"Overwhelmed by the Ordinariness of Life"

Overwhelmed by an Overwhelmed Sister

A few days ago I was talking to a colleague who is the perfect embodiment of “I got it”-ness. With her Vogue-in-the-classroom look and absolute dedication to going above and beyond the call of duty for her students and all of the students in our school, she is a failure-free go-to gal, who clearly revels in that role—and reputation. But that morning her smile was tense, and her laugh-whatever-off ease was strained. What had put her over the top was not administration, with all its glorious decisions. No. It was family. What a shock, huh? Why is it that the people who are supposed to be our mattresses offering endless support are often the people who give us beanie bags?

That day her bottomless pot of things she “got” overflowed when her sister volunteered her—because she’s so good at it—to get their father’s gift, less than a week before Christmas. Her husband protested, but she preferred one-more-thing-in-her-pot than to deal with another ‘round and ‘round conversation that she would have with her sister that would deflate her more than the search for the perfect B&B for his gift. So she took on one more task, once again.

I asked how busy her sister is. She shrugged, unimpressed by her sister’s busyness, and commented that it’s normal. Then she added, with a hint of scandal in her tone, that when her sister needs “me” time, she takes the day off and does nothing for anyone—she tends only to herself she practically whispered. A concept she found hard to fathom, since she is never able (willing?) to slough off responsibility.

“So,” I said, “she’s overwhelmed by the ordinariness of life.”

She looked at me with a “Bingo” look and laughed a laugh that doesn’t stop until you’re ready to lose the aha-ness of the moment.

That’s when I realized that I am like her sister because so often I, too, am “overwhelmed by the ordinariness of life.” How else can you explain the medal I expect after I finally call to question a charge on a credit card bill, or actually check my cell phone bill before paying, or bring the car into the garage for regular maintenance? Far too often life, even in its basic configuration, is overwhelming.

The other day, the mortgage broker at my credit union (I’m apartment hunting) told me that I shouldn’t have gotten another credit card (I don’t want to use the Bank of America card anymore) because it doesn’t look good when my credit score is checked, and also that I should not have let the balance on my credit card four months ago be more than 50% of the limit, even if it was paid off on-time. How was I supposed to know that regular activities would count against me in my credit rating and possibly in the mortgage rate I would get? Maybe I should have known this, but it’s darn hard to pay attention to the important and the trivial, and remember which is which.

I joke with my students who are anxious when they receive a failing grade on an essay, that we are not born knowing how to write a five-paragraph essay. I reassure them that it is okay, that I will teach them and work with them, and that they will have a few years to perfect it before they move onto other forms of essays that they will need to perfect. So much of what we need to know is not intrinsic: experience trumps intuition. And there is so much experience to meet and master.

I’m not sure where the root of the overwhelm problem lies, but I’m sure that we are all overwhelmed at some point, some of us on a daily basis. We are expected to do too much and know too much. Just living life requires more skills and knowledge than a person can comfortably handle.

But there doesn’t seem any stopping. Now that I’m looking to buy an apartment, I’m thinking of all the do-it-yourself things I might have to do. Maybe I shouldn’t have watched the home repair show that made fixing the kitchen look so easy, but I did and now I wonder if I should learn to use drills or saws or whatever those cutting tools are. Another colleague said that a friend of hers has become a competitive crafting mom; she blames Pinterest for that—a combination of keeping up with Ms. Jones and wanting to be, at least, on par with all the other mothers. Seriously, spring blossom cookies in white and pink fondant or a tower of white Christmas tree cookies—what happened to Tollhouse chocolate chip cookies using the recipe on the back of the bag?

Who is enabling all the overwhelming?

The expectation that we learn and then do so many things exceptionally well is turning out to be too much for too many of us. The other day I heard a scientist talk about a field that he had started and how now, not even 50 years later, he is unable to keep up with all of the information and discoveries in his field.

Every year I have about 150 students. I learn their first and last names in a week. I remember their names for a year. But once the year is over, their names are as the names of the stars in the sky—unknown to me. That seems a good way for my mind to handle the overload. How many people did Neanderthal woman know? And how many routes to how many houses and supermarkets and stores and types of restaurants (Thai, Chinese, Mexican, Greek, Vietnamese, barbeque, breakfast place, fast food, and deli) did she need to know? No wonder people are picking up yoga and meditation where the goal is to silence the mind. At least I think it is (I should check that).

While I am overwhelmed, I am also astonished by the things that overwhelm others. Yes, I excuse myself and not them. I guess that makes me a hypocrite, but it also makes me a person trying to give herself a break and a bit of a lift at the same time. A coping strategy for someone who doesn’t do the lotus position or hum ohm, and needs to stay away from those cookies, fondanted or not.


“Overwhelmed by the Ordinariness of Life” is going to be a regular feature because it’s important to curtsey to ourselves in recognition of all we do and laugh at how some people are stumped by the very nature of putting one foot in front of the other—which really is laughing at ourselves, which we really need to keep doing so that we, too, can keep placing those feet one in front of the other. I’m not sure why, but this feels critical to me. Maybe it’s because I am not a doer and the degree of doing that I do in a day must be acknowledged so that I don’t keep thinking that I have done nothing. It may also help me better value people, like my brother and my mother, who bother the heck out of me by how overwhelmed they are by the ordinariness of life. But more on them in future posts—this is my curtsey to self.