Life moves fast. For many, perhaps too fast. So many of my patients report feeling stressed, pressured, overwhelmed, overworked, exhausted, and always feeling that they are at least one step behind. They report that, while they are aware that much of their lives are suffering, there seems to be little that they can do to change it. Even those who believe they are making efforts to find restorative time, report that it feels like anything but. Time at the gym, time at the yoga studio, time set aside to meditate all turn into “obligations” or “work.” People rush to get from place to place, squeezing in whatever time they can find for these “leisure” activities, and then race off to the next commitment. The result is often a lack of time to re-charge, refresh, and reflect. It is no wonder that so many adult relationships (marriages, friendships, etc.) are relegated to subordinate status and thus wither from neglect. Physical and mental health suffers, as well. We often don’t take enough time for sleep and rest, and are so pressed for time that we deprioritize the importance of good nutrition and healthy food preparation.
A few weeks ago, I had a “frighteningly” enjoyable experience. Why “frighteningly?” I was scheduled for a routine MRI, and I actually found myself looking forward to it! The MRI was a time when I knew I would have an uninterrupted, stress-free hour to just think, relax, fantasize, or just let my mind drift to nowhere—all without any possibility of disturbance or distraction. Now, I am well aware that most people (actually everyone except for one other person I know!) would not characterize having an MRI in this way. Indeed, most people I know dread the process. They may be claustrophobic, find themselves being annoyed or distracted by the noise of the machine, frustrated by the restriction of movement, etc. Not me. I was so looking forward to my MRI as a time for reflection. What I found frightening; however, was the awareness that if I need to schedule an MRI in order to find a dose of “quiet” time, I must not be taking enough time in my day to nourish my being, reflect and take stock of my day and my life.
In her recent book, Leadership: In Turbulent Times, presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin dissects and discusses the leadership styles of four of our greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, and Lyndon Johnson. While they each developed their own style of leadership, one habit they shared was taking an opportunity for reflection each and every day. For them, time for reflection was not an afterthought, but rather an integral part of their daily routine. They each spent time reading, thinking, and reflecting in at least 30-60 minutes a day of uninterrupted quiet time. Such time allowed for not only restoration, but also spurred on moments of great inspiration and creativity. This is true of many of our greatest writers and artists, as well. Much of their inspiration, innovation, and productivity came during those moments of quiet reflection.
So what is an ambitious, productive American adult to do? It is certainly a challenge to find opportunities to slow down and think. However, it is doable. The religiously observant honor the Sabbath. Many European countries have systemic rituals that ensure time for vacation, family, and proscribed work hours. For those of us in the United States; however, finding quiet time for reflection has never been more difficult. Advances and innovation in electronics and social media have made many of us feel bombarded by information and the demands to respond to inquiries with great haste. While many of these developments have been welcome, we must remember that all progress comes with a price. There is only so much time in a day, so many days in a week, etc. For every “yes” there must be a “no.” What this means is that we make choices and need to be willing to assume a greater responsibility for the trajectory of our lives. We have more control over our lives than we may believe, although I will grant that it is increasingly difficult to wrestle that control from the many pulls and demands of our time. Nevertheless, the more we allow the control of our lives to be dictated from the outside in, the more our health and our overall existence will suffer. Existential therapists (of which I am one) challenge their patients to assume responsibility for the lives they lead. We encourage them to live a life of meaning and a life to be proud of, which often translates into living a life with as few regrets as possible.
Therefore, I propose that each of us take a few moments to ask ourselves if we are living the life we desire. Do we experience joy, pleasure, and relaxation? Are we creating a life of meaning that we are proud of? Try to take some time for reflection each day and find time to take stock of your life. Find the courage to assume the responsibility for your choices and your life. Be sure that you are doing what is meaningful and inspiring. Prioritize time for quiet reflection. And of course, don’t underestimate the value of the time required for an MRI!