Cynthia Degnan, PhD, MSW, LCSW
Intake and Trauma Therapist
Several years ago, I was lucky enough to spend 28 days backpacking in the Sierra Nevada mountains. That trip exposed me to endless awe-inspiring views, made even more glorious by having hiked the miles to see them. When I returned to Central Illinois, which was only newly my home at the time, I struggled with the landscape and desperately missed the mountains I hiked in, as well as the time I spent living in Northern California where beautiful natural spaces were plentiful. Eventually, though, I realized that only part of that awe inspiring experience was made up of what was available to be seen. The other part was the way I was looking. I took to trying to see the world around me with my “backpacker eyes” and started to notice that the way the light hits the top of the trees on early morning dog walks can look like alpenglow or how huge the sky is when you’re driving through plowed fields. I am not perfect about it, but it has made a difference in my life to shift my attention to notice the natural beauty that is around me, even on the same blocks that I walk my dog every day.
Two books I’ve encountered recently have me thinking more about attention and how we can make active choices about where our attention goes. The first I am only just a couple of chapters in to, but Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy struck me instantly as something I’ve been needing to read for a while. She writes about a cultural trend in the US toward commodifying as much of our time and energy as is possible. The most obvious example of that is social media where scrolling is the labor we provide to corporations who turn our attention into profit. She argues that we will regain a full connection to our lived experiences when we turn toward spaces and times that don’t require anything of us. Doing nothing is valuable, she argues, and we should not give that time away.
The second is one I have actually read in its entirety, and that is Oliver Burkeman’s 4000 Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. No one has escaped a conversation with me in the last few months without a recommendation to read this book. Burkeman explores a cultural obsession with time management and productivity that he has also subscribed to in the past. He reflects on how these strategies promise that we will be able to fit everything into the time we have if we just find the right strategy, instead of accepting that there will never be enough time to do everything we want. The 4,000 weeks in his title references the average human lifespan. He hits readers in the face with the reality that we don’t have unlimited time, and any efforts to deny that reality are a denial of our mortality. He encourages readers to drop the project of trying to make everything fit into a fixed amount of time. Instead we can accept the fact that we must choose, recognize the loss of what we are letting go, and to make our choices wisely.
These are the thoughts that are constantly on my mind in this last month of the year. Many of us celebrate major holidays that either have recently passed or are coming up quickly. And in our current capitalist system we are all entering a time where we are most likely (though not guaranteed) to have some time off work in which to connect with friends and family. The pressure around this time is enormous. In a short period, we are encouraged to have meaningful connections with our loved ones, attend office holiday gatherings, exchange gifts that were thoughtfully purchased, prepare or acquire and eat food together, and revive annual traditions. It is a lot—especially given the looks of exhaustion I see on many faces as winter and another COVID surge set in.
And all of that is if we’re lucky to have the resources and relationships that enable those experiences. For many trauma survivors, LGBTQ+ folks, and others, families of origin are not safe or easy to experience holidays with. Others don’t have economic resources or flexibility of time and travel to make these celebrations happen. And there can be an enormous loss in the feeling of missing out when we see images and hear stories about others who have had happy times during their holiday celebrations.
I wonder what would happen if we were able to follow Burkeman and Odell’s calls to be more mindful with our time and attention during this season. What would change if we were able to appreciate the value of unstructured, non-productive time, even in the midst of all of the available activity? What if we intentionally paused, even for a minute, to see the joy and beauty that does exist around us as if for the first time? What would change if we accepted from the beginning that everything we want to be possible will not be, and shifted our attention instead to choosing meaningful ways of spending what time we do have? What if we allowed ourselves to just sit with the loss of what we cannot do, without judgment of our limitations?
Imagine being able to have space to grieve all that we have lost as the pandemic rolls on and to celebrate the ways that we who are still here have survived. And then imagine what it would mean to find the connections and rituals that would give us meaning and a sense of having truly lived those moments.