Killing the Voice in the back of your head

One of the most interesting phenomena I observed in my world travels was that most of the world is happier than us, but their lives are in worse shape. Visiting rural Kenya for the first time is incredibly jarring for the mind of an American kid raised in the suburbs — all the buildings are half-finished or falling apart, roads are buckled and potholed, appointments are never on time, there’s noise and chaos, and no pacing or organization or efficiency or sense to anything. Billions and billions of people live lives that are filled with things that you and I would want to replace with something better. We’d patch the roof, or replace the tires, or clean the rust off the knives, or put some more variety and flavor into the food, or get the kids some clean clothes for God’s sake.

And yet somehow, far from being miserable, jealous, or overwhelmed by the density of flaws in their lives … these people are incredibly peaceful, happy, and welcoming. They seem content with most moments of their everyday lives. And I might even suggest that they love each other better than we do. And I wouldn’t be the first to suggest such a thing.

So how does this work?

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First let’s take a look at something else.

In the Demigods blog, I mentioned a particular Voice that we sometimes get in our heads. The Voice says: okay I’m done with this, I’m ready to get on to my next project; I want to go to the bank, exercise, clean my fridge out, detail my car, research insurance options, or whatever. In short: I’m ready to go be productive, and to do something gainful for my life.

The Demigods blog was about the many godlike privileges that we aim for in our culture. Today I want to look at another facet of that same construct: the need to be well-rounded. Or we might better say, the need to be put-together.

Being put-together might be defined as: having your life arranged such that every sphere of activity will stand up to outside scrutiny, or even be judged superior, under such scrutiny. What I mean is, we don’t want to be caught unaware, if someone stumbles into a certain sector of our lives. For instance, being confident which kinds of beer you like, or whether you can swing dance, or how many miles you run in a week, or what kind of food you like to cook, or how your money is invested, or which auto insurance you’ve found is best, or how to change a flat tire or jump-start a car, or how to make small talk at a large group gathering, or whether you know how to dress yourself for a variety of social functions, or whether your home is decorated and not barren, or if the linens have been washed recently.

There are only 100,000 things to keep track of, after all. And we’ve been taught, in this incredibly educated, urbanized, affluent generation of ours, that a key mark of success is to have all these things controlled in a tight and orderly symphony.

But good God, it can require so much time and energy.

I don’t want to mis-state my case here. I don’t advocate that we simply ignore everything I wrote above. I just wonder if we should slow down with it all, or have some freaking patience. We seem to be hell-bent on multi-tasking the shit out of our lives.

As most of you probably know already, multi-tasking is actually slower and less effective than what is simply known as ‘single-tasking’. More technological connectivity and mobility in our society means that we can manage to multi-task more than most of the world, but I suspect our quality of life goes down more than we know, in the process. Our sanity suffers for it. Quite contrary to our Kenyan friends, we feel frequently pulled in every direction, and rarely truly at peace. Some people have to periodically escape the American city entirely, turn off their phones and computers, and experience a single-tasked existence for a little while, in order to return to a state of true peace.

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Anyway, so I think I’ve articulated my broad point, which so far is not any kind of new news, really. What I want to do now briefly is see if we can find the precise point where we and our Kenyan friends diverge.

It’s pretty easy, actually. If you are a multi-tasker like me, just try sitting down at home with a few free hours on your hands, and start doing something productive or focused. Anything really. See how long it lasts. I predict that within a short time (shorter than you guess), you’ll either A) get bored and move on to something else, or B) get voluntarily sidetracked by another project that demands your attention. That’s usually how it goes for me.

There have been very few times in my life when I’ve actually been any good at doing just one thing at a time, for a while at a time. By the way, I have never been diagnosed with any form of ADD. Instead, I think I’m just conditioned by our electrified fast-paced urban culture, and I have been from a young age, and so have you. If I ever want to truly focus on anything, I have to spend a few weeks de-tuning my brain so it’s not resonating like a drum all the time. How about you?

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I’m going to guess that the first way we kill that Voice in the backs of our heads will be to accept that life actually can still be good when it’s slower, and when we do less. That is an incredible hurdle for our American minds to get over, because it seems to cost us the hard-won put-togetherness that we’ve fought so hard to achieve. But, if we can swallow that, then the next step is probably to space out our to-do list over weeks instead of hours, and then make a habit of turning off our electronics more often than we’d prefer, and letting our senses breathe with some quieter stimulus for as often as we can stand.

Let’s de-tune our brains together, want to?

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I believe this thought is half-finished, today. Still, I’d like to hear if anyone has sharper ideas about any of this.

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