If you know me at all, you will know that I take on a lot of tasks and responsibilities. I call it ‘living life on the edge’. When I find myself mastering a skill or having a continual chunk of free time, I find something else to do. I decide I am going to be senior class sponsor, I plan a golf tournament, I apply to graduate school, I pick up another job, I find somewhere to volunteer, I buy a slew of Barbara Kingsolver books, I try a new skill (cooking is something I often think about and just never quite get to…). I have been this way ever since I can remember. I like to be busy and productive.
A couple years, when I was still in college, I had an epiphany, a divine revelation (this happens to be a vocabulary word) occur to me. I was taking 18 credits that semester (again, I had some kind of unconscious drive–I mastered being a full time student, so I thought I would see what happens if I loaded myself up just a little more). My day looked like this: Wake up at 5 AM. Go to practicum 7 AM-12 PM. Come back to Boulder for class 12:30-3:30. Tutor 4-6 PM. Go to yoga 6:15-7:15. Do homework and study 7:30-11 PM. Go to bed. On my weekends, I was either working at the golf course, volunteering at the bereavement center, going to a football game, or doing more homework. And, don’t get me wrong. I loved everything I was doing and loved being involved. But, I took a step back and realized that, like most Americans, my life was on a scheduled routine–I moved from one activity to the next. When I packed my bag in the morning, I was constantly thinking about what the next thing I had to do was; what was the next place I had to go? How much food do I need to pack to get myself through the day, since I never stopped? When did I have small gaps that I could get some reading and studying in?
I made a pact to myself that, while I was not going to stop this carefully maintained schedule, I was going to stop focusing on what was next and instead, enjoy the moment I was in. Or, as the clique says, “Stop to smell the roses”. I vowed to make a few small changes in my life.
First of all, I stopped relying on my cell phone to keep me occupied during those awkward, alone moments. Technology can often be a crutch. Whenever we are in a potentially awkward situation where we are alone, we start scrolling through our text messages, our e-mails, our Candy Crush scores (because, of course, we used up all our lives at the last line we stood in). Observe people waiting in line at the grocery store or in doctor’s offices. Or, watch the people at the bar–when their wing man goes to the bathroom or is talking to another person, we automatically pull out our cell phones so we look busy and not lonely. It is uncomfortable to be alone with our thoughts–our brains are not used to sitting in silence because we are constantly stimulated–so, we pull out our phones, even if we are doing nothing else but staring at the screen and re-reading text messages from months ago. I remember myself as a teenager and I am sure people thought I was incredibly rude. I remember going to visit my grandparents and spending the entire time checking my NeoPets account. I remember going out to dinner with friends and having a conversation in between text messages. My poms coach used to take away our phones at competition and I remember how devastating that was. All I could think about what when I could check my phone again. So, in order to fulfill my goal of ‘stopping to smell the roses’, I vowed to put my cell phone away. Sometimes, such as when I go to yoga or the gym, I don’t even bring my phone in with me. I keep it in my car so that I can practice ‘distance’. When I am standing in line or waiting at the doctor’s office, I try to keep it away so that I can savor the moment, enjoy the scenery, observe the systems around me, and learn from people watching. We miss so much of our lives when we are constantly fixated on our technology. We become dependent upon it. We forget how to have a real face to face conversation. We do not allow ourselves to utilize the quiet space in our heads we so desperately need. I measure my success by how far into the day I can keep my cell phone battery charged. Some days, I can go to sleep at 10 PM, and some days, it needs a re-charge on my way home from work (usually, it depends on what Candy Crush level I am on–right now, I have ‘given up’ so my battery stays charged all day long).
Another change I made was I decided I was going to stop walking with my head down and start looking people in the eyes. You will notice as you walk down the halls or in between classes on a college campus that everyone is trying to appear busy and everyone is trying to avoid eye contact with each other, because it is awkward and uncomfortable. We do not like to face these awkward and uncomfortable situations, so we just divert our eyes. But, how I am ever going to meet my potential husband if I am staring at the ground? I decided it was time to externally radiate the confidence I wanted to have internally. I pull my shoulders back, don’t cross my arms, and walk with my head up. If I make eye contact with someone, I may smile or offer a greeting (depending upon the person). I wanted to stop hiding behind myself and start experiencing the world for what it had to offer. The only thing I could see looking at the ground was (a) people’s feet, (b) old cigarette buds, and (c) spit pieces of already chewed gum. Our world definitely has more pristine sights than the trash people are too lazy to throw away.
I also made an effort to compliment people more, to let people know I recognized what they were doing well, to thank people for their efforts. This came in the form of written cards, spoken praises, text messages, etc. I think we do not vocalize how much we appreciate and admire our fellow humans on this earth. We may observe and recognize, but we never tell people enough just how much we love having them in our lives and love learning from their experiences.
The last pact I made with myself was that I was not going to dwell on the unchangeable and if there was something about myself I did not like, I was going to find a way to fix it. This is easier said than done. Research suggests that between 18-25, the most personality changes occurs. So, if there is something about yourself you do not like–your inability to plan, your skills of procrastination, your highly competitive nature–now is the time to make those changes. I think so many people dwell on things they cannot change. Bad room mates who don’t help unload the dishwasher, parents who hover too much, neighbors who call the cops on menial tasks, friends who treat us poorly. There are so many things in this world that we cannot control, but yet, we waste so much time and energy ruminating and dwelling on them. So, I decided when an issue came up, I would dissect the problem, come up with a solution, and if that still did not work, I was going to go on with my life anyways. Especially with my lifestyle, this helps alleviate so much anxiety and frees up more time for activities. For example, my room mates and I have been complaining about the cleanliness of our townhouse. It is old, dirty, but verrrry cheap (and, comes with free internet from the neighbors!). So, instead of dwelling on how much we don’t like it, we decided to find ways to spruce it up–clean the carpets, buy new light bulbs, put in a fish tank. We vowed to find a solution to curve our unhappiness. It is taking action against those pesky negative thoughts that consume so much energy. We got tired of sitting at home on the weekends, so we have been actively finding things to do: go to concerts, take trips to the mountains, make crafts, ride the ponies. Instead of wallowing in our self pity, we are taking charge.
I live a very high stress lifestyle. I work in perhaps one of the most stressful and fast paced careers, I have many responsibilities, and, in order to survive, I must find ways to keep my inner psyche healthy. I still falter sometimes. I still find myself checking my phone when my friend leaves me to talk to someone. I still do walk with hunched shoulders, looking at the ground (the typical Ederveen stance). And, I do ruminate over uncontrollable things. I think the important thing is recognizing when these things happen and making a conscious effort to change–our brains are incredibly malleable, so change can be done. Our world has so much to offer that we just need to make the effort to see it.