Contrary to what some charitable readers might think after reading my New Year’s post, I have always been scattered and disorganized. Even before I had three kids in diapers — heck, even before I had any kids, even before I was married — I lived like this.
In fact, I remember a time a few years ago when I was feeling particularly overwhelmed, I asked my 90-year-old grandfather if people were this busy when he was younger. I was sitting on the edge of his couch, glancing at my watch because I was in a rush to get to “important” thing on my to-do list, but I wanted to take a minute to hear about his life on the farm back in the 1920’s. Surely there was a ton of work to do to keep a farm up and running — was daily life back then the chaotic mad dash that it is today? Did his mom always seem overwhelmed and frazzled, bemoaning how behind she was on everything?
He replied with an emphatic no.
Life was not rushed and chaotic. They didn’t live under the constant feeling of being stressed and overwhelmed that people seem to today, he said. They had their share of worries, and lots of hard work to do, to be sure, but daily life had a peaceful rhythm to it that is utterly lacking today. I wondered if maybe he was looking back through rose-colored glasses, misremembering life back then. Yet when I asked other people of his generation, they all replied with the same answer: life is hectic today in a way it never has been before.
I’ve always wondered why.
Meanwhile, my husband has long been intrigued by the impact of artificial light on health. Ever since a vacation we took to Costa Rica where we experienced the inky blackness of nights with few artificial lights — and the major impact it had on our physical and mental health — he’s been wanting to do an experiment where we try to go a few days without any artificial light, using only candles at night.
A couple months ago he got all excited to make this happen, and when I went to turn on the kitchen light to clean up after dinner he reminded me to light a candle instead. I became increasingly exasperated as I tripped over unfinished cleaning projects and almost knocked over a candle while transferring clothes to the dryer. Then the dusky candle light started to make me feel sleepy, which only added to my irritation. Finally, when I knocked down a stack of folded clothes from trying to put away laundry by candle light alone, I put an end to this crazy experiment.
“This is absurd!” I huffed as I went through the house flipping on every light I could find.
As my husband and I squinted at each other in the harsh overhead light, he suggested that we try the experiment again another time. I chuckled at his naivete — didn’t he see from the way things had gone tonight that such a thing is simply not feasible? “It’s impossible, ” I informed him. “There is no way we could get by with candlelight alone.” He pointed out that it is not technically impossible since nobody even had electricity in their houses until relatively recently in human history.
Though of course I knew on some level that that was true, for a split second it struck me as completely incorrect. How could it be possible that people lived before artificial light?, I wondered. I was hardly past the half-way point of my day when the sun had set, not even half way through my to-do list! How did they get anything done?!
“Look, ” I replied. “The only way we could possibly do a couple nights without artificial light would be…oh.”
Something dawned on me as I spoke. The only way we could get by on sunlight and candles alone would be to completely, totally rethink our expectations for what we could accomplish; to have all major work completed and cleaned up by sunset; to attempt only quiet activities like reading or sewing or family time in the evening hours…to live like our grandparents lived. We’d have no choice but to slash our to-do lists and our expectations of what we could get done in a day. We’d have to get up early and work purposefully and diligently to get the most out of the fleeting daylight. Feelings of panic and rush would be futile since we’d live with a clear sense that we cannot create more working hours than the light allows, that the sun is going to set when it sets, and there’s only so much we can do. Life would have a distinct daily and seasonal rhythm.
It would be pretty peaceful.
I’ve thought about this a lot lately, thinking of the flaming disaster that was our experiment of trying to go even one night without artificial light, and what that says about our lives and how they compare to all the societies that lived without modern technology. Here are some of the things I’ve come up with:
Just like with modern finances, modern daily life allows us to live under the illusion that we can add working hours to our day at will. Technology allows us to overspend our time just as credit cards allow us to overspend our money.
Life before modern technology was full of hard stops: the work day ended at sunset — if you didn’t finish laundry during the day there was no going back outside to the washboard at 9:00 at night; the work day began at dawn — if you got breakfast on the table an hour late that was precious time cut out of you and your family’s very finite workday; even finances had hard stops — when you spent your last dollar there were no tempting “0% interest for six months!” credit card offers waiting in your mailbox. And with a life full of hard stops, even the most disorganized, scattered people must have been forced to have some kind of routine, and to limit their to-do lists. Even people as inept at time management as I am must have been gently reminded to get to a stopping point and wind down their projects each day as the sunlight began its slow retreat from the sky.
When I considered also that in many times and places people lived in small villages where the community undertook activities together — e.g. the men all went out to work the fields at the same time, the women did the washing and cooking in a community area at the same time — I started to think that maybe one of the reasons so many people feel scattered and overwhelmed these days is because we’re just not meant to have to create our own schedules. Humans are used to powerful forces beyond their control like the availability of light or the momentum of community activities structuring their days. Having an Excel printout just isn’t the same. It doesn’t provide a true hard stop to simply have a line on a piece of paper. We’re free to ignore our arbitrary, self-set deadlines (as some employee at some recycling plant no doubt thinks when he keeps seeing papers with labels like “Jen’s Daily Schedule” and “Jen’s Daily Schedule – NEW” and “Jen’s Updated Daily Schedule” fly by).
I realized that without the structure of cohesive communities and the hard stops of life without technology, people like me are adrift. It is all too easy to float past the arbitrary boundaries I set for myself and lose any semblance of a routine; and by virtue of just flipping on some lights, my workday never really has to end.
There are people out there who are good at self-imposing routines, who have a natural tendency to have a clear end to their work days and observe periods of rest. I am not one of them. I love the idea of creating a “family liturgy, ” of “imposing order through structure and ritual”…yet how does someone like me bring structure and order to my days? How do I make it real when modern technology allows me to do drift out of the ritual and do whatever I want whenever I want? How do I make sure that “Jen’s Family Liturgy” isn’t just one more forgotten piece of paper down at the recycling plant? How do I create hard stops?
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