The Literary Salon: Lean Out – A Meditation on the Madness of Modern Life

One potential benefit of the pandemic is that many people are finding their lives are less busy and less stressed.  Without the daily commute to work and the rush of getting the kids to their various after-school activities, there is suddenly more time to make supper, relax, or binge-watch your favorite TV shows.   For some this new work-life balance might become a permanent way of life, although I’ve heard some complaints that working remotely means even longer hours as there is no longer any distinction between office and home.

If the key to happiness is the perfect work-life balance, then what happens when that balance is way out of whack and how do we realign it? This month’s Literary Salon pick, Lean Out – A Meditation on the Madness of Modern Life by Tara Henley, addresses that issue.

Here’s the Publishers Blurb from Goodreads:

“In 2016, journalist Tara Henley was at the top of her game working in Canadian media. She had traveled the world, from Soweto to Bangkok and Borneo to Brooklyn, interviewing authors and community leaders, politicians and Hollywood celebrities. But when she started getting chest pains at her desk in the newsroom, none of that seemed to matter.

The health crisis–not cardiac, it turned out, but anxiety–forced her to step off the media treadmill and examine her life and the stressful twenty-first century world around her. Henley was not alone; North America was facing an epidemic of lifestyle-related health problems. And yet, the culture was continually celebrating the elite few who thrived in the always-on work world, those who perpetually leaned in. Henley realized that if we wanted innovative solutions to the wave of burnout and stress-related illness, it was time to talk to those who had leaned out.

Part memoir, part travelogue, and part investigation, Lean Out tracks Henley’s journey from the heart of the connected city to the fringe communities that surround it. From early retirement enthusiasts in urban British Columbia to moneyless men in rural Ireland, Henley uncovers a parallel track in which everyday citizens are quietly dropping out of the mainstream and reclaiming their lives from overwork. Underlying these disparate movements is a rejection of consumerism, a growing appetite for social contribution, and a quest for meaningful connection in this era of extreme isolation and loneliness.

As she connects the dots between anxiety and overwork, Henley confronts the biggest issues of our time.” 

Discussion: (or why I liked it)

When I first started working in the early 1980’s, 9-5 actually meant 9-5, with lunch and coffee breaks too.  At my first job the majority of the work was done in the morning and afternoons were devoted to staff meetings etc. We would often have cake at these meetings, (it was always somebody’s birthday) and after a small pre-closing rush, be out the door at 5pm.   (Does it say something about me that what I remember most about my first job is the cake? It was chocolate with the most divine icing, from a bakery in town and someone would run down on their lunch hour and pick it up.)  Nobody stayed late, although someone was on (paid) call for the rare emergency.

When I ended my career forty years later, long hours and unpaid overtime were the norm and the expectation. We were so chronically understaffed that many nights I would arrive home still in overdrive and not be able to decompress for hours.  There were no meal breaks, except a scarfed down sandwich when your blood sugar got too low to function, lots of cold coffee, and few washroom breaks. (The dilemma in health care is if you don’t get the work done, it’s the patient who suffers.)

The sad thing about the workplace, is that my experience has become the new normal, no matter what your job.  If you’re caught up in the work/eat/sleep cycle, doing more with less, and with impossible quotas or targets to meet, you may feel you’re lucky enough to have a job, especially in these perilous economic times, and not be in a position to complain.   

While I enjoyed my work and was never bored, it was the working conditions which were the problem, and eventually I was just too burnt-out to continue. After a bout of stress-related chest pain, I opted for early retirement. Although retirement was an adjustment, living on less, I’m a happier person now and more relaxed.  My former colleagues tell me I look better, younger – I get more sleep.

 So I could really relate to Tara Henley’s story – right down to the chest pain.   (Tara did eventually go back to work in media as she is the CBC producer who contacted me about the radio interview for my mother’s art exhibit. I discovered this book when I googled her name).   Several years ago at the age of 40, she started having chest pains at her desk and decided to take a time-out to seek a better life-work balance, a journey she researched and documented in her book, Lean Out.

She wrote the book partially in response to the book Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook. I did not read Lean In when it was published a few years ago as I was no longer working and not interested in any book about how to achieve success in the workplace, but I recall hearing lots of backlash about it – mainly that the author, a white woman of privilege, had a tendency to unfairly blame women for not achieving more success in the workplace. Women were advised to lean in…..as opposed to opt-out of their careers.  Easy to say if you can afford child-care and domestic help as you climb the corporate ladder – the majority of working women I know are just plain exhausted.

I suppose it depends on what stage in your career you are at, but even if you absolutely love your job, it can become like a blood-sucking vampire, draining the life out of you if you don’t take sufficient time away from it. Time away renews your soul and gives you a fresh perspective. I grew up in the baby-boomer age of dedicated employees with work ethic, but companies today can’t expect loyal employees if they treat them poorly or don’t value them at all. How many young people today have full time jobs with benefits and guaranteed pensions?

Being older also gives you a different perspective on work. No one ever said on their deathbed that they wished they has worked more – in fact, most people say the exact opposite. They wish they had worked less and lived more. Mostly I’m mad at myself for putting up with such bad working conditions.

Lean Out was released in the spring of 2020, just before the pandemic hit, but in a premonition of what was to come, it has much to say about our current situation.   In many ways COVID has forced people to reassess their work-life balances.  Can we live on less?  Cook at home more?  Will we ever go back to the old ways – working in office buildings and rushing here and there.  Do we want to?  

I really wish I had read this book when I was still working, as I could relate to so much of the material, (except for the hip-hop – I’m way too old for that. Tara got her start in journalism by writing music reviews). It’s so profound and full of common-sense wisdom, and so well written.  Here’s an excerpt from page 152.

“What gave me joy, it turned out, was pretty simple.  Waking up every day without an alarm.  Reading all the books on my nightstand.  Eating when I was hungry, resting when I was tired, staying at home when I was under the weather.  Moving my body every day.  Being outside.  Cooking for people I cared about. 

The key to contentment, I realized, was time.  And the more time I had, the less money I needed.  I didn’t need treats to boost my spirits during a rough week, because my week was never particularly rough.  I didn’t need lavish vacations, as Your Money or Your Life put it, my daily life was not something I needed to vacate.  When my true needs were met, I did not need to compensate with stuff.”

There are chapters on unplugging from the internet, seeking solace in nature, loneliness and finding your tribe (40% of young people living in big cities are single dwellers who often don’t have a social support network and can’t afford the rent let alone save for the future), the meaning of home, and living on less – well documented with research, interviews and personal anecdotes.

This book is not a simplistic how to manual, but a beautifully written blueprint for a realistic way to live a happier and saner life.   I wish I had “leaned out” sooner.

The Literary Salon – Help Me

Help Me BookThis month’s literary review is about one woman’s humorous but perfectly disastrous journey through the world of self-help books.   

The Publisher’s Blurb: 

Marianne Power was a self-help junkie. For years she lined her bookshelves with dog-eared copies of definitive guide after definitive guide on how to live your best life. Yet one day she woke up to find that the life she dreamed of and the life she was living were not miles but continents apart. So she set out to make a change. Or, actually, to make every change.

Marianne decided to finally find out if her elusive perfect life—the one without debt, anxiety, hangovers or Netflix marathons, the one where she healthily bounced around town with perfect teeth to meet the cashmere-sweater-wearing man of her dreams—lay in the pages of those books. So for a year she vowed to test a book a month, following its advice to the letter, taking the surest road she knew to a perfect Marianne.

As her year-long plan turned into a demented roller coaster where everything she knew was turned upside down, she found herself confronted with a different question: Self-help can change your life, but is it for the better?

About the Author:

Marianne Power is a successful British journalist and blogger.  She lives in London, England.    She was a freelance writer at the time the book was written.

My Goodreads Review:

Help Me: One Woman’s Quest to Find Out if Self-Help Really Can Change Your LifeHelp Me: One Woman’s Quest to Find Out if Self-Help Really Can Change Your Life by Marianne Power

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Marianne Power’s year long journey sampling the shelves of the self-help section is an enormously entertaining look at the self-help genre.    We’ve all read self-help books, except maybe those with perfect lives and non-dysfunctional families.    But are they…well…helpful?    We tend to read them and then toss them aside, so how intriguing to read about someone who spent a year road testing them.   I absolutely loved this book – it was brilliantly written, hilariously funny and when she spirals out of control into the depths of despair, painfully honest.   Not many people would be so revealing about their less than perfect lives and perceived flaws.  Fortunately, Marianne had her mother, so full of wisdom and sensible advice, to help her through her year of applied psychology.   I can just hear her mother sighing, “Oh Marianne, you’re fine, just the way you are.”   And she is.   PS.  I hope now that she has become a successful author, she makes enough money to pay off all her debts and buy a house.    

Discussion: 

I noticed this book on the Just New Releases shelf at my local bookstore, because pursuing the self-help section is something I’m long past.   When you’re older, you realize that your life doesn’t need fixing…. you’re happy to be still living, reasonably healthy and mostly content.   If I do pick up a self-help book it’s more likely to be one about living with gratitude or something practical like how to get organized – Marie Kondo I may be revisiting you before I empty out those kitchen cupboards! 

The book was so engaging, I just could not put it down.    I enjoyed her witty style of writing.   The chapter on angels was LOL funny, but then I grew up Catholic so I could relate.    

‘My guardian angel was a daily companion who got me through exams and my ever-present fear that a burglar would break in while I slept.  Every night I’d pray to her, turn off the lights, and then when I’d be practicing playing dead, (I figured murderers wouldn’t kill me if I was already dead in my bed), I’d imagine her flying over me, her golden wings flittering, like Tinkerbell.   She was pretty.  As all angels should be.’       

While I was aware of some of the titles and authors she explored, I had only ever read Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway (which surely must be from the 80’s), and The Secret, (during my Gospel according to Oprah phase).   I knew of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and that Tony Robbins was a popular life coach but the chapter on his workshop was just too weird and cult-like.    Of all the books she mentioned, the one that seemed to resonate the most with her was The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.    She had tried to read it once but her therapist recommended it might speak to her now, as sometimes it’s a case of the right book at the right time.   I might check that one out as I tend to be a worrier and have trouble staying in the present.   (Edited to add – sorry to say but I abandoned Mr. Tolle at the halfway point,  although I did find him helpful those nights I had insomnia mulling over all  those kitchen reno decisions – it was so boring that after a few pages I was out like a light). 

She did see a therapist, and that brings up another issue about self-help books – many people turn to them because they can’t afford a therapist or a life coach and there’s only so many times your friends and family can listen to you moaning about the same old problems.   Not everyone has a wise sage of a mother dispensing sound advice, so to obtain nuggets of wisdom and fresh points of view from the pages of a book cannot be dismissed.  Discussions about how to live a good and happy life have been with us since the days of the Greek philosophers.    But is too much introspection a bad thing?   The last chapter sums things up nicely.  

Some Quotes:

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”  (Socrates)

“All this thinking about yourself is not good for you.”  (Marianne’s Mum – Chapter 11)

 Is there a particular self-help book which you have found helpful?