I used to dream of a non-stop life, a successful life that was crammed to bursting with deadlines, dates, demands, and duties so ceaseless and important I'd barely have time to think. This frantic existence, I imagined, would make me feel like someone who mattered, a person with a big life — going places.
I envied buddies with important jobs and snippy assistants who kept their date books, scheduling phone calls a month in advance. How great it would be to feel so wanted. How satisfying to be in such demand, crushed by the weight of my super-sized life. An over-filled calendar equaled love; no free time was the ultimate triumph. It seemed like I couldn’t be busy enough, even when I was double-booked. Unfilled time felt like wasted time — unused energy, stunted energy. In my own mind, I was a Maserati, panting for the open road. Outside, I was a mid-sized Volvo, idling in second gear and losing value by the second.
Value was the point, to be honest. If time was money, then lost time was debt. The clock was ticking and I was sinking. Year after year, I pushed like crazy, yearning to be unavailable (as in, “Sorry, he’s unavailable until next July”). One day, flukishly, this really happened. I’d tripled my workload, gotten married, assumed half a dozen pro bono titles and accepted enough unnecessary invites that I couldn’t think straight. Finally, I was one of them: the Fortunate Fried, the Nothing Left Overs. For the first time ever, my schedule was booked well into the coming year; I stopped deleting unread emails, and friends started leaving me snarky phone messages, asking if I was still there or what?
I waited for the emotional payoff, the rush of success that was meant to come with ridiculous, non-stop acceleration. Speeding through days without enough hours to do what I had promised to do, I expected to feel lucky, special, elite on the racetrack of my unique existence, but what I really felt was stupefied. Disconnected from everyone but my spouse, I began to grasp how insane I’d been to believe that success meant self-isolation and apathy toward anything but work and sex. I saw that I’d become a caricature of myself: a distorted, desperate facsimile of someone trying to be bigger than life, but ending up shrunken, lost — and divorced.
“In the middle of the road of my life/I awoke in the dark wood/ where the true way was wholly lost.” This was my Dante moment, I realized, my mezzo del camino. If I did not find my way out of this forest, if I didn’t retrieve what I’d lost, the rest of my life would be lonely and sad. I needed a sign in the wilderness to point me toward the exit. Seeking voices of wisdom and insight, I began to investigate alternate paths to how a happy life might be lived in regards to time and busyness. Four lessons in particular coalesced over time into a new way of living. For brevity’s sake, let me list them in order:
1. Time is an illusion. All of us have heard this cliché, but few of us understand what it means. According to philosophers and mystics, there are two kinds of time operating in the world: clock time and eternal time (nunc fluens and nunc stans). Clock time is the tick-tock kind that frays your nerves and is always running out. Eternal time is the spiritual kind, “the power of now” as Eckhart Tolle puts it. One is our adversary; the other is our dearest friend. Being here now causes no stress. Counting the seconds makes us crazy.
2. Being is as important as doing. Though we live in a culture addicted to doing, being is equally important. Doing without the leisure of being is a recipe for depression and burnout. Action unbalanced by inaction is a train wreck waiting to happen. Hence, the Italian saying, dolce far niente: "It is sweet to do nothing." The Upanishads put it differently: “Standing still, you overtake those who run.”
3. Push and pause. There are two speeds for moving through life, in fact: push and pause. I learned this from Jill Bolte Taylor, the neuroscientist and author of the memoir, "My Stroke of Insight." Following her cerebral hemorrhage (and subsequent satori experience) in 1996, Bolte Taylor mastered the skill of switching between her push and her pause. “Our left brain is all about push,” she explained. “But the right brain is about pause. We’re designed for both. I (know how to) use the tools of the left hemisphere to push into the world. But as soon as it becomes stressful, I can feel that in my body. I’m able to avoid the negative effect, the wear and tear. It’s a skill we can all develop.”
4. Idleness is the best revenge. As Bertrand Russell wrote in his book, "In Praise of Idleness," if everyone worked only four hours per day, unemployment would decrease and human happiness would increase due to the increase in leisure time. Scientists of happiness have proved beyond any doubt that once our basic needs are met, well-being does not increase with more money, or stuff, or a big reputation. This is the American nightmare, haunting the McMansions of this greedy land. More is almost never more. Half is almost always plenty.
What if we taught our children these lessons? Who you are is already enough. You don’t need to become a thing. Life isn’t a race or a contest; there’s nowhere to go, you’re already there. Time is on your side — don’t forget it. Scratch that, forget it as much as you can. Let it be empty and open and fresh. Don’t be afraid of your own shadow.