How can we appreciate the gift horse?
If you are somewhat like me, large empty slots in your schedule often make you feel restless and guilty. The argument is as follows. This is Amsterdam, and there are opportunities left and right. There are extra courses to take, debate clubs to join, sports to thrive in, dance classes to waltz into, jobs to polish your new and yet undiscovered talents with. The privilege to have these opportunities entails a responsibility to make the most of them: we do not look a gift horse in the mouth, and not everybody gets the fantastic gift horses that we do.
I myself mostly agree with this line of thought. What I do take mild¹ umbrage with, however, is the unintentionally malicious form that these norms often take in Amsterdam’s student life: your status and worth are often correlated with your busy-ness, and boredom and slow days get very little love2.
We ourselves are often the culprit. For instance, on social media such as Facebook, life is often described in terms of activity. A point is often sympathetically made that Facebook is a highlight reel of a person’s experiences, that the downtime is not charted because it isn’t worthy of mention (and because mentioning it doesn’t do much for your social profile).
Someone asks you what you did this Saturday, and you coolly reply ‘Well yes, I did the work and also the other work and I may have watched an art film’, while in truth you spent the day eating old Cheetos and watching Penny Dreadful3.
And feeling a bit bad about it.
Which definitely has its place, but only to the extent that it’s actually deserved. Guilt about inactivity can be a great motivator because it can push you into action in the first place, but when the bar and the general consensus for what counts as ‘action’ is set unreasonably high, the journey toward being a Sufficiently Active Person may seem overwhelmingly endless. And while this may seem really grit-your-teeth-and-win-the-future-ey, I think it’s easier to reach the goals you set for yourself if you actually allow yourself some modest satisfaction in between, than if you try to frustrate, guilt and hate yourself into submission.
Because there’s only so much self-pity and self-punishment you can take and stay productive, right? At a certain point you’ll be so dissatisfied with yourself and strung out that you start losing hope for yourself, and ironically, become very unproductive. Even though the problem is not necessarily with you, but with the unreasonable goals you set or the unreasonable intolerance for failure and inactivity you’ve cultivated. It might feel somewhat noble and tough to beat yourself up, but the harsh truth is that you have to give yourself some leeway sometimes.
So how do we appreciate the Amsterdam gift horse in a way that we actually get shit done without going crazy in the long run? I think taking a deep breath and actively making time for old Cheetos and Penny Dreadful in your life is a good start.
¹I say mild because this is not a fight-the-system-piece, but a mild complaint article: like calling the police about your noisy neighbours who loudly play Disclosure’s worst songs at 4am, or returning your grilled cheese sandwich because the cheese is not properly grilled.
3This is a great show, watch it!