Time as a couch, not a tool

Last week, I did something I rarely do. I went to evening mass on Saturday. A middle-aged man stood by one of the confessionals, watching his daughter or granddaughter running up and down the aisle. He seems a little distracted. I looked again, and saw that he was texting. None of this surreptitious in-your-pocket stuff; there he was, standing in full view of half the church, busily sending SMSs as the priest did his bit on the altar. I thought perhaps it was just the one message – a life or death situation – but when I looked again, some ten minutes later, he was still at it.

Of course, I should have been saying my prayers and not wondering how others were spending their mass time – but I wasn’t. I should have been paying attention to what the priest was saying – but I wasn’t. I should have been present, in the church, at mass, head focused, brain in gear – but I wasn’t. Instead, I was getting more and more annoyed at a complete stranger. Irrationally so. I didn’t know him from Adam. And his texting during mass would have zero affect on my life once I left the church. So why was I so distracted by him? More to the point though, have I completely lost my ability to concentrate and stay focused on one thing for more than five minutes?


The year 2012 has been one of serious introspection for me. Perhaps it has something to do with the alignment of the planets.  I don’t know and it doesn’t really matter. I do know, however, that every little detail of my life has to be parsed and analyzed. Every action has to be gone over with a fine-tooth comb to figure out why it happened. Every conversation has to be replayed to catch the nuances and inferences that I might have been missed first time around. Am I going mad? Is this the onset of menopause? Or am I simply a victim of 21st-century navel-gazing?


This week’s pre-occupation, brought on by my texting-while-at-mass stranger, is with my attention span, or lack thereof. I’m a great advocate of what the likes of Ekhart Tolle and Antony de Mello call ‘being present’ and what Csíkszentmihályi calls ‘flow’. I try to concentrate on one thing at a time but it’s quite difficult when the levels of oestrogen in my body naturally lend themselves to multi-tasking. I try to be present. I do. Really. Yet it seems as if the world is conspiring against me. There are so many distractions. So many gadgets. So many interruptions.


It’s as if I have forgotten how to relax. Every waking minute has to be put to productive use. I read on the tram, the metro, the bus, standing in line at the post office, waiting for a friend to show. If I’m not reading, I’m updating my diary, tidying my phone messages, sorting the contents of my handbag. In Malta recently, I took a day off. Determined not to switch on my computer for a whole day, I even left my phone in my room and took myself off to the pool, with my book. But could I relax? Hello no. I tossed and turned on the sunbed. I couldn’t get comfortable. I had a string of things running through my head that I should have been doing. I was planning my work for the coming week, mentally arranging various meetings and appointments, scheduling my writing tasks. No matter how hard I tried, I simply couldn’t switch off.


Back in Budapest, I tried again. One day. No computer. No phone. Just me, myself, and I. I managed to sit still for five minutes before spotting a cobweb – eight hours later, my books were sorted in alphabetical order by author, my wardrobe was colour-coded, and every loose sheet of paper was filed in its proper place.  I tried again – this time venturing outside the four walls of my world. I figured I’d simply wander the streets and take time to the empty city.  A four-day weekend found just me and the tourists in town. Out on the street I was faced with an insurmountable choice: turn right for the tram, left for the metro. Because I had no plan, no specific place to be, no one to meet, I couldn’t for the life of me make up my mind which way to turn. Rather than waste valuable time, I headed back inside to sort my spice rack.

Where did we go wrong? When did we lose our ability to relax? When did we get so fixated with productivity? John F. Kennedy suggested we use time as a tool and not as a couch but I think we’ve gone a little too far.

First published in the Budapest Times 5 May 2012.