Slow Down And Decide How You Want To Be In The World

Sometimes you get to a point in your life when you hit the wall of “one more too many.”

One more phone call, one more commitment, one more problem, and you’ll break. One more bill, one more decision, one more change, and you’ll fall apart. Your skin feels stretched over your bones to the limit. Your brain swells and presses painfully against your skull. Your memory refuses to absorb one more bit of information.

You feel tired of life, yet you go to bed tense and wake up anxious, your list still buzzing in your mind like an angry swarm of bees. Beset by too much to do, you can’t seem to focus on any one thing long enough to actually enjoy doing it. At the end of a productive day, you can’t recall a single accomplishment worth remembering. Eating lunch alone, you can’t help wondering if Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was right in saying that all our progress has turned out to be “an insane, ill-considered, furious dash into a blind alley.”

When I find myself en route to this particular dead end, all I feel is weariness and a terrible feeling of disconnection.

That’s when I head to the Option Institute at Sheffield in the Berkshires for a week of provocation and reflection. I need to break out of the habits of mind that are driving me down this road. I need time to think, to be coached in how to create a meaningful world from the inside out one more time. Luckily, Barry Neil Kaufman, head of the Option Institute, has figured out just how to make that happen.

On my first morning there, the group of us found ourselves faced with a rack full of costumes. I chose a Superman costume with a flowing red cape. It suited me to look so streamlined and unassailable while I felt flat and empty inside. I felt a rush of identification with a woman from Utah, who said in describing the dullness of her life, “There’s so much to do. Excitement only slows me down.”

When we changed our costumes, I chose to come back as a convict. This time I felt the constriction of overload, as if my heavy pack of things-to-do had been keeping my eyes to the grindstone for weeks. Suddenly, I was aware that phone calls to my friends were at the bottom of my list, “allowed” only after everything else was completed. I no longer made time for walks with friends, or had energy for a friendly cup of coffee after a meeting, or felt up to inviting folks for dinner. All the relationships that nurture me had been relegated to the category of “one more too many” in my already too busy life.

“How do you want to be in the world?” Barry asked, and suddenly the floodgates broke. I’d been a model of efficiency, lost in a whirl of scattered thoughts. Now, five hours into our first group session, I felt human again and even the intensity of my pain and sadness was a relief. I could breathe. I could feel my longing for companionship again.

I came home, determined to change my pattern. Within a week, one of my favorite women dropped by to give me a copy of her newly published book of poems. “Stay for coffee,” I said, delighted to find I’d left space in my schedule for an unexpected encounter, but she had too many other stops to be able to tarry, and rushed away. A week later, a wonderful woman came by to give me a copy of a poem of mine she’d calligraphied for me as a gift. “Will you stay for a cup of coffee?” I asked, excited by the opportunity to get to know her better, but she had errands to run before a dentist appointment, and left right away.

I’ll probably never get to know either of them.

Because we’re all too busy. Overstressed and overextended, we deny that there are limits to how hard we can push ourselves before we are undone by our own unmet needs for other people. In our rush to succeed, to consume, and to accomplish, we are busily burning the bridges that connect us to supportive family relationships, a network of friends, and the feeling of belonging to a caring community.

“We must have some room to breathe. We need freedom to think and permission to heal. Our relationships are being starved to death by velocity. No one has the time to listen, let alone love,” says Richard A. Swenson in his book “Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserve to Overloaded Lives.”

What is the point in our being here? Are we so focused on work, on education, on making and spending money, that we’re willing to sacrifice the social, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of our lives? How long can we keep running away from Barry Kaufman’s question?

“How do you want to be in the world?”

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