Bored with yourself

One of my friends is also the parent of two small children, working full time, volunteering at her church and generally strapped for time and kept very busy. She mentioned the other day that she felt desperately dull. Hoo boy. Do I know that one. Every parent struggles with different aspects of the changes that come with being parents. Some mothers really struggle with the changes to their body and autonomy. Some fathers have trouble changing their identity to match with “person who gets up with the kids at 6:30” and not “guy who hangs out with his buddies on Wow until 3 am”. Plenty of parents hit hard between the difference between who they think they are (and probably who they were) and the realities of the sleep-deprived, Dora-enhanced, macaroni-and-cheese-only life they currently live.

There are a few reactions to this. I think we’ve all met people who have decided the appropriate response is to sign over their entire identity to parenthood. This is an understandable reaction to the overwhelming demands of parenting, especially if you have special needs children, or more than one or two kids. There simply isn’t a lot of time for crafting and maintaining your separate personhood. The downside to this comes in about two decades, which is a long time to think about the downside. That’s when all of a sudden, your children no longer want you to identify yourself by them. They become adults. They don’t call home regularly from college. You have free time. Suddenly, the question of “who am I?”, if you have been answering that question with “Mom” for the last 20 years, can hit you like a Mack truck.

I don’t necessarily think that the absorbing parent identity is a bad or horrible thing — it can be a joyful and realistic one, I think — but it’s not what I want. Underneath the laundry, the job, the church roles, the dinner-cooking, the story reading… I still want there to be a me that uniquely belongs to me, and who I find interesting. Most critically, to be happy, I need to have something to think about.

You’d think this would be easy, wouldn’t you? How much time does it take to have interesting thoughts? I see my mind like an old grain-mill on a river, with heavy granite grindstones. You feed the wheat in. The slow, powerful river moves the stones day and night without ceasing. And out comes flour – the nourishment I so desperately need.

The problem is that in my life as it is right now, there’s no grain coming in. The stones mill the few kernels I pass in finer and finer. Eventually the stones grind only against each other. There’s no flour coming out. The mill threatens to bind and break. And I don’t have enough time to go gather and bring the plentiful wheat in the fields. When this happens, my life gets dreary and boring. I don’t have anything to daydream about. I don’t have anything to write about. I don’t have anything to think about. I don’t (this is the worst) have anything to dream about. My dreams grow terribly prosaic and boring. There is no space between the reality of my day and the escapes of my sleeping mind.

The grain in my mill analogy could be anything. It could be literature, or Economist articles, theological concepts, or interesting concepts on NPR. Some things have heavier harvests than others. For example, rereading Tolkein for the 93rd time, while fun, is pretty slim-pickings for grain harvest. The bounty that came from reading the Odyssey for the first time, however, kept my mill happily humming for about two months. Lately I have been feeding it with all the new things I’ve been learning at work. While there is a great deal of volume in these new people, technologies and places, the flour that comes out isn’t particularly nourishing. The night’s dreams are too much like the day’s realities.

I want the Me — now buried under the mounds of laundry in the basement, the piles of dishes rising above the filthy kitchen floor, the edifices of un-put-away blocks — to be an interesting person when she has a chance to re-emerge. I want to have vibrant dreams. I want the boundaries of my world to keep pushing out and expanding. The universe is so large the walls of my world would never have to stop growing, so long as I continue to push. There truly are nearly an infinite number of interesting ideas to pursue.

For example, one of the best harvest-books I’ve read in the last ten years was Power, Sex and Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life. It had all these amazing new ideas and concepts, but was written so a non-scientist like me could approach and learn. More recently, The Happiness Project has given me good thinking. The Sarantine Mosaic was full of rich images and ways of looking at the world. I look upon Lois McMaster Bujold as a great, gift-bringing prophetess of new thoughts. I can’t tell you how many nights I’ve mulled over Miles’ personality quirks or had an astonishing revelation about the naming of Sergyar, thanks to her rich, idea-filled writing.

I am time-broke. I’m pulling time-pennies out from under couch cushions and hitting my relatives up for loans. I’m doing without and buying the economy version, when it comes to time. I cannot afford to invest in something that doesn’t work. I can’t reread a book for comfort, or nostalgia. I have to be heartless when it comes to tossing aside the dregs of books that do not inspire, or who have great stuff if only I had the patience to get to it. I need dense, accessible, rich works. These are actually harder to come by than you might think.

For my friend, I came up with my criteria for fields to harvest, books to read.

1) It should be new. Although rereading books means that the quantity and quality are known, you won’t get as much new stuff to think about (unless you were like 12 the last time you read it).
2) It should have depth. I love reading the pattern-heavy romances and fictions as well as the next girl, and probably better. But when starving for thoughts, you can’t afford to spend your time eating cotton candy.
3) It should be lovely. I would not want to find enough time to read and invest your scarce energy into a book, only to have it be full of the DEPRESSING DOOM OF DESPAIR (for example, from what I’ve heard, The Doomsday Book would qualify easily for 1 & 2, but it fails my criteria for depressing).
4) It should be readable. I love Chaucer in Middle English. Now is not the time of my life when I have the unbroken concentration and energy to plow through remembering that “eke” means “also” and “yclepd” means “called”. That was a once-and-future time.

The Odyssey was a great example of a book that met these criteria. It was full of new thoughts and delightful turns of mind. I’d never read it before. (I KNOW!) It was truly lovely. And thanks to a good translation, it was eminently readable. Next up will be Plato’s Republic, for a reading group a friend is putting together.

So what about you? Are you a parent whose identity risks submersion? Have you come out the far side of parenthood and had to rethink who you are? Does your sleeping mind starve for new thoughts? How do you feed it? Do you dream astonishing dreams, or prosaic ones? What should I read to ride on the wings of new dreams?

The limited power of words

I love it when two divergent streams of thought crash together in my head to create a new realization. This usually only happens when I’m taking in sufficient forms of new thoughts. Sadly, my intellectual diet is more than a touch anemic these days. I do miss college for a rich diet of new perspectives. Anyway, enough lamenting.

When I expressed interest in learning more about sales strategies as part of my “I’m bored at work, what new thing can I learn” phase that predated my job change, my husband bought me some books. One of them is Influencer: The Power to Change Anything. You really never know what you’re getting when you buy these books — all the copy about them is written by the same guy with the same vocabulary. Sometimes it’s a good blog post, in the form of a hardcover. (That was two books back.) Sometimes, it’s the completely obvious stated and restated. Sometimes it’s more narrative (I did enjoy “How To Make Friends and Influence People”). Sometimes the entire books seems to be about how IMPORTANT and LIFE CHANGING the lessons of the book are. Sadly, those lessons can usually be summed up in about 3 bullet points like:

  • Stop being a jerk to people, or they’ll get back at you
  • Eat fewer calories, exercise more and you will lose weight
  • Hamsters are funny

    Anyway, the Influencer book falls into the slightly academic and actually somewhat useful category, with slight side trips into the obnoxiously-telling-you-how-important-it-is genre. One of the points it made was that we, as people, tend to over-rely on telling people things with words and not do enough with showing and demonstrating things. It talked about the influence of example, instead of lecture. I read, and pondered how to apply this to the difficult challenge of getting a 4 year old to actually EAT his DINNER already.

    The next day, our pastor’s sermon was on Jeremiah. Jeremiah was a terribly popular prophet who went around telling the Isrealites that they were dooooooomed and that they had to shape up or Babylon would lay the smackdown on. Shockingly, they didn’t listen. Rod even mentioned that Jeremiah used some of the techniques discussed in the Influencer, namely visual metaphors and field trips. (Er, Rod didn’t make the Influencer connection. That was me.)

    Rod’s sermon on Jeremiah

    Anyway, that got me wondering. Is there a cultural bias in Western, Christian culture towards believing words are critically important in part because of this early tradition of prophecy? In the Gospel of John, Jesus is described as The Word, Logos (I’m going to get in trouble here — dear Greek scholars, be kind!). Throughout the Bible, words and speech are given special privilege and power, as they so explicitly are for Jeremiah. But that’s hardly the only place, “Thy word have I hid in my heart….”

    I think it would be fair to argue that the Bible is the most influential cultural element in Western Culture. (I’m sure you could argue con, but it has to be up there). Does the Bible reflect a baseline human passion for words and speaking? Or instead, did a particular interest in language reflected in the Bible nudge Western culture towards an extra emphasis on the value of words and language — possible sometimes to the detriment of example and action? Are there other cultures where language is less influential or important, where actions or even visual arts are more important? Does Western society over-emphasize language at the cost of other effective communication?

    My pondering continued into the offering. I have heard stories about times when powerful and eloquent speech moved hostile crowds to change their minds, their actions and their lives — moments when one person standing in front of the masses spoke and the world changed because of it.

    I have never experienced that moment. My mind is not easily changed by rhetoric or blog posts. I consider the facts available and weigh them with my experiences and values. I think about things. I’m rarely caught up in the enthusiasm of a crowd. I’m not sure I listen well enough, and with a sufficiently open mind, to be changed by a modern prophet, should one arise.

    We greatly weigh words, but do we listen anymore? Does the great cacophony of the modern age diminish the influence of any one set of words? What does it mean if we become immune to something we consider so critical to our understanding of the world?

    Many questions, no answers. What do you think?