(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel September 23, 2007)
Guilt is a nasty emotion. It's a draining, limiting, self-deprecating waster of time, and everyone knows time is too precious to waste.
I wonder then, why do I squander so much time feeling guilty for things I have no reason to feel guilty about?
There are few pastimes I enjoy more than sitting down with a good book. Reading ranks high on my Favorite Things To Do list, jockeying for position with writing, rowing, cuddling and spending time with my family.
It doesn't matter if it's fiction or nonfiction, classic or chick lit, biography, mystery, short story, poetry or historical novel -- give me a book that catches my attention and I am cheerfully hooked.
But when I sit down during daylight hours to indulge in this literary passion, my conscience -- guilt's eager emissary -- fills my head with chatter before the first page is turned.
"Should you really be spending your time on such a solitary, self-indulgent activity when there's so much else to be done?" it questions. "Rather than indulge in a book, shouldn't you occupy yourself with something more productive and useful?"
Evil taskmaster that it is, the persistent voice inside my head reminds me of dishes still in the sink, weeds waiting to be pulled and laundry to be put away. It even taunts me with images of "little extras" I could do with that time instead of reading. "Use those minutes productively to benefit others," it suggests. I could bake a pie for dinner, pen a handwritten letter to a friend or help my husband in the nursery.
"Instead, what are you doing?" my inner voice insists. "Sitting inside on a perfectly lovely day, feet propped on an ottoman, a steamy cup of tea on the end table and a book in your lap. You should be ashamed of yourself."
Or should I?
Is reading really a nonproductive, useless activity?
I don't think so.
Every book I've ever read has added to my personal storehouse of knowledge and experience.
Reading broadens horizons, opens the door to creative thinking and introduces us to new concepts, diverse perspectives and unexpected ideas. It allows us to entertain fantasies, explore options and exercise reason.
Through the printed word, we learn to compare and contrast different points of view, travel to faraway places, reach back in time or jump ahead to the future. Reading is as much a gateway to understanding as it is passive entertainment.
When I read, I reap rewards immeasurable.
Tell that to my conscience.
For some unfathomed reason, my conscience thinks reading is only justifiable at specific times or for a specific reason. For instance, according to some unwritten moral code, my conscience thinks it's OK to open a book at night before going to sleep or during those rare occasions when I'm home sick and unable to do little else but pick up a book or watch TV.
If I'm waiting in line or stuck somewhere with nothing else to do, it is deemed not only sensible but also an efficient use of time to have something to read.
And as a reward for work well done, reading tops the list.
Example: I've just completed a writing assignment, the house is clean, dinner is in the oven and I've helped several customers at the nursery today.
"Good work, Sherry!" my conscience applauds. "Now you can read."
No! That's not how it should work.
I want to be able to read anytime I feel like it without enduring pangs of guilt. I don't want my reading time relegated to reward-only moments or a pre-sleep activity when my eyes are too weary to finish more than a chapter.
I want to be able to say, "Shoo! Leave me alone!" to that nagging voice inside my head when it tells me to put down my book and pick up a sponge. I want to be able to prioritize reading and remain firm in my stance.
Do other people have this problem? Has our society's Puritan work ethic forced many of us to think fun can only happen after all the work is done? If so, perhaps it's time for some mental reorganization.
I'm not campaigning to diminish accomplishments, just to reshuffle them. Setting goals and making lists are important parts of my daily life, but I feel just as strong about downtime. Playfulness is an essential element of healthy living that we adults all too often disregard. Somehow we've allowed ourselves to believe we don't deserve to feel good, to have fun, to relax until after "all the important stuff" is completed.
Well, what's with that? Fun is important too. It has just as much right to happen before the toilet gets scrubbed as after.
In addition to being mentally stimulating, reading is a playful, relaxing, rejuvenating and fun activity. It's a stress-buster, pure and simple.
So, here's my plan -- next time I sit down in the middle of the day with a good book and my inner voice begins to chatter, I resolve to ignore its annoying rants and needling missives. I shall concentrate instead on the pages before me.
Hello, book. Good-bye, guilt. End of story.