Sometimes, our bodies and minds become incredibly tired. Even when we sit all day. This exhaustion is not the result of poor lifestyle choices or individual agency. Humans need breaks, and the structure of 21st century life does not always accommodate space for rejuvenation.
I experienced the transition from childhood to adulthood as a gradual acclimation to sitting in chairs for longer and longer periods of time throughout the day. There was the world before school, where I hardly sat in chairs at all. I preferred to crawl up and down stairs, run down the grassy hills of my neighborhood, climb on furniture and only occasionally sit on it.
Then there was preschool, kindergarten, and elementary, where we were slowly introduced to the concept of sitting in a chair for long stretches of time. These were broken up with recess, lunch time, in-class activities that allowed us to move around a bit.
By high school our sedentary training was nearly complete. The day was split into six one-hour blocks of sitting in class, and instead of recess as a break, we were given yet another hour of sitting, this time at a lunch table. I let out my pent-up energy after school, in grueling hours of physical conditioning with my volleyball team, then went home and sat in another chair, this one in the quiet of the basement, to do my calculus homework.
College was more of the same, plenty of sitting but with less structure and obligation. The hours I spent in a chair were no longer enforced by a daily class schedule. Instead, I disciplined myself to sit for most waking hours, hunched over texts and dissecting arguments, learning methods to create knowledge. This self-imposed sitting was requisite for meeting the standards of my professors, and the expectations I had set for myself to succeed.
The only respite from all this sitting was moving from one seat to another every few hours. First at the drawing table in my cozy apartment, then the campus coffee shop, then in the lecture hall for class, then at the library…
From graduation to the world of work, there is yet another threshold to cross in our learning to sit.
Adulthood can further limit the space we have to move around throughout the day. Many of us end up working office jobs where we stay in the same building, and often the same seat, for eight hours. I find myself voluntarily adding to my seated hours outside of work as I pursue other interests, namely reading and writing. As a result, on some days I find the disks of my spine feeling much like a stack of steaming pancakes sliding around in syrup.
What is the antidote to all this sitting?
Well, one could say that the most durable solution would be revolution. Perhaps us humans need to rethink the way we have structured our lives, especially those of us who live in cities and take up more elite professions distinguished by the exertion of sitting in chairs all day. Or, at the very least, we could make some changes to the length of the work day, reconsider the layout of our work spaces, add more time for vacations that are truly work-free.
But I don’t anticipate the revolution coming anytime soon. Nor am I certain that I would be happier if I relinquished all my hours of contemplation and creation at a desk. And even making modest changes to our work spaces so that they accommodate less sitting will require time, as the transformation of culture often happens incrementally.
So for now, the corrective that I employ to all this sitting is movement wherever I can fit it in. Exercise and play through yoga and dance have become all the more important to me. But sometimes I need a more immediate fix, something I can do in the middle of the day, when I am hunched over my desk and feeling very tired.
And so I will get up and take a walk to the nearest park.
For this reason, I find myself feeling increasingly thankful for public space as I get older. I have leaned on the presence of parks throughout the past few years as I learn to sit in one place for the majority of the day. In Chicago, I lived in a neighborhood bordering Lake Michigan, and I interned at an office that was near Millennium Park. Whenever I needed to clear my mind (and realign my posture) I would walk along the shoreline, or take a stroll through the gardens and watch tourists excitedly snap selfies at the reflective “Bean” statue. In the winter, when it became much too cold to enjoy walking outside, I would make weekend pilgrimages to the Garfield Park Conservatory and parade across its expansive greenhouse.
Here in Amman, I am lucky to live and work in one of few areas of the city with a pleasant public park. I like to walk there, sometimes alone or with another friend yearning to take a break. I am thankful not only for the space to move, but also to be in the company of others taking rest from the obligations of life. Yesterday when I walked there, I saw a crew of children playing soccer on a patch of cement, and a couple chatting on a wooden bench.
Bearing witness to these pauses in the day, these defiant acts of simple pleasure, helps me feel rejuvenated once it’s time to sit again.
Footnote: If you look closely to the bottom right of this picture, you will see an adult making giant bubbles. This makes me incredibly happy.