Saving Ourselves from Benign Neglect

In an age of speed, I began to think, nothing could be more invigorating than going slow.

In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention.

And in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still.

Pico Iyer, 2014

Over the last month, I’ve managed to do exactly what I counsel others to avoid. After a few weeks of unusually long hours, I finally caught the bug that’s been making its way through my school. Instead of downing tools and going to bed, I spent a week dividing my time between rest and making the meetings that I deemed essential. In the process, I tipped myself into pneumonia.

This hasn’t been pleasant for my extraordinarily patient spouse. Hopefully, I’ve not embodied the man-cold stereotype, but I’m pretty confident that whimpering occurred at some point.

What definitely transpired was a period of time when I was unable to bring myself to read or watch a news clip. Not even the latest tales from south of the border penetrated the fog. Forget about a few days of rest on the couch, my life was at a full stop. All I could do was think and sleep.

At the time I didn’t find this very satisfying, but it did occur to me that it had been quite a while since I spent a day alone with my thoughts. Quite predictably, as I began to regain my faculties, I automatically sought ways to fill the time. I wish I could claim lofty pursuits, but there was a day that focused almost entirely on WatchMojo. It was as if anything was better than being still; I stuffed the void.

Thankfully, it was at this point that a good friend popped by with a gift: Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness. In this TED book, the renowned travel writer ruminates on the creative value and joy of going Nowhere, drawing from the experiences of contemplative souls like Emily Dickinson, Marcel Proust, and Leonard Cohen.

A timely read, it pushed me to reevaluate my entire month. What was I trying to achieve with all the long hours at the outset? I was being incredibly productive, to be sure, but there was a cost, not simply in terms of tiring myself out. What was happening to the quality of the experience, for myself and others? I found it telling that even when I got sick, I still wouldn’t let go, convincing myself that I was striking a completely reasonable balance.

In fairness, I did slow down, which was better than continuing the sprint, and I did stop work entirely after only a little bargaining when the doctor declared my lungs compromised.

But what really causes me pause was my abandonment of stillness as soon as I was well enough to fill the space with news and top-ten lists. It was like I was out of practice. In fact, I soon realized that I was out of my practice. What happened to the intentional gaps that were built into my life only a few months ago? I hadn’t decided to let them go; they slipped away, unnoticed. Benign neglect.

Which is why this whole debacle is something for which I’m grateful. If not for the full stop, who knows how much longer I would have stumbled along before realizing that something was missing. Now adjustments are being made; space for stillness reinstituted.

And already, I feel better.

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