Count Me Out
As every budget keeper or calorie calculator can attest, relentless number crunching can add up to nothing but stress. Here’s how author Helen Schulman learned to stop quantifying everything and found a new, simpler equation for living.
I don’t count. That is, I don’t count stuff. I used to count stuff a lot: the number of French fries I stole off my husband’s plate at any given dinner and the amount of time I’d need to spend on the treadmill to make up for it the next day; the square footage of a friend’s apartment (its likely purchase price, my host’s presumed salary, and thus the difference between hers and mine); and, especially when my kids were babies, the minutes/hours between the time my husband said he would come home and rescue me and the actual moment when he sauntered through the door. I counted in order to keep track of my deficiencies and accomplishments and then calculate the magic number that would help me reach a particular goal. I counted as a way of life. But for the most part I’ve stopped all that. And while I’m not a big believer in much of anything, I would say that not counting has saved my life.
As a preternaturally anxious person, perhaps I was born to tally. I was also a committed dancer throughout my teens, and like a lot of people studying ballet, I counted the number of classes I took after school and on weekends. I berated myself if I fell below six per week. I also counted fouetté turns and measured the height of my grands battements.
But unlike many dance students, I allowed that rigid form of self-discipline to metastasize to other areas of my life. I sadly counted calories—so automatically that, after a time, anytime food went in, a number instantly flashed in my mind. Once I went off to college, I counted the days until vacation, when I could see my boyfriend from high school again, thinking “25½, 25½, 25½” as I walked across the quad, sometimes even drawing half a line through the calendar back in my dorm room once it was one o’clock in the afternoon—pretty much the opposite of the then popular mantra “Be here now.”
Occasionally this counting worked to my advantage. I calculated my GPA and counted my semesters on the dean’s list, using the numbers to spur me on to greater things. But I sweated far too much if a grade fell below a certain standard, and thus keeping track devolved into self-punishment. Later, when I began to write seriously, I counted pages, rejection letters, and years between books—pretty normal writer stuff, but hell on the heart. When my husband and I first set out to start a family, and had more than a few bumps in the beginning, I became a mathematician of self-torture. Days until ovulation, days after ovulation. Months gone by, years gone by. My friends with children, their children’s ages. My own age creeping upward.
Some time after my daughter was finally born, I realized I had to try to stop counting. Counting had become close to impossible at a time when I could barely manage simple tasks, like showering and sleeping and getting a newborn—or myself—dressed and out of the house. Moreover, life was getting gummed up by my perpetual equations: Was a gym membership worth it, I wondered, if I could get there only one day a week instead of my usual five? If I didn’t write for four hours a day, was I abandoning my career as a novelist? (Even if I was now spending those four blessed hours with my beautiful child.) My attempts to quantify everything weren’t serving me or my work or my baby.
One morning the tabulation ceased, pretty much by accident. I had a babysitter coming, and I was going to get in my third day at the gym (as I said, I thought I needed five to stay in shape) and then write (because if I didn’t write at least four mornings a week, it might take longer to finish my book).
But that day the cherry blossoms were out. My family lives near Central Park, in Manhattan, and even on the side streets petals were snowing in the fragrant breeze. Chocolate croissants beckoned from a bakery window. My daughter was irresistible. So I canceled the sitter and I took her out. We sat under the trees. She tried to put a log of dog poop in her mouth. I stopped her. We snoozed a little, and when we roused ourselves, I realized I’d forgotten about the time.
Not counting wasn’t easy. It took work—almost as much work as it did to quit smoking. I didn’t really stop being a smoker until I got to the point where I no longer thought up rationales for having “just one cigarette” because I was at an intimidating cocktail party or needed to finish a tough project that afternoon or whatever. Not smoking was a mind-set. So is not counting.
The only way I can describe the art of not counting is that whenever the numbers pop up in my mind, I try to sweep them away, and when they turn out to be particularly reluctant to go away, I picture the anxiety they cause pouring out of my fingertips. I now go to the gym when I can—some weeks more often than others—but I don’t count the classes I take or don’t take. I stopped counting the months and years between books, and when people ask me how long my last one took to write, I honestly don’t know. I don’t know what I weigh. I don’t remember who paid the bill the last time we went out with friends or how much it was. (My husband isn’t sure if this is some mind-body technique or early-onset dementia.) I don’t keep track of the Oscar-nominated films I need to see or the Pulitzer Prize–winning books I should read. And I don’t tally the nights of takeout versus homemade anymore—although I admit it does make me cringe when I call my kids into dinner and my son says, “But I didn’t hear the doorbell.”
I also don’t keep score of my achievements, or lack thereof, and if this makes me less competitive (I forget to apply for grants, for example), it also radically reduces my stress.
I no longer judge myself so frequently or harshly. I spend more of my time doing things than reflecting on what I have tackled already or, worse, angsting over what I have not yet done. I’ve relinquished a little control for a little more serenity, which has provided me with a daily emotional payoff.
I have to confess that on occasion I still do count things.
For instance, I am well aware that I am turning 50. Everyone who knows me or meets me in passing knows this, too. George, the liquor-store man. The lady on line at the supermarket. Anyone who sits next to me at the theater.
“I’m turning 50,” I say, which is a way of counting but is spontaneous! Friendly! Celebratory! I do count how many times I fold the laundry as opposed to the rest of my household, and I count this loudly. I share! I do count how lucky I am to have my family every single day, except one Thursday 6½ years ago. I do count how many newspapers I read a day—three. But I don’t count how many times I hit the news blogs (I am an Internet junkie, so this would be a waste of time, counting or not).
I have no spiritual life, really, but not counting brings me as close to inner peace as an anxious urban modern mother living in the year 2011 can be. Which in my case is achieved through a simple mathematical equation: not counting = relief.
Helen Schulman is the author of the new novel This Beautiful Life ($25, amazon.com), as well as A Day at the Beach ($13, amazon.com), P.S. ($14, amazon.com), The Revisionist, and Out of Time. She lives with her family in New York City.