This week, I’d like to write about something that’s been on my mind for the last month since I quit my job (and pretty much every transition point in my life over the last 15 or so years – and if you’re anything like me, your life will be full of these stages and transitions). When I look back over my life, I’ve often gone from one thing straight into another, especially when it comes to work, without taking any time to stop and think about where my life has got to, or the things that I’ve accomplished to that point.
I suppose this could be called human punctuation: taking a pause at the appropriate place to enhance the perception of meaning in our lives.
What do I mean by taking a pause? It might be easier to describe what I don’t do, and what most of us neglect in our lives. Typically, when there’s a transition point in my life, I rush up to it, making sure that I’ve done everything I needed to do to prepare for it (e.g., changing jobs, moving house, taking a holiday), and then I go straight into the next thing (which usually takes up a lot of effort and energy) and emerge a few weeks or months later tired and a little deflated. All the work that I’d done in the last phase seems to simply carry over into the next without a sense of, well, punctuation…
So what can human punctuation entail? I’m not sure I have the answer to this, because it’s something that’s only just taking form for me. But from my perspective, I think it means stopping, even if it’s for a few days, to catalogue our achievements over the last few months or years, to recognise what we’ve been able to do, to identify how we’ve learned or changed or grown, to highlight the areas that we didn’t do at all well and could be improved on and then, most importantly, to stop and experience the downtime between these life events, rather than simply filling it with mental planning and projecting ourselves into a future that hasn’t happened yet. I’ve talked a fair bit about mindfulness in previous posts (and will be writing a dummies guide to mindfulness soon), but if ever there was an appropriate time to be “mindful” of your experiences and surroundings, it’s between major life events.
There are probably two main reasons we don’t punctuate our lives regularly or adequately. The fist is the age-old excuse that most of us trundle out to justify not doing pretty much anything: “I don’t have the time…” It’s a pretty sad excuse, but one that often dominates our lives. It’s also pretty thin when we take into account all the time and energy we expend preparing for change and getting ready for transitions – so much, in fact, that we don’t have any left for experiencing the transition itself.
The second reason, strongly tied to the first, is that we often don’t believe that we’ve done anything that justifies such an introspective moment. This isn’t our fault – it’s a societal impetus that’s programmed into most of us from birth. In the west it’s sometimes labelled as “work ethic” (or the protestant work ethic), and it basically says that we have to work our arses off for reasons we don’t understand, and without pause or deliberation. It says that work is all that’s important (not whether the work is meaningful or fulfilling), and that taking time for self-development or introspection is self-centred, meaningless, and a waste of time. It’s hard not to listen to this programming – society values “hard work” and looks down its nose at anything that could be labelled indolence. Thus, taking time to consider your life, to experience the mechanisms of change, and to take a pause between bouts of societally-approved function is not considered valuable to society and, by extension and programming, to ourselves.
Linked to this notion of self-sacrifice for the greater good, is the lack of consideration given to what we’ve achieved. Because introspection is often considered synonymous with idleness or, at the very least, self-centred (nonproductive) behaviour, we avoid it and feel guilty when we get stuck in introspective traps (when you mind keeps prattling on and on and just won’t shut up or let go). So we don’t take the time to celebrate our achievements, to identify our successes, or to recognise the time when we don’t need to achieve or be successful, simply to be for a little while.
Of course, this discussion begs the question: why bother taking pauses? Why not just keep up the momentum?
Put simply, we’re crap at simply being. We’re great at doing. We’re programmed to do, and be damned good at it. We’re excellent at trying and giving it our all.
But when we stop for a little while we have a chance to cleanse our existential palette, kind of a sorbet for the soul. This gives us a chance to move to the next stage in our lives with some freshness, rather than just doing the same thing in a different environment. Equally importantly, it allows us to move forward with some purpose. I’ve talked quite a bit already about the importance of understanding and acting on our values (here). If we take the time between the major events in our lives to reconsider what’s important to us, we’re better able to make important choices as to how we can and will live our lives. These choices need to focus around values congruent behaviours: acting in line with what’s important and meaningful to us.
Punctuation: it’s how we learn to be human rather than drones.