We weren't built for this.
Updated: Apr 4, 2020
Spring in India.
I find myself in the very back of a van with the windows down in the heat as we make the six hour drive, up up up, into the Himalayan Mountains where we will spend several days with a guru at an ashram engaging in meditative silence. The road is winding. Horns blare as we come around blind curves.
I suffer from severe motion sickness. It hits only minutes into the drive.
I had taken medication in advance of the drive, but it only resulted in drowsiness. Closing my eyes only amplified the woozy spinning sensation that rippled through me. I struggled against my body pulling for sleep, fighting to keep my eyes open every time that salty taste came into the back of my throat. The entire car load of passengers felt ill. There were no seatbelts in the back. I bounced sky high with every bump and each turn sent me sloshing from side to side as I held back vomit. A few hours in, as our carload of passenger neared a collective breaking point with enduring the car sickness, we blew a tire.
Moments before, a friend had graciously traded me for the passenger seat in hopes I might find some relief. The driver looked over at me in my despair and asked with such acute tenderness, “Ma’m, is there anything I can do for you?”
“Yes. You can let me out of the car, and then run me over,” I said. If I could do nothing else, perhaps I could keep everyone entertained with my misery.
“Ma’m I cannot do that,” he replied.
Just then the tire exploded and we peeled out onto the side of the narrow road.
We exited the car in a fit of laughter. 20 year-olds fooling around with ideas about manifestation. Had we willed that tire to pop to give us a break from the car sickness?
We were lucky to be alive. The road lacked guard rails. It was a sheer drop down the side of a cliff just inches from where we had stopped. We were alive. And we were out of that godforsaken van.
Within minutes we were eating snacks from the conveniently located shop on the side of the road to ease our churning stomachs. Masala flavored Cheetohs and bottled sodas. I was giddy to have something to snack on that tasted vaguely like home. My insides were coming back together. My head stopped spinning. The six of us sat on the side of the road laughing and relieved, replaying the moment as we slurped orange Fanta.
We spent some hours there, under a tree, while the tire was being repaired. We marveled at the convenience of a repair shop located nearby. The road had looked like there was nothing on it but dirt for hours, and now here we were. The car would be fixed and we had a break from the nausea. Such relief to stand still for a while.
Our bodies and minds weren’t created to travel at the speed a car or plane can carry us. We aren’t equipped to take in all the information whizzing by us while traveling at that speed. I even wonder if it confuses the nervous system or if all those images flying by get lodged somewhere as a stack of nagging unanswered questions. Neither are we equipped for the speed of the lives we live. The digital world we have created, our infinitely optimized lives with demands on our time and attention, leave us very little room for our simple humanity. We are not computers, though we are expected to keep up with them as if we were.
We weren’t built for this.
I used to pride myself on my ability to optimize. I’d drink a smoothie in the shower, squeeze in a 45 minute work out, sleep around 4 hours a night, and keep myself propped up with a 24/7 IV drip of caffeine, completing a pile of erroneous tasks that I believed my future self would thank me for. I have succumbed to an optimized life — an exercise class packed with the sweatiest most intense workout a person can get into a 45 minute burst of adrenaline - check. Dinner, at a restaurant so that it can double as a meeting or something I can eat without looking at my plate while deep in emails —eating — check. Shower — check. Sex — check. Meditation — check. Social activities — check. I’ve been so busy checking this and checking that that I’m not sure where living fits in. If it hasn’t been penciled in, I don’t understand what it is and instantly reject it or rifle past it so that I can get to the next box to check. But what if I didn’t? What if I didn’t reject that conversation with a stranger simply because it isn’t slotted into the day’s list of activities. What if getting ahead was less important than getting here? Right here. Right now. This now. This wild and beautiful now. What if I ate this meal called life while it is still hot and right in front of me. What if?
I used to believe my level of productivity was directly linked to how ambitious I was and that the payoff would be equal to the sum of my ambition. Right? No. All that really happened was that I made a few things I was proud of and a bunch that I wasn’t, and in between all of that I hadn’t tasted anything I’d eaten during that span of time, had to numb out in front of a television show in order to fall asleep, neglected people I loved, lost the love of my life, and fell headlong into crippling depression. I had let the demands of the world completely override my human needs and have their way with me.
I find myself thinking of that blown tire, the dizzying nausea of keeping up in our world, and maybe, just maybe, our collective consciousness willed this squealing of tires, this halt, this slowing down, this pause, to rest from the speed at which our lives are expected to move.
I don’t believe our bodies and minds were created to function in a digital age of unrelenting societal expectations that demand living an outrageously optimized life. Our brains often struggle to keep up with the pace of the culture we’ve built, resulting in depression and anxiety for many, a perpetual feeling of FOMO, and standards for success and beauty that are beyond what any perfectionist could hope to reach.
This pandemic, though undeniably tragic, is on the other hand perhaps an opportunity to pump the brakes and embrace a recalibration of what is truly important in our lives and let go some of the unnecessary nonsense that we allow to occupy so much of our heads and hearts. We are driving this car. We get to choose the speed. Are we speeding through our lives?
I cooked a meal the other night from scratch. Something I seldom do. Do you know how long it takes to make mashed potatoes from scratch? Perhaps you do, but the only time I’ve done this is at thanksgiving. It takes time to peel, soak, boil, wait, then use the strength of my arms to whip them. It’s not a complicated dish, but the steps require more patience than simply asking for them at a restaurant and waiting for them to be delivered to the table. I chopped cabbage and garlic and cut lemons and pan seared Sea Bass (which I had been given at a very fair price by the restaurant where I work when they shut their doors) and sautéed spinach with cabbage, and I felt at peace when I went to sleep that night. Not only because I had eaten a real meal full of nutrients cooked with love and joy, but because the time spent dicing potatoes was time that I got to be alone with and unpack my thoughts from the day. It wasn’t a chore, but a pleasure. I had nowhere else to be. I didn’t rush through it to get on with my night or emails that needed to be returned. And it struck me that this is what my body and mind has wanted all along. To move at this pace. This human pace. That a majority of my anxiety comes from trying to keep up with a mode of living that I wasn’t built for. I have to ask myself, would I struggle this much with my mental health if I gave myself permission to move at a pace that is suited for me. I know some thrive on the fast pace our culture offers. I’m not one them. There is relief in finding space in my day for the gentle therapy of cutting potatoes or watering the lawn. Today I find myself relieved to stand still.
About a year ago, my life caved in and I was forced to address a lifelong struggle with mental illness. In the months of healing that followed the value of stillness began to crystalize for me and is now only amplified by the collective stillness our world is now experiencing. Somewhere along the way, I had forgotten that the point of it all is to live. Not just to be alive, but to live. To love, to laugh with others without the fear that this might take time away from being able to get something “accomplished”, some misguided stab at forward momentum which negates the simple beauty in recognizing that what is happening now is enough. What I have now is enough. In fact it’s more than enough. It’s beautiful and perfect because here is all there is.
We live in a world predicated on more. If I have this, I need that next. I grew up with a father who spent every vacation planning his next one. And I learned to live my life this way, curating the next to do list and allocating blocks of appropriate times to experience pleasure confounded by lots of “doings” rather than recognizing that the simple and spontaneous pleasures are the most satisfying. Kissing a lover before starting the day. That simple act might be the single most delicious moment of the entire week. Why brush past it on my way to check the emails. Why!? Why negate our own human needs in the name of getting closer to getting something more? I’m guilty of this.
In hindsight I realize that speed was, in part, a protection mechanism for me because I felt already wildly undeserving of what was in front of me. Low self worth led me to believe I needed to attain more just to be able to hang on to what I already had…but that’s a conversation for another day. In short, I lost a lot of people and places that were dear to me, believing that if I slowed down long enough they may catch a glimpse of the real me and realize I wasn’t worthy. I believed my value came from what I could accomplish or provide, and not who I was, who I am capable of being. Perhaps being with what we have also means believing we are worthy of what is already here. I think that today it takes great courage to stand still and be with what is. There is bravery there. It requires facing so much of what we fear to lose.
Today I understand that my ability to optimize has absolutely nothing to do with my worth. It’s a daily act of courage to choose whether or not I engage with society’s pull for me to focus on my future rather than the present moment. We live in a world where it’s not unusual for a break up to occur via text message rather than a phone call or a face to face conversation, or for the news of a death to come via email. It’s an active and moment by moment decision to push against the optimization of time that occurs all around us and the bounty of shields available to protect us from true human connection and compassion, when ironically, I do believe it’s the thing we crave most.
It’s okay to slow down.
I work in a busy restaurant and it’s not unusual for the servers from the morning shift to greet the night shift with an onslaught of requests for help so that they can leave for the day — “drop a knife on this table”, “bring an iced tea there,” etc. There was one afternoon that I came in for a shift and was greeted by a blurry eyed server who’d clearly had a long day and needed to know which tables I was taking over. I’d just walked out of the kitchen door and he stormed up to me with little eye contact to ask the question. I stopped him mid sentence and smiled and said, “Hi Steven.” I knew we could get to all the other stuff in a second but I wanted him to know, that I know, he is a person and not a server-robot, and that I was a person too before we carried on. His eyes filled up with tears. His whole demeanor softened. We are so used to running on autopilot that we neglect our need to be acknowledged as people. We are so fixed on efficiency that we neglect our own humanity.
At the end of my life I won’t turn in a completed to do list. I won’t get an A for completing my life’s homework. I’ll be left with the feeling of whether I had lived and if I’d done my life justice by the manner and degree to which I have loved and experienced the world, people, food, music, adventures, nature, art. You came here to live, Jenny P, not just to do but to live.
This time we have now can be, if we allow it, a beautiful slowing down and an opportunity to access our hearts and check in with the influx of demands that ask us to put strain on our mental health. It is up to us to resist. It’s in navigating our own pace for engaging with the world we’ve created and honoring our limitations, that we find peace.
I am reminded of words our guru, Anand, spoke to me in those mountains In India where we had at last arrived safely. The specific words have faded from my memory now, but he was talking about the inevitability of the cycle of life, and that we are always in one of three modes— creation, maintenance, or destruction, each one feeding the other into the next phase. We cannot create new life to then maintain until we have allowed for a period of destruction. The seasons are a perfect example of this. Winter comes and strips the trees of their leaves and of their flowers and they sit covered in snow for months. In New York, I was amazed each year to see the plants return, without the help of humans, after being seemingly wiped out by the crush of winter. And yet they come. Year after year. The flowers and trees and plants re-emerge energized and happy to taste sun again. Creation. And this is then maintained until, right on time, winter comes to crush the old once more.
Perhaps what we are seeing is a crushing of our old way of life. Nature taking hold and saying , a new season is coming.
And here we find ourselves at the heal of spring, following her. Do we spring forward, into the new, into the unknown, into creation? We will not be the same when this is over but we have the opportunity to choose what the new growth of spring looks like for us as a society.
I do believe we will arise from this anew, having endured undeniable destruction. We will, if we allow ourselves to be, forever changed by this. And we have the opportunity to decide what kind of change that will be, what we allow to stay stripped to the side, and how we prioritize our planet, our moments, people, and resources from here forward. My prayer is that we take some of this stillness with us into the future. It’s so precious. It’s so delicious. It’s so necessary. It’s so human.
Thank you, Josh Beren, for the 4am conversation that left me, like so many of our conversations, with a litany of thoughts and ideas about our world. Thank you for breaking time with me. Those conversations have always and will always shape me and my view. I’m unspeakably grateful for you. Thank you for always being there when the tire blows and for finding space for laughter amidst chaos.