Saturday, July 16, 2011

Keeping up and catching up

I’ve been doing a lot of catch-up reading since I started vacation—a pile of magazines waiting to be read that have been sitting on my living room table waiting to be read for the past two months, maybe more. I am finally making a dent in the pile. Most of them are Time magazines, and what I’ve rediscovered is the pleasure of reading really good writing. Surprisingly, I’m hooked on the column of their economy writer--Rana Foroohar, the assistant managing editor in charge of economics and business who writes The Curious Capitalist column, and Fareed Zakaria, the editor-at-large who writes some really interesting essays about world politics and economics. They manage to make the American and global economic messes not only interesting from a historical standpoint, but understandable. God knows we need more writers like them, writers with a historical perspective. I also bought a recent Scientific American, which I haven’t read for years. It too was surprisingly interesting with its cover story about quantum mechanics—‘Living in a Quantum World’. Did I understand what I read? Yes, I actually did, even though I couldn’t really parrot it back to you in an intelligible fashion. But when I read the article, I had my ‘a-ha’ moments and then I know I’m in the presence of a good writer and an articulate teacher. When I actually begin to understand the meaning of the Schrodinger’s cat thought experiment, that is a little miracle, considering that the derivation of some of the equations underlying this experiment was one of three final exam questions in my college inorganic chemistry class. Most of the class failed the exam, including yours truly. This is the paradoxical thought experiment that asks the question--is the cat is alive or dead (quantum states)—in other words, when is the cat alive and when is it dead and when are these separate quantum states? The answer may depend on an earlier random event. Could I have written a similar article? No, and luckily I don’t have to. But I consider myself lucky just to be able to understand it a little bit now, after years of working in science.

I used to have more magazine and newspaper subscriptions than I do currently, to The New Yorker and to the Financial Times among others.  I had to give them both up; I just couldn’t keep up with the weekly and daily issues, respectively, even though I really did love The New Yorker stories and poems and cultural updates. Hope springs eternal, as the saying goes. I always thought I would have more time than I actually had to keep up with the weekly issues. I found out that you cannot prioritize everything and that for me to fit in all the things I want to do, writing, reading, working, reading for work, consultant work, time for family, a social life, etc. that I couldn’t do it all and I couldn’t read it all. I couldn’t keep up and in the end I couldn’t catch up either. The sad thing was that both The New Yorker and the Financial Times were delivered punctually. I never had to complain about late deliveries or no delivery.

The biggest myth that has been foisted upon us these past two decades is that we can do it all and have it all—pack it all into eighteen waking hours of each day. We can’t. We have to choose, we must choose, we must prioritize. We don’t like to admit that, but it’s true. No wonder we complain about high stress levels. If we don’t end up learning to (grudgingly) prioritize, we risk running ourselves ragged in an effort to keep up. And then all we end up doing is playing catch up. I’m giving up my membership to my health club for much the same reason. I am never there and I am paying a fee each month for the privilege of possibly attending the gym. Another myth shattered—that I will carve time out of my busy schedule to train. The thing I like best these days is to not be stuck indoors in a gym in order to train. I want to be outside breathing fresh air, running, biking or walking and taking in the scenery at the same time. I want to feel free, the freedom that comes from being outside in nature. I want that more and more these days. But when I am actually indoors, I want to be reading something good, something interesting, not wasting time watching TV. That aspect of my life I’ve actually changed. I have given up most of my TV watching. Do I miss it? No. So that’s progress. The rest of it will come with time. I am learning to prefer silence to mindless chatter. Good silence, the kind that makes you reflect on your life—both the practical and spiritual—and gives you the time to get to know yourself and to figure out what you really want from this life. I was told yesterday by an elderly woman I know and respect how much I’ve changed just this past six months. She hadn’t seen me since January, and meant that I no longer derived my identity via my work. She’s right. I don’t. I am happy because I have given up that heavy burden. I am ‘just me’ now, for all that’s worth.

So this is what vacation is good for too, not just for recharging the batteries, but for giving us the time to reflect on our lives and on what we want from our lives. Free time makes me appreciate silence, reflection, peace and quiet, relaxation, the art of ‘just being’, and the virtue of gratitude. We are lucky to have the time to reflect on our lives and lucky to be able to take some vacation. I’m focusing on ‘thank you’ these days. It’s a good way to start each day.  As Meister Eckhart said “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”

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