Thinking about certain aspects my job for just a few minutes can induce a feeling of anxiety, a tightening of the chest and quickening of the heart; in contrast, reading a couple pages of a book on physics can release a sense of wonder, joy, and magic in my veins like a balloon that loses itself in the wholeness of the sun. That I can travel so quickly from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other is akin to zooming in and out on Google Maps: keep clicking until you are so close that, with Street View, you can see traffic, garbage, graffiti, then keep clicking in the other direction until you have a view of an entire city, state, nation, continent, planet. Now you have an idea of the difference between the two states of mind.
I’ve always felt myself capable of overcoming the difficulty of the moment by stepping back and basking in the grandeur of the cosmos, but that capability has far too frequently been washed away in the tidal pull of what’s happening today, right now. When I was younger and had fewer external reasons for stress (think worrying about my identity as compared to worrying about a grant report) it was far easier to stare up at the sky and let my thoughts wander lonely as a cloud, to paraphrase William Wordsworth. Nowadays my gaze hardly wanders from the road ahead and the task at hand.
This is of course why people suggest that I do yoga or meditate, but I’ve always found those activities to be too contrived; I never had to force myself to be inspired, so why should I do so now? A more natural approach came to me last weekend when I was listening to the radio while working on my bicycle and a segment about physics came on. I don’t even remember clearly what the topic was–something about the Big Bang, I believe–but suddenly I stopped thinking about what would happen if Capital Good Fund didn’t hit its lending goals this year and turned my mind to the billions of years during which the cosmos has formed and evolved. Without even realizing it, by forcing this juxtaposition on my overwrought brain–day-to-day stress on the one hand, the enormity of it all on the other–I could see my little problems for what they were: little problems!
As an emotionally unstable young adult I was often drunk on the elixir contained in every atom in the sky–a cocktail there for the taking if you are bold enough to grab it (to be clear, I don’t mean actual drinking; I’ve never enjoyed alcohol!). Of course, while this spiritual inebriation produced a lot of poetry and ideas, it also resulted in severe bouts of depression and an inability to get anything done. Now, as an actual adult I am quite productive, but my productivity lacks the élan of poetry. It is as though I learned to build a house but forgot to imbue it with beauty!
To a certain extent I’m talking about work-life balance, albeit I loathe the term and the concept (if you love what you do, what’s the point of compartmentalizing your life so as to isolate the one from the other?). Instead, I think the key is to put one foot in front of the other while pausing as needed to look up at the jungle you are traversing, the sunset you are entering, the matters of life and death that render infinitesimal whatever challenges you are facing today.