The Joy Of Not Hurrying

Photo: Autistic Psycho

The other day I found myself standing in a long line to buy breakfast in my hospital’s cafeteria when I noticed something that surprised me:  I wasn’t feeling annoyed at having to wait.  In the past, such a delay to the start of my day—to any part of my day, really—would have driven me slightly crazy.  Not because I think I’m so important that others should part before me, but because of an omnipresent feeling I’ve had to get on to the next thing I needed to do—whatever it was.

I’ve long lamented the difficulty I’ve had in enjoying (and even in participating in) the present moment.  My wife has frequently accused me of living mostly “in my own head.”  But it wasn’t until I found myself standing in line waiting to buy my breakfast that I finally realized why that accusation has been true.

Quite simply, for as long as I can remember I’ve suffered from a persistently acute feeling that I’m running out of time.  Sometime in the past, self-awareness of my mortality began driving a powerful desire to create some monumentally important meaning or contribution with my life that would not only survive my demise but resonate with the entire world (I’m nothing if not ambitious).  But only in that moment of standing in line without feeling annoyed did I recognize that the sense of urgency I’ve always felt (without a single moment’s pause, really) to accomplish something great was in fact the cause of my inability to enjoy any moments that lacked a direct connection to that goal.

I had clearly come to feel that the non-meaning-creating moments were ones I needed to hurry through in order to get to the meaning-creating ones (with the notable exception of the leisure activities I seemed free to enjoy—largely because, I think, I conceived of them as rest).  I’d always been vaguely aware that I’d been missing some important insight involving all this but never really thought I needed to operate any other way.

That is, until one day when my wife confronted me with the fact that she frequently felt as if she didn’t have a husband.  I was shocked to hear it, but her distress was so genuine that I resolved to understand what I had done, or was doing, to contribute to it (thinking to make use of the wisdom of a crowd of one).  This led me to the insight that I had too narrowly defined the boundaries of what making a contribution meant.  It didn’t have to mean caring for patients, providing emotional support for friends and family, writing, and painting.  It could also mean smiling at a stranger or striking up a conversation with one, spending quality time with my wife and son, and nourishing my spirit with a good book, movie, or sunset.

The extra insight I gained while standing in line, however, was that in broadening the definition of what felt meaningful to me I’d become more able to focus on the present moment—and the people close to me.  I no longer felt pressured to use every moment to create something that I could leave behind for the future.  I’d finally freed myself from the distracting sense that whatever I was doing, I should have been somewhere else, working on something important.  I was finally able to experience the joy of not hurrying.

Many people are overwhelmingly busy (and, more importantly, feel overwhelmingly busy) and probably lament as I did an inability to stop and smell the proverbial roses.  I wonder, though, how many know what specific thoughts or beliefs are ruining their ability to strike a healthy balance between living for the future and living for the now.  It seems to me such self-knowledge is worth pursuing.  I’m not one of those who thinks the solution to life’s problems requires only that we learn to live in the present.  The future is important.  I am one, however, who thinks establishing a health balance between the two is critical to happiness.

Perhaps a simple thought experiment might help whenever you find yourself feeling rushed:  imagine the worst consequence of failing to move on at the speed you feel you must.  Imagine the specific consequences.  Then ask yourself, why do those consequences matter to you?  Somewhere in that answer, I suspect, lies the belief that compromises your ability to slow down and enjoy yourself.

As all these thoughts cascaded through my mind, I glanced at the other people waiting in line with me and recognized an acquaintance.  I smiled at her.  “Hello!” I said brightly.  Startled at first, she came back from whatever place she’d been and smiled back.  “Hi,” she replied.

Next Week:  Taking Full Responsibility For Your Life

21 comments to The Joy Of Not Hurrying

  • Anthony

    Alex—thank you for articulating so well the problem that I have faced for so long! For me, I have reconciled my problem by instead of always trying to DO good works, I have resolved to just be a more loving person. We are indeed human beings and not human doings. I have tried to let the doing come out of the being. Easier said than done! But thanks for explaining the problem so well and it’s good to know this problem is shared by others.—Anthony

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Alex Lickerman, Lisa Fields. Lisa Fields said: @AlexLickerman Another Great Post: Thanks The Joy of Not Hurrying: I wasn’t feeling annoyed at having to wait. http://bit.ly/fv5yZC [...]

  • thquah

    Fantastic post; reminds me to take life as it comes moment to moment. We should always remind ourselves to slow down and enjoy life if our life is always full of stress.

  • Louise

    Alex,
    Thank you for this post (all of your posts are thoughtful, intelligent and insightful, by the way). I know what you mean about slowing down and appreciating the here and now, and being mindful of the situation, regardless of where this is. I am an cancer survivor and one of my many take home lessons that I have learned that even when I am slowed down by a grocery line or in stalled traffic, I am leaning to appreciate the situation for what it is and make the best of it. I do not feel annoyed—instead I practice yoga balance moves (in the grocery line), practice some new pranya breathing method I’ve learned about (in stalled traffic). However, I am also a mutli-tasker, and a list-maker in a hurry to get it all done efficiently. But I am coming to a tentative conclusion that rushing may make the task at hand feel important but in hindsight, at the end of the day, during meditative yoga, I realize that rushing doesn’t necessarily make what I am doing important. It just feels that way. This is not to minimize the tasks and projects at hand—rather, pausing and stopping to deeply smell the roses reminds me to take nothing for granted and to be grateful for it all—shopping lines, traffic and the joys of being. And I agree, it is about creating and maintaining balance in our lives, which is an ongoing process.

    PS: Glad your knee is feeling better and you’re able to run again!!

    Louise: It does make all of life more enjoyable, doesn’t it? And thanks for the well-wishes about my knee!

    Alex

  • Is it just a coincidence that around the same age we begin to fully appreciate our own mortality, we also begin to gain the wisdom to realize that it isn’t all about doing, doing, doing. It is also about being. Perhaps it is only about being.

    Being doesn’t mean not doing. But “being” to me represents the “how” of your life, while “doing” might represent the “what.” And with that wisdom comes a recognition that the how—how kind, thoughtful, compassionate, reflective, perceptive you are—really is at least as important as what you do, create, build, accomplish.

    And I agree with you that it isn’t *all* about being in the present moment. But oh how being able to be fully present—which is very rare in today’s fast-paced, information-overloaded, and distraction-laced world—brings with it such a different experience.

    Through presence, I understand how William Blake was able to glimpse the spacelessness and timelesness of the present moment:

    To see a world in a grain of sand,
    And a heaven in a wild flower,
    Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
    And eternity in an hour.

    Thanks for sharing the wisdom and the joy of not hurrying, Alex.

    S-

  • I love this post, Alex—and especially your insights about broadening your definition of what feels meaningful to you. In my own life, I’ve noticed that even the simplest moments feel meaningful when I show up fully (the example of making “small talk” comes to mind). Thanks for another great read.

  • kimsia

    Fantastic article.

    Resonates with me as much as the Good Guy Contract article.

    Many parts of the article apply to me except that at the same time when I realize that my definition of meaningful, contribution-making activities have expanded, my mind also automatically started categorizing the more ambitious ones as more meaningful than the other ones such as creating a big business over making someone smile/laugh as more meaningful. Not that making someone smile/laugh isn’t meaningful, mind you.

    Ha.

    Insidious mind I got there, yeah?

    I laugh at my own crazy mind.

  • Coincidentally, I just posted about something similar to your subject (scratching my beloved dog vs. jumping up and putting newspapers away). The lessons are subtle and so important!

    I tend to multitask like Louise, and try more often to be where I am, realize that the hurrying doesn’t bring fulfillment (and is often counterproductive). Luckily I have the capacity to learn. ;-)

  • Alex,

    This is so insightful. I loved that you wanted to find the obstacle keeping you from full presence. It is such a fascinating inquiry when we ask “what am I believing right now?” and “What would I have to feel if I didn’t believe it?”

    You are so right. I find some core fear usually is behind my lack of presence. Accomplishing something meaningful was/is such a big one for me.

    Thich Nhat Hahn in his precious book on mindfulness Peace Is Every Step suggests using something that usually annoys you as a “bell,” a reminder, to come back to your body, the moment. Waiting in line or at a red light is a great such bell :-)

    Thank you for the generosity of your writing.

    It helps me remember what matters most.

  • Diane

    Alex—

    I felt that you were totally looking into my life. The need to multi-task has become such a habit that even at home I become frustrated at the thought of not getting everything done even though it may be impossible. I don’t want to miss my time with my grandsons and yet I do because my mind is always one, two, three weeks ahead. I need to live more in the present and as you stated think what would be the worse thing if it didn’t get done. Thank you for reminding me of this.

    Diane: Glad you found it helpful.

    Alex

  • Susanne

    As John Lennon puts it in one of his songs: LIFE is what happens while you’re busy making other plans!

    Yes, mindful of the present will make for a richer, more deeply experienced life! And reading your reflections on living, Alex, surely reminds us to do just that!

    Thank you!

  • Lisa

    Long time lurker, but I rarely comment, but I had to respond to “but because of an omnipresent feeling I’ve had to get on to the next thing I needed to do—whatever it was.” I laughed right out loud with that one, because you described exactly what is in my head most of the time.

    Enjoy your insight, and glad to know I am not the only one!

  • I think you are going to have to go through this one more time in life when you retire. I am working on retiring in a few months at 69. I have been a veterinarian on call 24-7 most of the time for years but able to have a lot of free time too. I am in good health and enjoy my work but think that it is time to quit. But when I quit I will not have my claim to “fame.” I know at this point in life I am not going to develop the cure for cancer or some such BUT in this country we all have been raised or brainwashed to be doing some great thing and suddenly there I am turning myself out to pasture and really slowing down to the moment.
    I actually have a guilty conscious for stopping when my current health doesn’t require it. I quit once years ago and it was nerve wracking and I am afraid when I quit again (slow down) it will be equally nerve wracking as I won’t be able to start a business again. I feel guilty for not being around for friends and clients I have worked for for years even though I know I will be replaced as a vet in an instant. So now I will try to broaden the “boundaries of making a contribution” without any pressures.

    I’ll will wish you luck if you do the same.

    David: A lot of my patients become depressed once they retire (a well-recognized phenomenon). Human beings just seem to be built to create meaning and value with their lives. But just because you’re retiring as a vet doesn’t mean you can’t find some other meaningful thing to do. I always counsel my retiring patients to think about retirement not as the end of work but as the end of one type of work.

    Alex

  • Mansi

    Hey Alex!

    Aren’t we short of words when addressing all our thoughts? I think I am…

    Nice post!

    Thanks

    @Steven—Nice thought…

  • Christie

    You have stopped and smelled coffee. It took a near death experience for me to re-examine my life. It does not bother me to wait in line (or wait for ___ [fill in the blank]), as long as I am not pressed to do something immediately afterward. And I try not to put myself in that situation. And this is possible because you are in control. If not, then re-evaluate what you are doing. That’s the beauty of being a human being.

    I went to a District meeting where one senior member told me about the time she accrued three parking tickets in one year. She realized that she was not paying attention to her situation, and that the rules are there for general safety. Now, she rarely incurs parking or speeding tickets.

    Thanks for your article.

  • Great post. I had a very similar feeling waiting for the elevator today. I’d usually try to rush and catch it, but didn’t even try today. Instead they held it for me.

    I believe what slowed me down was last night hearing about a bike accident that happened at a traffic light. So today I took it a little slower on the bike, being more cautious, and glided into work with a little more Zen.

  • Does this mean that you’ll be putting up posts that will take more than 5 minutes to read?

    Jerry: No. Just that if you’re a slow reader and need to take more than five minutes, you should thank me for the training I’m providing you to live more in the now. ;)

    Alex

  • Glenn

    Well, you know you’re a bit crazy when you rush to—and arrive early at—a place where you don’t want to be. Ask me how I know. :-)

  • Anna

    Oh man, you sound like me. :)

    Very interesting post, very interesting blog. I will bookmark it.

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  • zeenat

    Alex,
    Returned to your website after nearly 2 years. Happy to be back :) A very meaningful post. And I feel blessed to have many such alone moments to be with myself, look within and without, and just live :)

    Zeenat: Glad to have you back.

    Alex

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