How many times in my life have I stood with four or five strangers at a street corner, waiting for the pedestrian light to change? 2000? 5000? Who knows. But I do know that in almost none of them do any of us want to be precisely there.
It’s the sort of moment that has a distinctly “in-between” character to it. It feels like a necessary but boring preamble to a more ideal moment which seems to be waiting for you somewhere across the street, but is really only in the mind.
Most moments are like this. Which means, of course, that most of human life is like this: not where we want to be. It’s mostly in-between.
If you could divide a human life up into two parts: the time spent feeling a sense of in-between, and the time spent feeling a sense of “arrival” I’d bet the proportions would be staggering — certainly 90-something percent “in-between”, probably closer to 100 than 90.
We share a lot of those kinds of moments with other people, even though the experience usually feels like a rather individual one, and we’re unlikely to think much about the others in it. Waiting in elevators. Going through the motions at work at 2:27 on an idle Tuesday. Riding the bus, again.
The “in-between” character present in the vast majority of our moments is created not by the moment’s actual details but by the persistent state of preoccupation of the person experiencing it. Preoccupation is the typical human experience, and it’s nothing other than the experience of an abstract past, future, or hypothetical moment in the mind stealing your attention from the one that’s really happening.
I’ve long believed that tedium is only a pattern of thought, not circumstance. Boredom is never a situational reality, only a self-defeating way of relating to the moment at hand, which always contains more detail and possibility than you could ever explore.
Again, this is normal. So my state of mind — I can’t speak for you — isn’t always receptive to the freshness and magnificence of “mundane” moments, even though I am now convinced that those qualities are always there behind my preoccupations.
But depending on the intensity of the preoccupying thoughts, I’ve found there are some pretty reliable ways of tapping into those qualities, even when the present moment is of that archetypal, in-between type you find in parking lots and waiting rooms.
An example from work: I often find myself at site meetings, which typically take place in a boxcar-sized field office, around a collapsible table with plastic folding chairs, populated by a handful of contractors, engineers, surveyors and developers. These meetings have a very predictable dynamic, with everyone waiting for a chance to bring up their biggest concern, nodding impatiently while others bring up theirs. They have a predictable, tired vocabulary (working days, “mobilizing”, change orders, tie-ins, inverts, grades, quantities) that seems to blur countless past and present and future moments together as if they are one indistinguishable, perpetual scene with no real unique characteristics and certainly nothing to feel and wonder or excitement about.
These patterns, if you experience them every day (and your workplace certainly has its own) can become almost unbearably ordinary. If you can somewhat imagine what a tax accountant feels like this time of year when they look at yet another T4 or a W2, or what a McDonald’s employee feels like when they come back to the same fries smell after two weeks off, then you know the stifling feeling of over-familiarity I’m talking about.
At this recent meeting, perhaps the tedium hit a breaking point in me and I slipped into a genuine recognition that behind those boring patterns, right in the room with me, was a damn miracle.
Eight beating hearts.
All the over-familiar talk in that room, all the annoying jargon, the impatience, the endless dialogue about construction schedules and the state of the industry, was the product of something truly astounding and humbling. Every instance in that scene of someone getting quietly worked up, getting self-righteous, getting talked over — or getting bored — was driven ultimately by one of eight beating hearts. And each was driving its owner to something. Some action, some attitude, some thought. Only because that’s what it does.
Why did the chicken cross the road? A beating heart, no other reason.
All of what seems so ordinary and uninteresting in the human world is only ever the sound and spectacle of beating hearts, and when for whatever reason your preoccupations give you a break, you experience it as a miracle. All conflict, too, is hearts beating alongside each other, spurred to motion by the same force, doing the same thing.
The muffled voices and shuffling feet of people going by your apartment door. The silent arcs of white that jetliners leave on the sky. The roar of the crowd when the puck trickles in. The ambient traffic noise that provides a backing track to nearly every scene in civilization.
It is all the sound of beating hearts, the sound of absolutely nothing but people doing what this mysterious energy we call life inclines them to do.
Next time you’re feeling the apathy or tedium of the human grind, or you’re just in between “arrivals”, see if you can take a moment to really comprehend what incredible engine is behind all the motion — good, bad or just uninteresting — in the human world. Or better yet, imagine how cold that same scene would be without it. Even the dullest moment is a damn miracle.
In the elevator: six beating hearts, doing what they do.
At the dinner table: four beating hearts.
At a desk in front of a laptop: one beating heart.
Looking out over a busy street: too many beating hearts to count.
Photo by tramod