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Nothing All That Urgent


On a recent morning run, I found myself engaged in my long-familiar obsession of ruminating over what I had to accomplish throughout the remainder of the day. As I listed the tasks in my head, I could feel my shoulders tighten and my pace increase. Then it occurred to me that I had completely invented the schedule and the deadlines. I do have things I want to get done, and I’ve made a few commitments here and there, but they are all entirely of my own making and based on my own self-determined structure. Still, the urgency I felt was as if 10 people were going to be waiting for me on my front porch, hands outstretched to receive the piles of work I had promised.

Urgency has been a part of my thinking process for as long as I can remember, a direct result of my other fixation—staying busy. I learned early on that "having a lot to do" was one of the best defense mechanisms ever created. Being "too busy" prevented me from having to engage in anything I didn’t want to do. But urgency is so much more insidious than simply being otherwise occupied because it serves as a relentless tyrant for most of us. Whatever we have to do bears down on our shoulders, breathes down our necks and pushes us until it’s taken care of. And, because we are so accustomed to approaching our lives in this way, we rarely stop to question the validity of a particular deadline, or even the task itself.

In the cool Spring light of this new world I’m in ... the rules are all up to me.

Of course much of this behavior is a result of so many years of working, where “crucial,” “urgent,” and “imperative” are used as adjectives on a daily basis, often resulting in a loss of the true meaning of any of those descriptors. Most of us also work, or worked, in large, complex environments where there wasn’t the time or creative energy to re-evaluate whether these burning goals were even still necessary. And, to make matters worse, we’ve all stayed well past 5 p.m. to finish a task to meet an arbitrary deadline, only to realize that eight other people who had the same cutoff date were home with their families because they decided that tomorrow would be soon enough.

I’m realizing these days that I brought this urgency with me when I retired and I still apply it freely to everything I touch. When I first stopped working and it occurred to me I could do whatever I wanted to do, one of my initial thoughts was that I had to hurry or I’d run out of time, especially now that there was so much possibility. It reminded me of when my students used to say that they felt “behind” in their lives, that they should be somewhere further along the trail, despite being only 23 and still in school. When I was advising them, instead of reflecting on my own faulty thinking, it was easy to say, “Relax. Those are all fabricated stories we tell to keep ourselves moving forward.” For myself, sadly, I often apply much more stringent guidelines.

My point, of course, is that in the cool Spring light of this new world I’m in—the one where I really can decide how I want to spend my time and to what I will apply my energy—the rules are all up to me. This, naturally, is infinitely easier said than done. I’m taking baby steps now, having to remind myself every 10 minutes or so that the real goal is to be present, to enjoy my life and my friends and family, my dogs, my ideas, and the way that gentle breeze feels as it wafts past. Too bad it took this long to get it that this would have been a good way to have lived all along.