The storm we carry with us

I had an unexpected bout with a ruptured appendix — mine, unfortunately — late last week, and as a result ended up missing several days of work. Having returned to the office on Wednesday, I immediately began to reconstruct my schedule of tasks and appointments. If you glanced at my Outlook calendar, you’d see what a Herculean effort this implies. But for all of the tiresomeness of this chore, the one oddly pleasant part of it was (and always is) the postponement of events into the future.

It’s enjoyable, I suspect, because in moving an appointment from “now” to “then”, I am removing it from a crowded, anxiety-inducing nest of adjacent appointments, and placing it in a placid, open, relaxing zone of relative nothingness — from an overloaded Friday March 19th, for example, to an empty Friday April 30th. Just visiting my empty future days on the calendar is relaxing in itself. So many slots in which to drop an appointment. So few conflicts. These dates even offer an extra layer of calm, in that they imply broad swathes of available and unbroken time in which I’d be able to work on the myriad of not-quite-urgent projects that clamour for my attention every day, and are forced, daily, to slink away unserved, leaving behind their thick patina of guilt to trouble my subconscious managerial mind. I could finish that white paper. The idea trickles deliciously around the back of my head as I finish moving the rest of my appointments.

But underneath all of this, in both my sub-subconscious mind and (when I allow it, eventually) in my reasoning brain, I know it is all a cruel illusion. Placid, open, appointment-free days are not real — or, to be more precise, they are real now, but they will never be real upon arrival. April 30th is, in every sense of the word, truly an open day. Yet I know that by the time I reach April 29th, April 30th will be the opposite of this: pre-committed, overflowing, full of stress. Even as early as April 15th, the 30th will likely have started to fill with odds and ends: a lunch, a phone call, a reminder about an impending deliverable. You can have freedom then, but you can never have it now. Or as Lewis Carroll’s White Queen tells Alice, “The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday — but never jam today.”

The truth is, we are the generators of our own unfreedom. I may sail across an infinite and placid ocean of time, but my ship is powerful and clumsy, and it generates both an immense turbulence around itself and a massive bow wave in front. Worse, I sail in formation with a myriad of other ships, each with its own turbulence and its own bow wave, all intermingling and interfering with each other both constructively and destructively to produce one huge and undifferentiated wave of complexity and stress stretching out for days in front of our combined fleet. We may stare longingly through binoculars at the calm water on the horizon, but we know that even when we reach it we’ll be no better off, having brought our storm along with us.

Yet all is not chaos. The turbulence around us is never actually uniform, and though the bow wave ahead of us promises unending strife, our actual experience presents us with occasional and unlooked-for moments of peace. Moments when the waves fall away and the ship goes quiet — perhaps a meeting has been cancelled, or a deadline moved back — and for an hour, maybe two, we’ve got no pressures at all. In that oasis of time, we feel free to read a bit further into the news, or to call a business colleague for a quick hello. We feel free to allow our minds to play a little: to extend a conversation beyond its immediate goal and into only tangentially-related territory, to pull an academic essay out from underneath the layer of working papers on our desk, or to doodle out an idea for a new business.

We feel free, in other words, to start to create our futures — an activity that requires peace and quiet and an absence of pressure. We need room to play, to conduct mental experiments, even to fail, if we are to redirect our lives in some meaningful way. But we must not fall into the trap of waiting for that calm period we see far off in our calendar to arrive before we start on this. The calmness we need — the only calmness we’ll ever get — is all around us, scattered through our days like holes in Swiss cheese. We should learn to use these moments as well as possible, because our individual futures are the last things we can afford to postpone.

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