Finding Ourselves Again

For many years now I have been fascinated by the power and need for what might be called “white space” in life. This means leaving down time in your days, weeks, and years for what some might call nothing. It might best be reflected by the body’s need to sleep during which the brain cleans up and processes the events of the day. Not doing this can actually cause us to be less functional. Some ideas on this kind of “doing nothing” were explored in a book by the same name that I reviewed in a previous post.

In her book by almost the same name (How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy), Jenny Odell takes a somewhat different approach. What stands out to me about this book is not so much what it says but how it made me feel. Broadly, it opened up for me a view into myself that I realized that I’ve had for some time now. I just didn’t have a way of articulating. In many ways, I still don’t. It’s more of a feeling that this book helped me learn how to look for, nurture, and embrace.

Two main themes were embodiment and maintenance. Embodiment in the sense of realizing that we live in a physical world. Too often we are looking at screens and the images or text on them rather than simply noticing the world around us. Maintenance in the sense that life is cyclical rather than simply linear. Our lives are now governed by productivity and economic activity while for most of human history they have been governed by nature and the seasons.

“As the body disappears, so does our ability to empathize”

So much of life today is removed from the actually living of it. We interact “socially” through small black rectangles and video conference calls. This removal makes it easier to judge and condemn others, to see issues as binary black and white positions rather than an endless spectrum between the two. When we simply slow down to actually see and listen to others, this is like a prism that breaks our isolation into a rainbow of infinite and various hues.

The author describes an experience where she attended a unique performance at a symphony hall in San Francisco. It opened her mentally to all the sounds around her that she simply wasn’t paying attention to. As she stepped out onto the street, one she had walked many times, she heard sounds that she had never noticed before. They were always there. She just wasn’t attuned to them. It’s the slowing down and contemplating of our surroundings that gives us the space and perspective to see and hear what we’ve been ignoring.

“To me, the only habit worth ‘designing for’ is the habit of questioning one’s habitual ways of seeing, and that is what artists, writers, and musicians help us to do.”

Our western culture’s foundational premise is productivity and progress. But progress toward what? What are we progressing toward? This attitude treats life like a straight line game that at the end we determine if we have won. It is proverbial that those at the end of life are not using the yard stick of productivity to measure their lives. Instead they are measured in their relationships and simply being with others. This is, to use the author’s words, the “ethos of care and maintenance.”

So much of our economic activity is focused on creating something new, and subsequently throwing out the old. Our products are no longer repairable. We’re meant to use them up and throw them out. We live in contradistinction with our environment instead of in harmony with it. Nature doesn’t throw anything away but reuses it over and over again transforming it in the process. How are we transforming ourselves and our world? With a little more time connecting to that world directly, we might find ourselves behaving differently, doing differently, being differently.

Our experience of life in family is in many ways cyclical like nature. We move from son or daughter to parent or aunt or uncle. We nurture and teach the generations following us, passing on the lessons we learned in hopes that the younger generations will grow beyond our achievements. Now what if we slowed down enough to take this view of others who we aren’t related to? What if we were willing to learn from those not like us? This can only happen when we are willing to circle back again and again to review the humanity in others that we see in and allow for ourselves. To identify and care about all embodied life. This is moving from the “I-It” experience to the “I-Thou” experience.

Context is what appears when you hold your attention open for long enough; the longer you hold it, the more context appears.

When we engage with others through any kind of medium, we lose some of the context and connection to them as a fellow human being. When we inhabit the same space as someone else with humility and openness, this is the essence of care and maintenance. In this space, we can check in with ourselves and others, offering the help needed even if it is only our presence and compassion. Absent of physical presence and attention, this is extraordinarily challenging.

The authors end with a discussion of “manifest dismantling”. This is undoing the things we have done to disconnect ourselves from each other and the world in order to make space for the life that is around us. This isn’t an abandonment of progress or productivity but a balance to it that brings the meaning and purpose that we all crave as human beings. And in the process we might just find each other and our humanity right there waiting for us to see them again.

Go for a Walk

person walking on a path amongst fallen leaves

For some time I have taken a twenty to thirty minute walk each morning. Before I started doing this, I often took similar length walks during my lunch break at work, walking around the building by myself or with a co-worker. While I don’t remember when I started doing this, I do know why I do this. The reason is simple – it boosts my productivity.

On these walks, I don’t look at my phone. And I don’t try to work through a challenge I may be having. In fact, quite the opposite. I try to clear my mind, to simply be present in the moment and enjoy my immediate surroundings. It’s kind of a mini vacation from my work and troubles. So, how does this boost my productivity? The time away refreshes me in much the same way a vacation does, despite the small amount of time “away”. I learned about the remarkable power of down time years ago while programming in my own database consulting company.

In addition to talking with clients and potential customers, each day I worked at a computer, writing database programs. It wasn’t that unusual during a session of programming to run into a problem that did not yield immediately. As I continued to try to troubleshoot and unravel the issue, I would get more and more frustrated and more and more stubborn. I was dedicated to finding a solution! Sometimes I would spend all day on a problem, not even taking a break to eat lunch. Eventually, I would have to come out of my office for dinner, grumpy and unsuccessful. It took a while, but slowly I would let go of the problem as I ate and spent time with my family. The next morning as I was getting ready for work, showering or shaving, I almost always got a flash of inspiration for how to proceed. It wasn’t always the ultimate solution, but I was no longer stuck. I had a direction to go in that moved me closer to resolution.

Eventually, I began to see this pattern repeated. So, I stopped beating on problems when I got stuck, angry, and frustrated. I learned that the most productive thing was to step away from the problem and do something unrelated, often some sort of rest or play. As a result, I used the feeling of being stuck as a trigger to let go and move on to something else. Over time, instead of waiting for a problem to take advantage of this phenomenon, I began to build in quiet time and adequate rest in order to work as optimally as possible.

Modern research on sleep, rest, and play has shown that the current fascination with “working hard” and bragging about how little time we have or how little sleep we get is actually counterproductive. Our brains require rest and open-ended play in order to process the inputs we receive every hour of every day (Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang).

So don’t wait until you are so frustrated with a problem that you are swearing up a storm or throwing things across the room. Be proactive and take time out to rest and play. And if you have already crossed the line into anger and frustration, go for a walk. It’s likely the most productive thing you can do.