Ask JKE is our monthly advice column written by Jackie Kai Ellis. Submit your questions anonymously here.
How do I get over feeling guilty for not being motivated to do more with my life other than being still? For the past couple of years, I’ve been dealing with the cornerstones of my life crumbling. My marriage ended in deep betrayal; I was living overseas and ended up leaving my job to move back to a city I have not called home in a decade. I spent two very dark and difficult years just really trying to exist without wanting it all to be over. Combine that with COVID and life has been very strange.
I’ve only started to feel in 2021 that the ground beneath me has stopped breaking apart. I stopped trying to run away from where I was and accepted being here. However, I’m acutely aware that the life I’m living right now is very different to what was, and in many ways I feel like a lesser version of myself because I’m not working. I really don’t want to jump into something out of fear or worry, yet I’m also not very motivated to pursue work. All I want to do is enjoy my time, languish about, go for walks, watch the sunset from my balcony, and connect with friends. Part of me is loving this time, yet I can’t ignore the voice that speaks with worry and guilt about not getting on with life. Am I letting myself go too far with wanting to be still?
-Still Standing Still
Dear Still Standing Still,
You’ve been dealing with so much pain, change, sadness, and grief. I remember my own agonizing times—the pain was visceral. My nerves fired across my skin; my stomach felt so empty that it wrenched. And between the crying, I slept, I lived, and I slept again.
The aching monotony of struggle started breaking with little moments of deep joy, and then deep gratitude for that joy. Living started to feel somehow more alive again. For me, it was small—just noticing the color of the sky or the warm way the sun felt on my face as I was walking down a busy street, coming out from behind a shadow. I would stand still, enjoying it for a moment before walking on.
You seem exhausted, and rightfully so. The pandemic alone has worn us down with so much daily turmoil that we’ve become accustomed to the hum of anxiety. Adding to this, many were already in the midst of tragedy when the pandemic began, or were forced to confront their worst pains while in isolation. For you, everything you knew to be true and secure—that you knew of your life—is now gone. I imagine that you not only had to grieve the life you lost, but also the future you had planned for. So it is understandable that you would just want to sit still, take a breath, and more importantly, enjoy these moments after such an arduous climb. I would expect nothing less.
You also seem incredibly strong and resilient, because when the ground beneath you stopped breaking apart, you chose to let light in. Hope requires a great amount of courage.
Yet, I understand this sense of guilt and fear. My family experienced poverty and starvation over generations, so they taught me what they knew about how to survive. Even now, I have to fight the deeply ingrained belief that if I am idle, I will be doomed to poverty. I grew up believing that unless I used my time resourcefully towards something practical or ambitious, I was a waste. As time went on and I was praised for my work ethic and ambition, it became a part of my identity—so much so that a few years ago, when I found myself depleted and unable to conjure ambition, I felt naked and lost. I desperately needed to be still but felt guilty, as if there was something wrong with me for needing and wanting it.
Owing to the hard work of my family, I didn’t need to fear for my survival the way they did. Instead I needed stillness; I needed to accept that my body was learning skills for a different kind of survival. You may be there now, too.
Guilt often comes from a sense of obligation. If we don’t act in the way that has been defined as acceptable in our worlds, we begin to fear that who we are is unacceptable, too. It can cause us to shame ourselves, deny our dreams, and even ignore our basic needs. We push outside of ourselves simply because we haven’t asked the questions: where did this fear come from? Is it real? And to whom am I obliged?
We do all have obligations, and many of those are healthy and necessary. That you are so worried about stillness leads me to believe that you are already making intelligent and responsible choices for your life.
I used to say that nothing made a pastry taste worse than guilt. I think it is this way with stillness and healing, as well. Guilt can put us on a proverbial hamster wheel: even though our legs are doing the motions, we might end up in the same place, but even more tired.
Give yourself a set amount of time to be guilt-free. Whether it be a week, a month, or a year, you decide what feels responsible and exciting, then give yourself a holiday from the shame and fear.
Recognize that healing takes time, that we don’t control it all, and that we can’t push ourselves through every part of it. Be kind and compassionate to yourself. Recognize where you’ve been and notice where you want to go. Let yourself rest and enjoy the sunsets and connect with your friends—because life is full of hills, so we might as well enjoy the moments we’re given along the way.
Lastly, stillness is a privilege that my family didn’t have, and that many don’t have. It’s an incredible gift that was given to me so that I could not only survive, but learn what it meant to thrive. So don’t waste this enormous opportunity on something as limiting as guilt.