Bounce back with the blackbirds

THE word is "excessorexia". No, I hadn't heard of it either. I found it in that excellent women's magazine Bella and when I completed the accompanying quiz I discovered that I have been a sufferer. You may be, too.

"Excessorexia" means setting ourselves increasingly higher expectations and working ourselves into the ground to achieve them. This endless quest for perfection in everything affects one in five of us, apparently. Often depression or a heart attack is the outcome of the struggle with the extra demands we make of ourselves.

If your life is dominated by lists which are never overtaken, if you feel that no one can do things as well as you or worry that your efforts are never good enough, if you wake during each night thinking of the next day's problems, take care. You may be excessorexic.

Excessorexia shouldn't be happening. The 1970s predicted the personal jetpack and a surfeit of leisure time for the 21st century. We knew that the jetpack really belonged in a Dan Dare cartoon strip but experts promised that computer technology would reduce our working hours so much that enforced leisure would be a serious problem. Well, we solved it. We invented more work instead.

In primary schools we went for broke and decided to make life perfect. We have programmes to solve drug addiction, alcoholism and teenage pregnancies. Economy going down the drain? We'll have enterprise topics. Obese children? More PE, fruit and milk and we'll tackle our poor national sports performance while we're at it.

Attainment targets achieved? Let's set more and we'll have five national priorities, too. And I think we're still not coping properly with 5-14.

The quest for perfection is not unique to schools. Archbishop Patrick Kelly of Liverpool has written to congregations telling them he is off to Ohio for a 10-week sabbatical. Excessorexia lurks between the lines of his letter when he writes: "I know I need a break when I speak and think and act as if it all depended on me."

He describes how there is nothing in Ohio except hundreds of miles of cornfields. Which is why he goes. Staring at cornfields brings renewal through the absence of stimuli and the lack of anything which he feels obliged to see or do.

I know what he means. During a recent long illness precipitated by excessorexia, I stumbled on the cure of doing nothing. I didn't go to Ohio but I had access to a garden and a summer house and during a winter and spring I sat there each day, sometimes for hours.

A blanket around my knees coped with low temperature and at first I took a book, radio, newspaper, assuming that I would need protection against boredom. All were redundant and I dispensed with them.

For hours I stared. The experience was a new one having been brainwashed by society into assuming that I had no worth unless I was active and involved, the busier the better. Weeks of being quiet and staring at changing light and colours, and birds going about their business of survival, led me to better health. I learnt that perpetual motion was turning me into a poorer person, of little help to myself, my family or to our school.

It's not simple. School life is fast, intense and draining at the best of times. The continuing pressure of newer targets, when we are still working at the old ones, encourages excessorexia. But as we rush to achieve the targets our teaching becomes poorer.

Archbishop Kelly wrote: "A burdened, anxious fearful bishop will himself become a burden." The same applies to an excessorexic teacher. We owe it to pupils and colleagues to slow down, to control the development agenda, to say "not at the moment, thank you".

Find the time to stare. I'm off to watch the blackbirds bouncing in the rowan tree.

Brian Toner is headteacher of St John's primary, Perth.

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