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Themes: "Basic" Tasks, Capacity, Shame, Grief
A selection of tangentially-related essays from across Substack that I'm currently pondering.
It’s been a great couple of weeks for me on Substack — I’ve been exploring, going down more recommendation rabbit holes, and subsequently discovering excellent material along the way.
Since there are only so many texted article recommendations I can send before my friends put me on mute… here’s a roundup of some of the recent highlights.
Is “easier” better?
Kate Manne wrote about a phenomenon she’s called the “harder-better fallacy:”
That which is the most difficult to achieve is deemed the most worthy, regardless of its actual desirability or value. Often, this sense of worth has a distinctively moral dimension: it’s hard for most of us to get up at 5am—so there must be something admirable about it. It’s hard for many mothers and other parents to breastfeed or chestfeed—so it must be crucial for their infants’ development and long-term prospects. It’s hard to keep your house beautiful and Instagram-ready at all times: so doing so must make you an all-around better person. It’s hard to stay thin: so doing so must be morally superior.
I’ve thought about this as well, though mostly in relation to ideals of beauty and class. It seems that the “ideal body” is always one that is difficult to attain, requires whatever resources are most scarce, and signals that you’re part of the elite. When inadequate nutrition and outdoor labor were the norm, being pale and voluptuous was considered beautiful. As the scarce or difficult thing changes, so does the “ideal” thing. (Manne talks about weight loss in the second half of the essay, in a very thoughtful way.)
That’s slightly different from what Manne’s proposing with the harder-better fallacy, which is that we consider some things desirable because they’re difficult. As if adversity itself somehow imparts moral value.
I think there’s something important here. And, it feels a bit tricky.
Is “easier” better? Is there a concept adjacent to “harder” but slightly different — “excellence” or an-indicator-that-encapsulates-your-values — that defines “what is better”? Hmm.
Care tasks, limited capacity, and shame
That post led me to KC Davis’s site on Struggle Care: “when everyday care tasks are a struggle.” Pretty much all of this resonated with me, and clearly elucidates a number of amorphous ideas I’ve been playing with. Davis writes:
If your load outweighs your capacity, then you must learn to prioritize which tasks to complete, find easier and more accessible ways of completing them, and still allow yourself time to be "off."
The Six Pillars of Struggle Care are amazing and quite possibly should be framed on my wall. And your wall. And the virtual and real walls of all our companies.
Davis also calls out two facets of overwhelm that I think are really important — one, that no one has unlimited capacity, and two, that an inability to complete “basic” tasks is often a source of immense shame.
She talks about this in terms of the ability to complete care tasks, but I suspect that it extends broadly to whatever tasks you have decided are “basic” for yourself. When you’re the CEO of a company, you might think that “basic” tasks include leading a team and earning a profit, and an inability to do these tasks may cause you shame. There’s something juicy here I’d like to run with, soon.
But wait, do I want to fold laundry?
I’ve also been fawning over Rae Katz’s essay about the importance of a very similar set of tasks, which she calls “life maintenance tasks.” I love the setup to this essay:
I turn the corner into my bedroom and realize with a jolt of annoyance and stress that I have not yet finished folding and cannot fall into bed because it is covered in laundry.
What interests me is that this pattern is the rule rather than the exception. My life is far less scheduled than it used to be, with far more space—a project I have been working on for years—and yet I have not achieved a state where I predict and allow for the amount of time that it takes to fold laundry. To say it differently, I seem to have organized my life under a false and continually disproven assumption that laundry folding can be done in less time than it actually takes.
I’ve been known to answer “what did you do this weekend?” with “I had a life administration weekend,” meaning “I took care of the things that I need to do to exist in this world,” so this essay felt near and dear to me.
These are two of the things I’ve taken to heart in a big way from this essay:
Life maintenance tasks are valuable. Trying to do fewer of them isn’t actually a great goal, and instead, there’s value in dedicating time and attention to the things that we need to do to stay alive.
We shouldn’t use magical thinking to pretend that life maintenance tasks take care of themselves, or don’t require time and energy to complete. They should be planned for, prioritized, and scheduled, just like any other task.
I’m all in, and I think it applies in the world of work, too. I’m prone to believe that “work maintenance” tasks magically fit in between other things and require no attention allocation or room on the calendar. One thing that’s been helping is to schedule a time block for these things… but there’s something here about values and judgment that feels big.
Are care tasks “good”?
Davis says the ability or inability to complete care tasks is morally neutral. Katz says that, assuming you have sufficient capacity to make choices about how you spend your energy and attention, it is worthwhile to devote a portion of your capacity to care tasks. At first glance, these seemed contradictory to me, but now I don’t actually think they’re at odds.
Davis and Katz are both arguing against the kind of magical thinking that leads us to believe that care tasks require no time or energy to complete, and therefore don’t require prioritization. They both propose that explicitly and intentionally prioritizing (or deprioritizing) care tasks — and the capacity it takes to complete them — can help us live healthier, more balanced lives. Katz isn’t saying that care tasks are morally imperative or that outsourcing them is wrong. Instead, she’s proposing that spending time on these tasks “offer[s] a break from other, more fast-paced modes of living, requiring a different type of energy and offering different rewards.”
I like this, and I think it makes sense. Start by acknowledging that these are real tasks that take time and attention. If you can’t complete them — no judgement, no shame. If you are able to complete them, but have the option to outsource them… you may want to consider retaining them as a valuable obstruction that contributes to a balanced life, rather than delegating them to someone else.
Work that “isn’t work”
Speaking of the “less valuable” bits… Jami Attenberg’s recent essay How to Write without Writing” is about the part of writing that’s not “actually doing the writing the words part.” There’s some good stuff there about her approach to character development, but these two sentences jumped out at me:
Occasionally my brain butted up against itself and thought, “I’m not doing real work,” because I wasn’t typing. But then I remembered this was the work I could do right then, and also it was important.
The whole idea of “what do we think of as real work” has been rattling around in my brain for a while now. It’s related to all of the care task, life maintenance, and work maintenance stuff above. Do these things have moral valance? Do they have their own inherent worth? What happens when we explicitly allocate the time and attention they require? (Spoiler — I don’t have these answers.)
Grieving isn’t just for the dead
Last, but certainly not least… Sophie Lucido Johnson wrote about mourning in a way that deeply resonated with me:
And then the word clicked in. She was grieving. She was grieving a lost year, and she didn’t want to use the word “grieving” because, well, grieving is for when someone dies. Grieving is for tragedy on an epic scale: for floods and house fires and car crashes and above-the-fold stuff. Grieving isn’t for “I miss my friends; I haven’t seen them in a long time.” And yet! That’s what she was doing. Grieving isn’t a size: it’s an emotion.
Yeah. Sometimes, we need to grieve small things. Or things that seem small to other people, but big to us.
Lucido Johnson writes about grieving things that are “good,” too. Perhaps it’s because I live under a rock, but this is a concept that I’ve rarely heard other people discuss. Several years ago, I felt like I was inventing a whole new way of mourning when I realized that you can mourn the end of something bad. Even if the new thing is undeniably better. There might be pieces that you miss, or you might miss the self that you were before, even if you like your new self more. That took me a very long time to come to grips with, and it was delightful to see someone else having a similar recognition.
I love love love what Lucido Johnson has to say about what you’re allowed to grieve, her process of writing to herself about grief, and the instructions she provided for her partner to help her through her grief.
Phew. There’s a lot here, some of it’s only tangentially related, and each of these makes me think of ten other things I’d like to write about. But, there’s dinner to cook and a body to take care of, and I just got done saying that I wanted to be intentional and realistic about prioritizing those tasks… so this will have to be enough for now.
Thank you for reading and thinking along with me — I’d love to hear your thoughts on all of this.
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