I was vacillating between overwork and overindulgence – and then I took my car to a mechanic

Towards the end of last year, as I hurtled towards near exhaustion and a work schedule that left very little time for relaxation, I had a dream.

It was one of those momentous dreams that trails you the following day, shadowing your thoughts, hovering right at the edge of your consciousness. In the dream, I was surfing to some indistinct shore, riding the gentle wave on my board with my body facing the sun and the water spraying my toes.

I never reached that shore, I just rode on and on and on, seemingly forever, with a warm, joyful feeling building in my chest. The happiness I felt on that wave stayed with me the following week, through meetings and traffic snarls and grocery runs.

It wasn’t as if my life was devoid of pleasure. Far from it. But, like many women, seeking pleasure had become a way to mollify some oversized burden or heavy load. It was a stopgap, a prescription to head off stress and angst about any number of problems: Trump, the state of Australian politics, or more domestic issues, such as workload pressures or family dramas.

So I would book myself, strung out and unfocused, into massage parlours with the niggling feeling that this kind of pleasure, the one where you are compensating for your tiredness by buying more experiences, felt nothing like riding that wave in my dream. I told myself that I was merely a sensualist, someone who worked hard and enjoyed life, but in truth I was vacillating between overwork and overindulgence, and it wasn’t working.

But it’s the way many of us live now, isn’t it? We are so busy and torn in different directions that when we do eventually close our laptops, we “relax” with a kind of twitching, manic purpose. We give it a hashtag, maybe turn it into a blog, then a book deal: “My Year of Pampering (And How I Kicked Stress with Back-to-Back Day Spa Appointments).”

And yet joy is something we all need more of. It’s certainly not among the harried commuters on peak-hour trains and buses, nor do I find much evidence of it in the drivers who confect hysterical outrage and operatic despair simply because I failed to indicate.

We have let technology and punishing workloads and specious notions such as “lifestyle upgrades” distract us from what gives us joy – and yet, how to find it in yourself without becoming a rural anchorite in an off-grid shack reading Thoreau by candlelight?

I was no closer to the answer when joy came and hit me in the face in the most unlikely of places: a mechanic’s workshop in suburban Melbourne.

I had walked into the shop full of don’t-mess-with-me bravado, wary of being ripped off. Instead, I found the Marie Kondo of mechanics in an immaculate workspace, owned by a courteous mechanic who not only charged me reasonably, but cleaned my car – inside and out, wheels included – for no extra cost.

“It’s what I do for all of my customers, it’s part of the service,” my mechanic replied when I queried his generosity.

I pushed him harder. What was in it for him? Why was he doing this?

“It’s just how I would like to be treated.”

And there it was. Joy spreading through me.

Maybe, I thought, joy is less about cleaning out cupboards and throwing out crap that does not “spark” joy, and more about something that you can give to others simply by being a half-decent human being.

I drove home in my spotless car in a blissful trance, that warm feeling in my chest again.

Rather than thinking about how connected or disconnected I was feeling, I was, for the first time in a while, asking myself how I can move through the world with that kind of grace.