASN’T THERE. I found the episode transcript and, while writer and activist adrienne maree brown did indeed talk about the discipline of pleasure, she didn’t say anything about finding pleasure in discipline. I made that up! I heard what I wanted to, then tucked it away in my pocket, repeating it to myself as I trudged through hours of conference planning.
I heard what I wanted to hear. Not what I needed to hear — which was simply the importance of prioritizing pleasure, rest, recovery.
As far as I can tell, I was among the very few people to catch COVID at that small conference. I’m convinced I was more susceptible to it because of how stressed I was. I was running low on sleep and my immune system was likely depleted. (I also unwisely postponed getting my updated vaccination until after the event.) I was disciplined in how much work I got done to prepare for that conference, but way past the point of pleasure. And the consequences of all that overwork were pretty high.
Before the conference had ended, before I started to feel the first signs of illness, before I had a chance to take a deep sigh of relief, I had already mapped out what I’d say about the experience. Instead of letting myself live it, I tried to orchestrate it. That’s a surefire way to miss being in the moment.
During the week of isolation with my family, there was no plan to follow. There was only moment after moment at home. I was amazed at how many new activities we came up with to while away the hours. When I think back to our second bout of COVID, I will remember how sick and frustrated we were. I also hope I will recall the unexpected bright spots: the empty oatmeal canister turned brightly colored drum; the picnics in our backyard; the books scattered throughout the house, stepping stones for hopping from room to room; the tiny hand on my face followed by a tiny voice: “mom, I love you.” And, yes, the movie marathons and pizza in front of the tv.
Ultimately, I don’t think “the pleasure of discipline; the discipline of pleasure” is a bad concept. But both sides need to be honored. When I discovered that I made up the first half of that mantra, another saying popped into my head: If you think you know the lesson before you’ve lived it, you don’t yet know the lesson.
For me, this week is one of rest, recovery, and, yes, pleasure. I will be returning to work, slowly, but with lots of breaks, walks, and enjoyment sprinkled throughout. Whenever I get sick, I’m reminded how fragile we all can be — and how enjoyable life is when you’re back feeling healthy. I need to honor that. To live it. And to not assume what I’ll learn before it happens.