If you’re like most people you’ve probably found yourself repeating that there aren’t enough hours in the day. But what if when you woke up every morning you had fewer to work with than everyone else? What if instead of 24 hours you had only 12 Or 16? How would you compartmentalize your day? What would you prioritize and what would you set aside?
What if time wasn’t an issue but the time-saving tools available to you were? I’m not talking about smartphones, tablets, and the other electronic devices that simplify tasks, I’m talking about your own body. Imagine going about your day—cooking breakfast, driving to work, sending emails—with only one hand or without the ability to see or hear. There might be as many hours in the day for you as for everyone else but you suddenly feel like you need twice as many, because every task you complete (major or minor) takes twice as long.
As impossible as it might seem, millions of people living with chronic illness or disability cope with these challenges every day. As a person with a visual impairment I often find myself struggling to explain the daily challenges that living with a disability present in a way that doesn’t evoke pity. Instead I aim educate and motivate others to face their own challenges, because to suggest that so-called able-bodied, healthy people don’t face challenges is unfair. However the key I’ve learned is perspective. It could be worse: you could be dead.
Recently several friends and I were discussing the day-to-day challenges of living with a disability or chronic illness: from the minor inconvenience of asking a friend to drive you to the grocery store, to the sometimes incapacitating exhaustion that can make getting out of bed and brushing your teeth seem insurmountable. In reflecting on how to articulate these challenges, a friend helpfully directed me to Kristine Miserandino’s “Spoon Theory” article. Miserandino (who has Lupus) created Spoon Theory to describe the way that people with chronic illness or disability have to measure out the energy it takes for them to function. The idea struck her one night while at a diner with a college friend, when her friend suddenly asked her what it was really like to live with Lupus. Miserandino grabbed up all of the spoons on the table, handed them to her friend and directed her to imagine beginning the day with a certain number of spoons (twelve in this case). As she listed the tasks she performed each day (from dressing for work to cooking dinner) Miserandino took away one spoon. The game became a useful way for Miserandino to walk people through the myriad of obstacles she faces daily. Spoon Theory has become shorthand in the discourse to express the overwhelming exhaustion and frustration of running low on energy. “I don’t have enough spoons” can mean anything from “I’m too tired to cook” to “do I really have to get out of bed today?”
As I read Miserandino’s article I started thinking about how transferable Spoon Theory can be for anyone because it speaks to the importance of prioritizing life’s responsibilities and placing things in a practical perspective when the to-do list seems intimidatingly long. Here are six simple things Spoon Theory can teach us about the role that mindfulness plays in taking each day as it comes.
1. You can’t do everything: deal with it
In a world where smartphones, tablets, and digital assistants allow us to schedule every moment of our days, we’ve created an illusion of endless opportunity. Nothing gives me a thrill more than ticking off an item in my iPhone’s to-do list – but more often than not, I’m still left lying in bed frowning at the boxes still unticked. Part of this has to do with the practical reality of living with a disability; certain things just take twice as long. A fifteen-minute run to the grocery store might turn into a two-hour long adventure depending on public transit, cabs, and friends with licenses. This doesn’t stop me from filling my daily diary with a list of items that would make even Wonder Woman run for the nearest mountain retreat. I always wake up thinking I’ll have time to clean my house, run errands, work both of my jobs, solve the problem of world hunger, cure Ebola, and cook a meatloaf. The truth is even the most active, able-bodied, time-efficient person still winds up with the same number of hours in a day as anyone, and everyone needs to pause and recharge occasionally when we run out of spoons. Learn a lesson from T.S. Eliot: Measure your life in coffee spoons, not ice-cream scoops. Take time for yourself and
accept your limitations.
2. Accept help when you need it
We’re not meant to journey through life alone and sometimes we make our lives more complicated when we pretend we have superpowers. This is actually one of the hardest lessons for people with disabilities and chronic illness to learn, because we live each day trying to prove to the world that we can achieve independence. When I feel overwhelmed my friends will point out that I’d make my life a lot easier if I’d stop being stubborn and accept help will ease my burdens rather than be an admission of defeat. It’s a lot easier to cart a sick guide dog to the vet in a friend’s car than in a cab. When someone offers to help you, let them. You’re not being weak. You’re being human.
3. Celebrate your body
As Baz Lurhman tells us in Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen, “It’s the only one you have.” Be grateful it works. Just pausing to admire a sunset or jogging on a crisp, autumn morning might seem mundane, but it’s a luxury that many with chronic illness or disability don’t have. You won’t always have the energy to revel in your body, because you’re not a superhero. Just as you need to learn to accept your limitations, you must also learn to see your strengths for the gifts they are.
4. Help others when you can
Sometimes there’s nothing quite as frustrating as looking for help and finding none. Even something as simple as holding the door for someone whose arms are full of packages is a gesture that acknowledges the fact that we all need a hand sometimes. If you find at some point during the day that you have a spoon to spare, share it with someone who could use another one.
When I was in college, I lived on the top floor of a walk-up apartment and I used to walk to the grocery store regularly with my guide dog. While I enjoyed the independence, I sometimes forgot that I could only buy as much as I could carry. Plus, what I could carry was limited to one hand since the other was a full keeping a hold on my eager-to-please Labrador. One afternoon I returned to my apartment (weighed down with bags) to cook dinner for myself and my roommate, and It only occurred to me as I approached the stairway that I wasn’t going to make it safely up three flights of stairs unless I made several trips. I needed the exercise, but I’d already walked home. I was sweaty, my dog needed water, and my shoulders were aching. After resignedly setting down several packages, I made my first trip upstairs only to discover on my way back down that one of my neighbors was on his way upstairs with the rest of my groceries. “You looked like you could use a hand,” he said simply. It might seem insignificant, but he gave me back fifteen minutes of my life that I could spend casually sipping my wine and chatting with my roommate while I chopped vegetables – and I’ve never forgotten that.
5. Make time for loved ones
Miserandino points out in her article that sometimes the simple pleasure of going out to dinner with friends after a long day will cost her a spoon. A spoon she might need to clean her house or go to the store. She writes that Spoon Theory forces you to think about everything you do. Relating the story of her first use of Spoon Theory with her best friend, she recalls saying “I don’t have room for wasted time, or wasted spoons, and I chose to spend this time with you.” We all have to make choices about how we spend our time. A wasted spoon is a wasted opportunity. Choose your spoons wisely and if you have the time and the energy for others, take advantage of it.
6. Do at least one thing every day that makes you smile
In the same way that our hours are numbered, so are our days. The difference of is that we know how many hours we have left in a day but we don’t know how many days we have left of our lives. Whether it’s sending your best friend a selfie you took of yourself in a silly hat, reading your favorite book on your morning commute, or pausing in your work to give your dog a five-minute belly rub, take the time to make yourself smile. Every time you smile or laugh, your brain releases endorphins which are basically the body’s natural opiate for reducing stress and pain. This is how we recharge our batteries. Watch a hilarious movie. Have a chat with a friend. Click through pictures of cats on Instagram. Ultimately, do whatever it takes to replenish your supply of spoons.