Punish the Pause
The van drives WAY too fast across the rocky terrain, towards the Grand Canyon. The bobblehead on the dashboard keeps smiling at me even though with each bump his neck is about to snap. My companion, Xi, doesn't seem concerned. Rather he's in his own world, going on and on about how great people never pause in pursuit of progress.
For a while I lose myself in Xi's rhetoric until the van stops. Ahead a red rocky surface leads into an abyss. I step out, in front of me, the Canyon. I'm astonished. Staggering a few steps closer, the great Canyon's silhouette takes shape, DEEP in the distance. For a moment I forget where I am and what I'm looking at, lost in its expansiveness. At peace.
"PHOTO!" Xi demands. I rip out my camera and take a photo. "MORE!" Xi screams. "SHARE NOW!" And on and on. And so he goes.
For fear of punishment, I miss my moment of pause.
After I've captured the Canyon from every angle, I sit down on a dusty sandstone brick and close my eyes. The wind whistling up through the canyon ascends the great wall and greets the back of my eyelids softly. At peace.
"MENACE!" My eyes sling open. In the distance Xi stares at me. I must do something, for I fear if I meditate, Xi will barrel over here, grab my hair, and toss me into the abyss.
This fear follows me everywhere, one that urges me to take out the camera instead of soaking in the view. A fear that won’t allow me to take a walk without a podcast playing. A fear that defaults to saying no to lingering with others because, you know, that hasn't been scheduled. On and on. Pause and into the abyss I go. A constant feeling.
A few days later, I'm back home, at work. Although Xi swaps his sweatsuit for a tailored suit and slicks back his hair, his game is the same. Optimize! And under this fear, he's winning.
Over zoom, my boss strategizes with our team. On camera I look withered even though I just returned from a vacation. Xi never gave me a chance to recoup.
We exhaust business until the meeting ends, and everyone disappears, vanishes from my screen, except Carl, a colleague of mine who I used to go to happy hour with after work. It'd be nice to catch up. We see each other; approaching a linger, Xi’s warm breath alerts the back of my neck as he whispers — DONT YOU DARE PAUSE — threatening me towards the next task, towards "progress". Carl vanishes.
What happened to the days when I would walk out the glass doors with a colleague and for these great four to five minutes, we had time 'in-between-things'. All there was to do was to discuss each other; how's the family? We lingered together. Those days, like my people, vanished.
Staring at my lifeless yet demanding email box, I question what have I lost from all this optimization? What is the tradeoff? We gain time, at the cost of what?
Suddenly inspired, I write. Not for a pursuit, not for an email. I write for myself. Minimizing my browser, I open a blank document.
Here's a story. Once upon a time there was a generational farmer. Every day, he labored in the field, tilling and seeding and harvesting in the same fashion as his father, who did it in the same fashion as his father, and on and on. One day he gets an offer from a corporation that he cannot refuse. Suddenly it takes him one tenth the time to farm. Still each day, after a few hours on machinery that runs itself, before walking into his house, he bends down and rolls the soil through his palms, and remembers, what it was like, to work with his hands. Although his pockets are full and his belly fat — he misses the old days. He misses working without the crack of Xi's whip.
Blinking at my screen, I'm wondering what just came through me. My chest expands as air climbs high up into my lungs. Briefly I turn my head away before my eyes rest back on the story. A story. I wrote.
Xi's breath... the back of my neck heats up as my tiny hairs stand erect soaking in his moisture.
No! To do anything meaningful in my life — I must risk a lashing.
Shoving my desk away, I roll my chair backwards, knocking into him as he topples to the ground. His face reddens like a tomato about to pop, juices leaking from his eyes and ears and mouth. Climbing to his feet, his hair disheveled, one greasy curl hanging down, he grows in size and stature.
What have I done? How will I be punished? A whip cracks. I cower away, underneath his shadow. He will toss me into a labor camp where while the rest of the world improves their mind and body, my energy depletes and my ribs protrude. Why did I pause!?
His whip cracks, I peek up at him, and he inflames —
"THE CHINESE PEOPLE ARE A GREAT PEOPLE; THEY ARE INDUSTRIOUS AND BRAVE, AND THEY NEVER PAUSE IN PURSUIT OF PROGRESS."
The Chinese people? I lift my head. In front of me he changed outfits, wearing an all black Mao suit, every button perfectly fastened up to his collarbone. His hair perfectly slicked back. His eyes crimson red.
I will not be ruled! Let me live my life!
He raises arms above his head; in his hands he dawns a hammer and a sickle and swings at me. I lunge at him; we bust through my bedroom door as I tackle him to the ground. He rapidly beats my back with the butt end of the hammer and the sickle. We tumble, rolling across my carpet until...we bump into my meditation cushion.
The cushion! With all my might, I kick him off me, he flies into the wall and I plop down onto my cushion. Red-faced, he races towards me. I close my eyes.
In the pause, he too vanishes.
Hello Dear Reader
The Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, once said — "The Chinese people are a great people; they are industrious and brave, and they never pause in pursuit of progress." PUBLIC ENEMY NUMBER ONE IS PAUSING, he says. Great people pursue, Menacing people pause!
Optimization has its place in this world and our lives. Its value is easy to grasp.
Yet if we obsess over it, it blinds us from a richer life; we miss moments of awe, to soak something in; moments to connect in-between meetings; moments to do meaningful work albeit dirtying our hands; and moments to sit down, check in with our emotions and clarity of thought; times in our lives where we need to process rather than pursue. To protect that, I will amend this fear, with a reminder — PRIVATE ENEMY NUMBER ONE IS PUNISH-THE-PAUSE.
Thank you for reading.
24 Oct 2021