“To be everywhere is to be nowhere. People who spend their whole life travelling abroad end up having plenty of places where they can find hospitality but no real friendships.” Letters From a Stoic
It is the first part of this quote that struck me in the roles I play. I’m most often stressed in life when I’m trying to do too many things. When I focus on a single thing, then I’m much better at whatever I’m doing, but as a parent this is hard to do.
This idea crystallized when I was in high school and learning to learn. I work best in complete silence. My wife is able to work with the television on, mentally hopscotching between her computer and the television. I don’t have this skill. When I learn, read, or write I need to be focused on only the task of writing. It’s easier to do these things because each is a singular task I block off. A parent though is much harder.
In the role of father I regularly feel the pull of many things I need and want to do. Let me quickly check my iPhone notifications. While my phone’s out I should glance at the weather. It might be cold I should check to see if their warm clothes are clean. Oh, I have an email. Let me tweet this one thing too. I’m embarrassed by these moments, that they see me looking at my phone rather than them. In Seneca’s thoughts I may be traveling places digitally and missing out on the relationships I have at home.
After reading this passage from Letters From a Stoic by Seneca, I’m at least aware of it. Like a sailor who learns to recognize the patterns of the stars and their powers of guidance, I too can check myself in harried moments and ask why do I feel this way? When I feel like I’m doing too much I’ll drop all but the most important thing. Like a juggler who ends the act by letting all the balls but one fall to the floor, I too let it all go. It feels good – and guess what – most of it was inessential.
Greg McKeown writes about essentialism, what it is and how to find it. The best insight from his book was that most everything is inessential. The stuff we fill our lives with, the everywhere that Seneca wrote about, is mostly inessential. The problem is that we have a need to feel busy.
Seneca, an early productivity expert, wrote “For a delight in bustling about is not industry – it is only the restless energy of a hunted mind.”
It feels good to be busy. When I was an adjunct instructor at Ohio University, I checked my email one day and was surprised by not having any. My next thought was, maybe I should be doing more. I didn’t ask if what I was doing was important or if I was making a difference. Rather, that if my inbox was at zero then I could do more. But was I doing the right work? The essential work?
It can be hard to have focus as a parent. In her book, All Joy and No Fun, Jennifer Senior writes about the challenges of modern parenting. We face the challenge of having too many options available to our kids. One example she gives is careers. For past generations this was easily answered, you would be whatever your parents were or what someone in your community would train you to be. Now kids have the obstacle of defining, refining, and finding a good choice. Too many choices can even be a bad thing.
In this chapter Seneca gives further examples about what you read and do but just the quote, “To be everywhere is to be nowhere” was enough to get me thinking about what’s essential where I am.
Let me know how you engage in the moment. The comments are open and I’m on Twitter, @MikeDariano.