Design Life


Distance brings focus. From Korea, the languages of Europe seem much more of a piece, much more related to one another. From today, the troubles of yesteryear seem much more of a story, much more linked one after another.

In Slovenian, there is a phrase, “zvrhana mera”, which precisely but dully translates as “a full measure”. Translated with a hint more nuance, it is closer to “a measure levelled with the brim”.

“Mera”, “measure”, is cognate with Greek “metron”, Latin “metior”, and via the classical chain of language, the English word as well. Through the wonders of coincidence and history, linguistics and a bit of imagination, all these European words reveal themselves siblings of a language tree.

The difference with Korean could not be more striking, where I can find almost no cognates, and I wander through a forest of meanings and phrases utterly blind, supported only by fallible brute force memorization. But it is this difference, that makes those similarities I mentioned before so striking.

But on from such trivium.

This last week I’ve given myself a vacation, more or less.

A year ago, I realized I was on the verge of burnout or had already burned out. I found myself feeling like a teetering dumpty on a circular wall, about to topple over into water swirling faster and faster, a Charybdis whirlpool of overwhelming.

Now, I can’t know if it was burnout. Nobody seems able to say what it is, or describe it in terms that are not subjective, that seem applicable or transferable. But the whelming was more than I could handle, it was levelled with the brim of what I could measure.

Looking from the distance of a year, I keep being struck by two things.

First, I was unable to detect the emotional whelm before it had become too much. If my consciousness was a boat, it was only once the tides of life began to swamp it that it began to cry out, “Too much, no more!” Like my emotional sensor was inside, safe and dry, cocooned until it wasn’t. Like a sensor reporting either “alright, all’s well” or a blaring klaxon of “too hot, too fire!” A fire alarm for the soul.

Perhaps all emotions are a little like that. Invisible until they rise to the surface like a creature of the lake.

Second, I feel like my measure is lessened now. Like my cup runs over faster than before. Like smaller stresses level with the brim of my emotional measure.

At first, I thought this was like injury, where my capacity was (permanently?) reduced. If burnout were like a broken leg, which makes running harder even after it heals, would I now find it harder to find equanimity? And, of course, the caveat: was it even burnout? What is even burnout?

This November was quite a whelming month again. A lot of administration, projects to shepherd to fruition, stresses at home. By the end, I felt rather clearly like my “mera” was quite “zvrhana”, so I decided to give myself a couple of days off. After a couple of days, I gave myself one more, and then another.

Honestly, it’s rather hard to take a day off while still online, still at home, still in a pandemic, but I digress.

I gave myself a few days off, and after a few days, I began to feel the itch to write again. I resisted and waited longer. I got bored. I walked the dog.

Now, as I write this, I begin to suspect that my impression was correct. The measure is smaller. The brim is reached faster. But this is not because my capacity to handle life’s difficulties is lessened. The measure is not the same as my capacity. It is more like a stress fire alarm. When it warns me, “I’ve had bloody well enough of this, I’m getting whelmed,” it’s akin to a fire alarm going off when there is smoke and time to put out the fire, rather than when there are already gouts of flame shooting out of the oven as the Christmas carp carbonizes.

So I guess that’s a win for moderation?

Is this an insight?

I can’t tell.

The dog is dreaming here, so maybe I don’t have to rush out into cold morning’s fug with a mask against the smog quite yet. Maybe I can rest a little longer, watch the sun in pink a little more.

Photo source: Tom Crew, Turning Earth Ceramics, London via

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