Adventures in Distraction

My world is filled with mixed messages. First, it’s go slow. Then, it’s do as much as you can. Enjoy your leisure. Make the most of this retirement you’ve worked so hard for. You deserve it. Friends want me to have the time of my life, go on a big vacation or do a multitude of other activities that’ll prove I’m being good to myself.

Don’t get me wrong. I know everyone means well. But when I received an inheritance this year, the pressure to ramp it up increased. According to some well-meaning friends, that was s a sign I should let loose and do something really special. So this last summer, I boarded that runaway train of instant gratification and traipsed from one unpredictable escapade to another. I said yes to everything.

First, two bus trips, one to a play and another to a historic tourist town and a Mississippi riverboat ride, a Brewers baseball game and two writing conferences. The Madison event I call my writing spa retreat, a week on the campus of UW-Madison. The next, a five hour drive to Rhinelander, was challenging but worth it as I learned the fine points of poetry. Then, precious days spent with various groups of girlfriends doing what girlfriends do best. And finally book groups, writing groups, lunches and coffee dates with friends all mixed in; cap that off with an exciting four day extravaganza to New York City. What was I thinking!

I’m two weeks back from New York, it’s the end of the summer and I’m still feeling “the lag.” So glad I did it all but also happy to be settled in and home once again. Time now to think it all through and process the experience. A large part of my thinking includes many words of wisdom from books and articles I’ve been reading lately. Very esoteric topics. Appreciate solitude. Be mindful. Allow yourself to be distracted.

All the way back in 1988, Anthony Storr, an English psychiatrist, in his book Solitude: A Return to the Self, extolled the virtues of integrating into our lifestyle what he calls” the capacity to be alone.” This is especially important as we age since older folks no longer rely so heavily on primary relationships as they did in their earlier years. Time to become acquainted with ourselves, he said. Or get to know ourselves maybe for the first time.

He speaks at length about how we shouldn’t automatically think there’s something wrong when we see older people who seem isolated since this is a natural stage of development. Gee, maybe this needs to be added to Erik Erickson’s famous developmental tasks.

Storr opens the chapter on the Use of Solitude with: “In a culture where inter-personal relationships are generally considered to provide the answer for every form of distress, it is sometimes difficult to persuade well-meaning helpers that solitude can be as therapeutic as emotional support.” I think I’ll have to read this to my well-meaning friends.

Phillip Chard, in his syndicated column Out Of My Mind, says that what he calls an “intentional distraction” can be a good thing, a way to feed one’s imagination, solve problems and foster creativity. He further states that getting mentally sidetracked can be very beneficial.

The definition of distraction is: a condition or state of mind in which attention is diverted from an original thought or focus of interest. For example, Chard admits that he occasionally plays word and video games on the computer and says this is a chance to zone out and get in touch with the subconscious. Einstein, Chard notes, said that he never realized any of his scientific breakthroughs using rational thought alone. He relied on his intuition and his best ideas often emerged when he was distracted.

In the Art of Stillness, Pico Iyer states that “in the age of speed…nothing can be more invigorating than going slow. In an age of distraction, nothing could feel more luxurious than paying attention. And in the age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still.” He reports that in a new field of interruption science, it takes an average of twenty-five minutes to recover from a phone call. Yet such interruptions come every eleven minutes. That means we never catch up. That is, unless we make a conscious effort.

All these thinkers say we need to slow down. Therefore, I’m giving myself permission to take as much time as I need to recover for my big summer adventures. I’m also no longer looking at the time I spend playing solitaire on the computer as wasted time. In fact, I’m thinking of it as meditation, a benign distraction that will calm me and help me be more creative. So, all you out there who say you’re addicted to Candy Crush and Words With Friends need no longer feel unproductive or guilty.

When I think of my writing, it’s good to put aside that essay and let it percolate for a while. I get it that there’s nothing like returning with a fresh set of eyes a few days later. How can I argue with what works for Einstein.

I’m enjoying being home among familiar surroundings once again. I’m sure I’ll go on more trips and might even re-visit the craziness of New York City. But I’ll do it on my own terms and not feel guilty when I say no thanks. Most important, I’m welcoming distractions into my life and seeing them for the priceless opportunities they are.

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