The Struggle to be Meaningful in Our Time
I have my list. It is not too long because business gurus on LinkedIn tell me to keep it manageable. The video on YouTube demonstrated with a bucket of sand and rocks how to fill my morning with the big things first, and the little things can fill in the crevices. The book I am reading said to aim to get just one important thing done each day.
I’m renovating the basement. I am in graduate school. I am writing. I have to take my kids to the doctor. To choir practice, swimming, and tennis lessons. I clean the house. I help cook dinner and clean up then herd children to showers and read with them and put them to bed. My wife says hi from time to time to remind me that somewhere beyond the mayhem we have a relationship to nurture and enjoy.
That’s how six A.M. turns into ten P.M. without even knowing what’s happening.
Forget time. What day is it? And yeah I ate that bag of chips. What about it? Stress eating is my jam.
My journal only has eight spaces a day for tasks. That helps things from getting out of control. I need the help.
We are addicted to being busy. So on my list, I add “meditate,” squeezed sideways along a margin. That’s nine important things! Meditation is a placeholder for STOP and just sit awhile. We used to be able to do that without needing to add it to a list and rewarding ourselves for the accomplishment with a check mark.
Do nothing: done!
Check it off. Gold star. What’s next?
Remember board games? We have piles of them in the attic, which is as far away from our family living space as possible without them actually being exposed to the elements. Why don’t we play games? It isn’t on the list. There are other things, such as four hour college football games enjoyed to the exclusion of our children, that otherwise demand our attentions. We don’t have time to play games because we are watching other people play games.
My father-in-law is sitting at our kitchen table reading the Trader Joe’s weekly shopper. For an hour. An hour. That guy relaxes. He doesn’t have a list, though, so I am not sure if his relaxing officially counts. But, he does look relaxed.
There are things that we learn to live with, that need attention but never make the list. Like that screen door that doesn’t shut. We just live with it swaying on the whims of the breeze, creaking back and forth never to keep a fly out again, and from time to time slamming shut with a jarring clap that jolts everyone in the house. Screen door: not on the list. Flies in the house: not on the list. But, there is one on my salad.
Somewhere, really close to where I sit, my little girl practices a violin. Four chords, each scratchy note run unevenly across four times with the not quite-rosined bow.
It takes time to master an instrument. There are no instantly gratifying check marks, just hours and days and years spent in the craft, practicing the motions, attuning the senses to the feel and sounds cradled in your arms. Making it a vessel for expressing your soul.
I never practice my guitar. I am too busy. I used to practice, when I had more time. Before I started making lists.
There is a difference between getting things done and learning a skill.
I ran on my hamster wheel 137 times today. Yeah, I was really super busy. It’s just that, well, I mean, I’m kind of important. If I don’t run on that wheel, who will? It’s not gonna spin itself, right?
Does your list help you grow, or does it take you back around again to the place you started? Are you building something, or just doing some things?
I got distracted from working because I remembered I wanted to buy something on Amazon. Then I was reading its reviews and there was a recommended product that looked pretty cool so I added it to one of my shopping wish lists for later, but then I got a notification that some of the things on the wish list were no longer available from some vendors. So I started to update my list. My shopping wish list, not my to-do list. See, the shopping list is distracting me from the to-do list. I am spending money instead of making money or creating anything or building something meaningful or learning. I didn’t mean to.
Viewer engagement tactics are not our friend.
I set my pencil down and close my journal, hiding my list of things to-do within the calendar book of days and weeks and months that I am filling up, only to someday shelve it alongside similar ones from years’ past.
I remember staring out the window as a boy in class, watching the leaves change shades as the wind blew the light around them. I remember wondering what the teacher’s lecture had to do with the greater classroom right outside the window pane, birds and stones and dells waiting for me to enroll.
Inhaling, I stare out the window. Do I know those trees? Can I lay on the grass in the warm summer sun and sit awhile? Is a little mischievousness available as a companion for a few hours of idle time?
Can I clear my mind of the ever present press of anxiety weighing in of things to do?
The mental lists that keep me awake at night, the written paper lists, the lists abandoned in so many brands of productivity software, waiting for me to log back in and manage them. Because they save time and make me more efficient. Right? Right?
My computer lights up with notifications. They pull for my attention. Overlay windows slide down from the corner with breaking news, alerts, and urgent updates requiring a tap. The one hundred and fourteen browser tabs wait for me to click and read, so many articles I want to read and things I want to follow up on.
I reach my hand over to the corner of the laptop. There is one button with a circle and short line through it. The power button. I press it firmly. The monitor fights back with yet another alert — Are you sure you want to shut down without first safely closing all of your applications? I keep pressure on the power button, beads of sweat sliding across my brow.
Yes I am sure. Yes I am sure.
Die, you time-sucking marketing box. Finally, it does. I close the lid.
My arm vibrates. It’s my smart watch. It is a message congratulating me on reaching my daily step count. It asks, Would you like to view your progress on your phone? My finger hovers over the “read on phone” button.