Monday over Coffee: Triage

Triage

It happens on trips, at concerts, and especially at my kids’ events. Something cool is happening right in front of me and rather than just experiencing it purely in the present, I elect instead to capture it for posterity from behind my smartphone. Most of us have a bit of this in us. We recognize something special is occurring, and we think it’s so likely that we’ll want to see it again or share it with others that we’re willing to make the following bargain—even if the experience is degraded a little by the snap of a few pictures or by recording a little footage of it, it’s worth it for the sake of the future. Fair enough, I guess. But the volume of these artifacts on my phone hints that maybe something else is going on.

 

A second thing: I often set upon a course in the morning to accomplish some important task that requires a big block of time and some creative energy, only for it to quickly get shunted aside by what, in the end, aren’t particularly urgent emails, texts, and calls. Soon I succumb to the need to empty my inbox, “clearing the decks” so to speak, before fully turning my attention back to the original thing that required a higher level of concentration. Sometimes, I don’t make it back all day.

 

Any of this sound familiar? 

 

First, on the pictures: I’m not going to be too hard on myself here as it’s reasonable to want to preserve good memories, especially in regard to your kids—they grow up so fast. Having said that, trying to memorialize too much can degrade the essence of these experiences themselves on occasion. My kids remind me of this from time to time, and it’s true. Sometimes we try to hold on too much and too tightly instead of just being fully present to the power and the beauty of what’s playing out right before us. 

 

Second, on the inbox thing: The problem with getting distracted like this is that there’s no end to it. The so-called “clearing of the decks” never fully occurs. There are always loose threads, matters that can’t be resolved, and new things that arise in the place of those just completed. British journalist, Oliver Burkeman, in his recent book, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mere Mortals, points out that the more efficient and productive we are in responding to items in our inboxes, the more replies we generate, often increasing the tempo at which they flow, which in turn requires even more of our attention just to keep up. That is to say, this idea of fully “clearing the decks” now to create some uninterrupted space to do other valuable work in the future when everything is tidied up, is a fool’s errand. At the end of the day—too late—you realize you’ve awarded your attention to a series of less urgent things, while that really important and demanding thing you set out to do at the beginning of the day has remained, yet again, remarkably untouched.

 

What both of these behaviors have in common is a sense that the future is more important than the present. While I guess sometimes it is—often we ought to delay gratification or sacrifice today for something better tomorrow—we seem to go overboard with this trade-off quite a bit, failing miserably to grant sufficient attention to the moment we’re presently in. In other words, we triage our attention— the most important thing we have—imprudently.

 

My misadventures with my inbox and over-commitment to the boxes on my to-do lists can, if I’m not careful, pitch me into the trap of thinking of each day not so much as the miraculous gift from God that it is but as something I just need to get through, knock out, and complete. And that’s surviving, not flourishing. 

 

Burkeman’s book about time and attention and managing it well wisely informs us that life is not just a problem to work out. Moreover, he warns us that this picture of eventually getting on top of life, of finally getting things sorted out, completely organized, and permanently smoothed over is an illusion. It’s alluring, but a mirage. To triage an imaginary moment in the future where your problems are all resolved and everything is perfect ahead of the present moment as it exists, even with all that is done and undone, is ultimately no way to live. We have to tolerate some clutter, and if happiness, peace, and tranquility can’t land in the present moment—though it exists imperfectly—there’s nowhere for them to land at all.

 

God—May I triage the present moment right.

Amen.


—Greg Funderburk


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