Pressure, Happiness, and Time

Lately I’ve been feeling a lot of what Greta Christina once termed “humanist performance anxiety“. It’s a feeling that if we only have a limited amount of time, and the thing that gives life meaning is the experiences, emotions, and connections we create in that life, then we need to be DOING all the time. It’s a feeling that no matter what we’re doing, we should be doing it in a fulfilling, fully present fashion because otherwise we’re wasting our precious time.

But I think there’s a smaller version of this that can happen when we clearly see the end of something. For me, it’s the end of my time in a place I’ve been for my whole life. I’ve spent a lot of time here not feeling as if I need to do much exploring or getting outside of my bubble, letting some of my friends slip away, or just not being really aware of what’s around me. Now that I see I only have 3 weeks left before I’ll be leaving indefinitely, everything suddenly feels far more important, far more pressing. Suddenly it’s very important that I get time with that friend I haven’t seen in a year, or that I make it to that museum I’ve been intending to visit, or that I take a walk around my favorite lake and savor the air.

It’s fascinating, because I know that there are enough things that I want to accomplish in my life that it is impossible for me to ever do them all, and yet I rarely emotionally feel the press of wasted time (I do feel it in my decision making when I have to choose not to do something in order to do something else). It’s rare that when I’m lounging in my apartment watching 3 hours straight of Battlestar Galactica, I start searching my mind for all the things that I’ve always wanted to do in order to try to find something I could check off my bucket list, something I could accomplish.

And yet for the past few days, this is all I can feel. I am convinced there is something important I need to be experiencing before I leave. In part, I think this difference has to do with imagination: in most of my life, I do not imagine the span of my whole lifetime and what I can accomplish in that time. It is not immediate or pressing, and even when I do think about it it’s impossible to really conceive of. Human minds don’t tend to function in decades: they function in days and weeks.

This kind of anxiety is not necessarily a good thing: human beings need down time and we need time for our minds to rest and there’s nothing wrong with doing something that serves no deeper or larger purpose as long as it’s providing some benefit to you. But I have found that I’ve been significantly happier in the last few weeks as I grab at every opportunity that is afforded to me. I’ve spent more time with people I care about, tried new things, gotten better at old things, been new places, been back to places I hadn’t been in ages. While I don’t like feeling anxious and worried about whether or not I’m doing anything, I am finding that when I make plans I have been a much happier and probably better person since I started thinking about what I needed to do before I leave.

So I’ve been wondering if there’s a way to harness this energy and motivation that doesn’t have to include the anxiety and worry that appear to come with it. I wonder if there’s a way to work within the constraints of the human imagination to remind ourselves what it is we want to be doing and to give ourselves the push to actually go out and do it. I might try experimenting with setting myself deadlines: imagine that you were moving in a month. What would you do? I don’t think it’s necessary to do this every month, but periodically setting aside a time during which you try to imagine leaving might be a good way to refresh your current surroundings and friends.

Especially since I’ll only be in Ireland for a year, it should be easy for me to stay aware of the time that I have there and hopefully to appreciate it, but when I come home I intend to try this out every few months as a way to think more about what I want and need from my surroundings rather than what I need to be doing or what I can accomplish.

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