Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Owning the balance we choose

This week, via the lovely Chris Atherton and this blog post, I came across David Sedaris' theory of four burners, as on a stove:

"One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health, and the fourth is your work. The gist...[is] that in order to be successful you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful you have to cut off two."

It's an interesting model for taking stock of one's life and priorities, and the concept - that at least one and possibly more of what are traditionally considered the important areas of life will need to be neglected in order for a person to be successful - is a familiar one. Women aren't the only people who have been sold the dream of having it all; increasingly, the promise of modern life is one of plenty and abundance in all four of the areas Sedaris conceptualises as burners. We can have great careers, life-affirming friendships, the kind of family life we've always dreamed of and enjoy wonderful, glowing health throughout as we hurtle through the longest life expectancy of any human generation.

Screw that. Anyone who's tried to keep each of those plates spinning, or burners burning, can tell you quite plainly that it's not as simple as working hard enough at every individual aspect, or just wanting really badly for all of them to go in your favour. Balance can be achieved, but there's always a cost. And it's not always as dramatic as cutting off an entire burner, but, to have all four even close to perfect, a fair amount of compromise is needed in each. 

When I read of the burners theory, my first reaction was surprise. I'm happy with my life, and my initial thought was that this was because I'd managed to strike a good balance between the four burners.

Then I thought about it a little harder - not much harder at all, really, just for more than three seconds. And it dawned on me, like a cold and unwelcome sweat, that I could immediately and assuredly name which two burners I neglect so that the other two have a chance to flourish. I'm not going to name my two; that's not the point of this. But I knew, and I did not much like my answer, because it was heartless and narcissistic and unhesitatingly certain.

Luckily, I kept on thinking about it. And I don't think the situation is anywhere near as dire as I had begun to fear it was. The problem with the metaphor of the burners, useful as it is for a surface evaluation of priorities and as a way to conceptualise compromise, is that it's all-or-nothing, and doesn't really encompass the subtleties and nuances of the thing it sets out to describe. 

All of the options, when thought of in terms of being "cut off", are too extreme. They're an appeal to emotion - they conjure images of people whose health fails at the expense of everything else. People who have great friends, fulfilling careers and who are healthy, but who go home at night to an empty house. People who have loving families and who will live well into their eighties, but who have no friends and a dead-end menial job. Think about your burners, especially the one(s) you habitually neglect in favour of the others. Then imagine your future - yourself in twenty or thirty years - if you continue neglecting these aspects of your life. It's a frightening thought, isn't it? Ending up old and wealthy but utterly alone because you didn't invest enough time in friends and family when you were younger. Dying slowly of something preventable because you thought there would be plenty of time to eat better or quit smoking after your kids had left home and you'd retired. Not a single choice, in this game that each one of us is playing, looks like a winner. 

I don't think it's as bad as that, though. After spending some time moping about my own particular choices and priorities, and the miserable dotage I was afraid they were slowly dooming me to, I started to see the idea of the burners in a different light. I came back to my initial reaction - that I was happy, in total, with my life as it stood. That it felt as though I had the balance right, even though I could see clearly that my choices and actions in terms of these four life areas were anything but even-keeled. And it occurred to me that our balance - and with it our happiness - is what we make of it. 

There are even get-out-of-jail-free cards in this game; the great thing about thinking of these parts of your life as stove burners is that you can choose to lavish attention on a neglected part in the short term, or in the future, and make small steps towards evening out the balance. If even is you want. 

I'm happy with my life because what I make of it is what I choose to make. I felt heartless when I thought about the things I currently invest less into, because thinking about the concept of burners made me more aware of the unconscious choices I make, and when I became conscious of these choices, it seemed unconscionable that I should continue to make them. People who neglect x, or so I have been conditioned to believe, are not good people.

The more I thought about it, though, the more it seemed as though working harder at the areas I was so ashamed of neglecting would begin to suffocate me. I may not give as much time or attention to them as I feel I ought to, or as I should in order to be evenly balanced, but I give them as much as I can, and the results feel comfortable and fit in well with the way I live my life.

There is no way to burn all four burners on full and end up with a good dinner. Balance - total balance - is elusive. It may not ever be attainable. What is attainable, though, is a balance that you, personally, feel happy with. That is what I have, and I refuse to be ashamed. If everyone's neglecting something, we may as well all own our neglect.

I'm not saying you should stop calling your mother entirely, or that you should skip work tomorrow and go to the movies, or that chain-smoking a pack of Bensons is the best way to spend your evening. But don't feel too guilty about what you think you ought to be doing - if you're happy with how you've struck your balance, things will almost certainly work out just fine.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Why I secretly love commuting

Commuting is the scourge of the modern age, right? Even if you're lucky enough to have a job you don't hate going to every day, the commute to and from it is nothing but a pain in the ass. By car, by bus, by train, by foot, by ferry, by bike. It adds up. Unless you buy or rent a place that's right on the doorstep of your office, you're going to be spending some quality time every morning and evening with your own thoughts and as many as a thousand other humans (the average 1973-stock Piccadilly Line train has a maximum capacity of 1238 people), none of whom really want to be there.

Except me. I live exactly 3.5 miles away from my office, and I take the bus. This 3.5 mile journey takes around 40 minutes in the morning and usually longer in the evening, depending on how late the bus service is running and when I end up leaving the office. I've been doing this bus journey for about eight months now, and I thought I hated it. Thought I hated it to the extent that I spent a lot of time plotting how to buy a car with no money. Yes, that's a euphemism for stealing. Partly because I miss driving now that I no longer live in Plymouth. Partly because owning and financing an automobile would allow me tick off another item on the list entitled, 'Adulthood'. And partly because it would at least halve my travel time every day.

The one thing I thought the bus had going for it over and above driving was the fact that a bus journey, although it throws me into much closer contact than I'd like with forty-odd strangers (some of whom smell noticeably bad, or have a habit of talking to me even when I put up my "I want to pretend that this very public space is in fact intensely private" guard, or like to sit at the back of the bus rapping along to violent, angry music), gives me a good hour and a half of daily reading time. My last job, though I drove to and from it, included 70 minutes of mandatory breaks every day, which was when I got my reading done.

But reading time wasn't enough to sell the bus to me. I dreamt of being able to leave the office whenever I liked, getting into a car and going straight home. No more negotiating pedestrian crossings with traffic light patterns weighted heavily in favour of motorists. No more standing around for twenty minutes because the driver of the previous bus was too impatient to wait and the next one is late. Minimal exposure to inclement weather. Car ownership was the stuff of dreams.

Now, though, I'm not so sure. I had the tiniest of revelations on the walk to the bus stop after work last night. Like the road to Damascus, except a lot more urban, and I didn't have to change my name.

My commuting time is also my thinking time. A significant proportion of the ideas I have, good and bad - short stories, plot twists, character development, terrible puns, blog posts - occur to me during the time I spend travelling. The same thing happened when I drove to work at the beginning of last year. I was working on a series of poems with very tight meter, and most of the metrical improvements I made originally came to me while I was driving.

When I read on the bus, especially in the morning, I'm usually only half-reading (unless the book is particularly engrossing). I put the book down a lot to think. Commuting is just about the only time I'm truly alone with my thoughts. If I spend the evening alone, I'm usually jacked into my laptop with music on; any potential thought-space is crowded with verbal and aural information. The rest of my time involves at least some degree of social exchange, which (as anyone who saw the media fuss about introversion this week could tell you) is both rewarding and exhausting. The commute is the downtime that I need, and it's the time I spend thinking about everything beyond the details that preoccupy most of my day. If I had to describe the last five or six times I thought about big-picture stuff - the huge, pressing questions that used to entrance me for hours at a time when I was younger - I'd bet you decent money that I was somewhere between Mill Road and Milton Road, on a bus.

The cliché of people having their best ideas in the shower is not as silly as it sounds - showering, along with commuting, is one of the few everyday experiences which involves minimal social stimulus. And it's the time that's freest of social stimulus which is the most rewardingly ruminative.

The travel time that I wanted to slash in half with my very own Model T Ford is, it turns out, incredibly precious to me. It's when I do the wondering and reflecting that used to take up most of my thought-time as a child, but which has slowly been encroached upon by the massive shift in the way that I live now. I hated the two long bus journeys it took to get to secondary school, because at that point I had more than enough thinking time. I was constantly looking for ways to get outside of my own head. But now, although bus travel has become no less frustrating since I left school, it's also one of the few chances I have to do some proper thinking.

If you're anything like me, you probably think you hate your commute. It's the insulation on either side of the working day that cuts into your precious free time. But maybe - just maybe - it's also the best opportunity you have each day to do the thinking that gets marginalised by the rest of your life. And, for that reason, commuting perhaps deserves a better reputation than it has.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

The best thing I read this week...

...had some stiff competition. I finished Consider the Lobster and read The Sense of an Ending, both of which have ended up pretty high on my "best things I have read so far this year" list. But the best thing I read this week was not fiction or literary non-fiction. It was a very short ebook by Andrew Lightheart which has the potential to be game-changing for me in a very important way.

Andrew's current focus can be found at apeacefulresolution.com, on the topic of difficult conversations and how to deal with them. I was intrigued by a blog post on the site which someone linked to from Twitter, and even more intrigued by the existence of the e-book - so much so that I did what I never do, and signed up to a newsletter. With my work email address and everything. I have a couple of dirty email addresses (mostly spam and newsletters, nothing important likely to come through them), one (my gmail) which is a balance of clean and dirty, and my work email, which I like to keep cleaner than clean (except in terms of language and content, of course). Any kind of syndicated email publication is anathemic to my own conception of clean email, so I tend to sign up for newsletters using one of my dirty email addresses and then never read them. But the blog posts I read over at A Peaceful Resolution looked interesting (and visually clean) enough that I didn't think the newsletter was going to annoy me, so I took the potentially-besmirching plunge and signed up with my work account.

My reward for doing so was the ebook which I have already mentioned, the BTIRTW of this post's title. Now, I imagine that a large part of A Peaceful Resolution's target audience is people who have just come to the realisation that they need to have a difficult conversation (defined as "any interaction that isn't totally straightforward", usually because there are a lot of emotions in play) and, worse, that they are desperately ill-equipped to do so. People with an acute case of difficult conversation syndrome who are looking for topical relief. When I came to the site, it was not as one of them. That's not to say that I never have difficult conversations. They crop up more often than I'd like, and usually when I'm least expecting them. And some important and necessary conversations are always going to be difficult. Therapy, for example, is one long difficult conversation. But (as is the case in terms of conflict resolution with other people as well as within the self) there are times when it's got to be had. No, I did not go to APR because I wanted the eponymous peaceful resolution for some specific conflict. I went there by accident, but when I did, it became clear that there was a lot of stuff worth sticking around for.

The first weekly email I got after signing up contained not merely discursion, but also a task. A simple task, but one which I hadn't done before. It outlined the concept of the emotional heatmap, with a four-stage scale encompassing green (emotional wellbeing & general good feeling), low amber (niggling anxiety & emotional discomfort), high amber (clenched, high-intensity negative feeling) and red (outright rage or grief), and theorised that most of us spend most of our time shuttling between the ambers - true green and true red are rare. The task was to spend the rest of the day mindful of the heatmap, and to take into account the shifts in feeling which occur during the day.

Think about how you felt on a particular day and you'll probably pick one static feeling which characterises the whole of that day for you. "On Monday I was really happy because I had a really nice date with x", or "Thursday was a total write-off; I couldn't concentrate at work and went home with a terrible headache." The most overwhelming of the emotions experienced on any one day seems to paint itself into the cracks of time and colour entire days, but, from hour to hour and minute to minute, the reality of human experience is not that clear-cut. I had some idea that this was the case, but didn't realise the full extent of it until I tried thinking about how I was feeling in terms of the emotional heatmap. It turned out, on the day I tried it, that I was all over the place - from solidly in the green to right up at the top of high amber, not-sure-I-can-keep-this-in-check style emotional intensity. Admittedly, it was an outlier of a day because of all kinds of non-typical stuff I had going on. But if I hadn't been bearing the heatmap in mind, and you'd asked me today how Monday had gone, I would probably have said that it was mostly terrible but got slightly better towards the end. Which, based on what being mindful of how I was feeling brought to light, would not even begin to cover all of the places my feelings were going over the course of one afternoon.*

Already, I was impressed with APR - I'd received an email newsletter which didn't annoy me at all in terms of formatting or tone, and which had contained a task that I found both fascinating and useful. Double win. And then I read the ebook I'd received upon signing up for the newsletter. It was incredibly simple and incredibly effective.

The ebook, Stop the Dread!, is an 11-step pointer in the direction of difficult conversations. It lays the groundwork which needs to be done before having the conversation itself. All 11 tips are interesting, and some are truly inspired. The best and simplest deal with the kinds of cognitive biases which affect the way we think every day - things like trying to predict how the other person in the conversation is going to react, or being sure of what they think, when really we can't know anything beyond what we can perceive and what they tell us. And the reminder that what you do and what you say is in your control, but, beyond that, not a lot else is - you can't control what the other person does or says or thinks, or how they react. It's really simple stuff, but it's stuff that I have an enormous tendency to forget, especially when emotion triumphs reason (as it so often does in highly-charged situations).

I'm not a big believer in self-help or personal change, especially not through a weekly email digest or thought for the week format. I'm too much of a cynic to believe that the majority of these self-help- and business help-style newsletters are doing anything more than making money and paying lip service to common sense. The stuff being covered on APR should be common sense, but so often, in the heat of the moment, it isn't. We all lose sight of things, lose sight of ourselves and our control and our reason when we're wound up about or wounded by something. Stop the Dread! is simple, effective mindfulness at its very best; the stuff it contains can be applied to any difficult conversation, conflict or interaction, from medicine to workplace to romance. I recommend you sign up to the newsletter and read the ebook right now. Go on. It's awesome.

*Side note: this is the problem I have with every kind of mood-tracking software/app that I've tried - none of them go into enough detail, either in terms of timeframe or in terms of emotional intensity. A graph which is minute-by-minute on the x-axis and able to be distinct and precise into the thousands on the y-axis would be perfect (scale of 1-10 doesn't quite cut it), but the stuff that's around at the moment is too blunt to capture that kind of data.