Dealing with life in a state of future shock
|“Future shock is the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time.” ~Alvin Toffler, Future Shock 1970
In 1970, futurist Alvin Toffler published his work called Future Shock. His premise was that though change and progress are generally good for a society, too rapid or sudden a change is decidedly unhealthy. He argued that the majority of social problems are symptoms of future shock. From his discussions of the components of such phenomena, the term “information overload” emerged.
What does this mean for us on a personal level? How are we affected by these elements, and how do we handle those effects? First let’s examine this concept of information overload and see how it applies to each of us.
I have a very dear friend who moved to the U.S. several years ago from a remote rural village. Modern amenities in the village consisted of a hand pump used to draw water from the community well, and bi-weekly delivery of mail. When he arrived in town, I was happy to take him shopping to pick up some basic supplies that he would need, so off we went to a nearby drugstore. I naively did not understand the impact this experience was going to have on my friend. He stayed behind me as we walked into the store, and I headed for the toiletries aisle where he could choose shampoo, toothpaste, etc…but looking around I discovered that he was no longer with me. I re-traced our path to the front door, only to find him standing outside with his eyes closed. When I asked him what was wrong, all he could repeat was “too much…too much”. Suddenly I realized my folly and led him back to the quiet safety of the car.
I had overlooked the fact that my friend was used to nature sounds, horse hooves, people’s voices, wind in the trees, a crackling fire, a night sky uninterrupted by modern streetlights, and a much slower pace than he observed in his current surroundings. He did not own a watch, he took his cues from the rising and setting of the sun and the general rhythm of each day as tasks were done, meals prepared, stories told, and sleep embraced. The sounds of traffic, electric doors, the glare of bright commercial lighting, the vast array of products on store shelves, schedules and time constraints…these were all foreign to him and pushed him quickly into the very state that Alvin Toffler described: information overload. There was simply too much happening too fast, too many choices, too many pressures, and too much noise and visual distraction for him to cope with. The stress was too much and he wanted nothing more than to escape the ruckus he sensed all around himself.
An example like the one I just described is relatively simple. If someone is overwhelmed by a situation, the easy solution is to remove them from that situation. I took my friend home and allowed him time in the quiet house to settle down and find his peace again. No radio, no television, no phone calls…these were all things he had lived his whole life without, and to him they were nothing more than a noisy interruption. Within a short time, I looked up to find him more in his element: he had gone outside and was weeding the spinach patch in my garden. In time, my friend gradually grew accustomed to “how life is” here, and though he still preferred the relative quiet of a garden or a stroll through the woods, he acclimated very well and learned how to cope with the stresses that surrounded him.
It is great when we can remove ourselves from the situations or stimuli that irritate us or drive our blood pressure through the roof. But what about those times when we simply cannot walk away? What do we do when we have no choice but to remain where we are while the information superhighway paints a double yellow line down the center of our minds and the speed limit seems far too high for safety?
Let me introduce the concept of “Stop…Drop…and Roll”.
When we find ourselves in a stressful situation, or even when we simply feel bombarded by yet another day filled with noise, emails, phone calls, schedules, and deadlines, we are bound to experience moments ranging from mild irritation to actual severe anxiety. Our heart pounds, thinking becomes difficult, we lose our focus and everything in us just wants to escape to a quiet, peaceful, slower place. If we cannot physically do so, we can still mentally bring ourselves to a place of re-centering and take a break from the chaos swirling around us.
We can stop.
In that moment when we feel pressure from every side, we can simply stop. Place one or both of our hands over the center of our chest and take a long, slow deep breath, feeling the air expand our lungs and the tension abate as we let that breath go. Humans have been breathing this same way for thousands of years…we are connected in this way with every human being who has ever lived. No matter what other changes have occurred, no matter what inventions or technologies have come and gone, breathing is a constant force. We can focus on that breath just for a minute, allowing each slow intake of life-giving air to feed our bodies and calm our thoughts. We can realize in that moment that if everything around us were to fall apart, if technology suddenly failed, if the lights all went out, if our car broke down and our phone stopped ringing…our breath would still be the most important thing. Focusing on that breath brings us back to a quiet center where all human beings congregate across the millennia. All of the external man-made things around us sometimes just have to wait a minute so that our humanity can survive…one breath at a time.
This is also a matter of empowerment. In a world where so many facets of our daily lives are somewhat beyond our control, it is empowering to exercise the choice to call a halt to activity and take a few moments to protect our well-being. It is always easier to handle stressful situations when we can maintain objectivity and keep a healthy distance between ourselves and the circumstance at hand. Sometimes we will be able to push on through whatever pressures us, but other times it is vital that we learn to simply stop, even if only for a brief time.
Next, we drop.
What? Get down on the ground? No. Well, not unless you happen to be in an actual fire, of course. Otherwise, I am talking about dropping things that are weighing us down and causing distress. These things could be just about anything: excessively overloaded schedules, unrealistic goals, a habit of taking on more than we can handle, failing to say “No” when a demand on our time is unreasonable. Even things we assume we cannot function without such as cell phones, email messages, social networks, doorbells, and a host of other interruptions really can be set aside at least for a time while we collect ourselves and have a moment of peace.
In this age of technology, it almost requires an act of the Gods for us to realize that life will not come to an end if we do not snap to attention every time the telephone rings or our email notifier alerts us to a new arrival to our inbox. We can set all of these things aside, hang out an “I’m not here for the next five minutes” sign, and leave it all behind just for a short time. The difficult thing about this is that sometimes it might seem that we have to set aside something that we really don’t want to. We have to admit to ourselves that oftentimes we increase our own stress by holding onto things, both good and bad, that we should walk away from. For example, if I am already overworked and exhausted and someone asks me to take on a particular task that is going to tax my energies even more, it is my responsibility to politely explain that I am unable to take on that task. I might have to say “No” to something, even if it would ordinarily be a pleasant task for me. Putting down the things that are burdensome or painful to some degree is not too difficult…putting down things that are enjoyable to us can be far more of a challenge. But we have only so much energy, only a certain capacity for productivity and it is up to us to protect ourselves by recognizing our own limits and then setting reasonable boundaries.
We do live, as Alvin Toffler pointed out, in a culture that values productivity and success above nearly all else. We are pushed, and we tend to push ourselves, to accomplish more, get things done faster, cram as many activities as possible into even the last three seconds of every minute. We must develop the skill of recognizing when our frenzied pace is actually a negative influence on our physical, emotional, or mental health. Even our spirituality as humans is placed at risk if we cannot maintain reasonable limits for ourselves. Day-to-day overload can drain us of the ability or even the desire to set our thoughts on higher things and we quickly lose sight of our true place and purpose in the world. Choosing what to drop, what to permanently leave behind or what to temporarily set aside can be a challenge, but with practice we will soon see the benefits of cultivating this ability.
We can…we must… drop whatever is necessary to save our sanity, enabling ourselves to roll forward with renewed energy and peace of mind.
Moving on…rolling forward.
So, we have stopped the hectic activity swirling around us, we have dropped the extra burdens that were stressing us out, we have lightened our schedules, realized where we had allowed pressure into our lives rather than turning it away at the door, clarified our priorities, and situated ourselves in a somewhat more peaceful mental space. It might seem like this work of de-stressing ourselves is complete, but we cannot stay in this comfortable place for long. We all know what is about to happen: the phone is going to ring. The boss is going to drop another stack of paperwork on our desk. Someone is going to ask for help with a project on a day when our schedule is already crammed full. If we don’t move forward, we will find ourselves in the very same tense situation we just addressed, inviting anxiety to come calling. What do we do now?
We roll. When we drop something in order to lighten our load, we must move beyond it in order to avoid the temptation to go back and pick it up again. Even if we get to the end of the day and realize we actually have a little extra time left, we do not have to cram some sort of activity into that time! Perhaps we rescheduled an appointment or project for another day in order to lighten our schedule today. We need to leave that change in place; even if we get to the end of the day and think we could go ahead and cram one more task into that bit of free time. If we decided to eliminate a particular task altogether, we should not go back and re-claim it just because we find a few extra minutes in our day. We need to leave that eliminated task alone and remind ourselves that we are better off by having time to wind down the end of our day without rushing.
Of course, especially for people who are accustomed to being somewhat busy during the day, free time can be disconcerting if we have nothing at all to do. Leaving a vacuum of activity can actually cause more stress than it relieves, so we must wisely choose how to spend that time we have carved out for ourselves. Helpful choices would include activities that will enhance our peace of mind, since that was the whole point of this exercise! Going for a walk, chatting with a friend, reading a good book, pursuing a creative hobby, or playing with a family pet are all possibilities that contribute to a calm state of mind. Such activities also replace any nagging thoughts about the things we may have cut out of our day. Remember, we do not want to go back and retrieve any of those things we so recently dropped!
The interesting thing about all of this is that though it takes actual focus and energy at first to begin to address our “shocked” environment and make changes to improve upon our existence, in time it becomes a habit to consider carefully which encroachments we permit in our lives. We become more discerning with our priorities, and it becomes easier to choose our commitments. We might make it a general habit to turn off our cell phone for a short period every day just to guarantee an interruption-free time. Or we might choose to not look at email during certain hours before retiring to bed so that our minds are calm and we more easily fall asleep. These are simple things that help us to roll forward with more energy, less stress, and greater peace of mind.
There is no avoiding the fact that we live in a fast-paced, information saturated modern world. We face stresses on a daily basis that our ancestors never dreamed of. But we can maintain our own serenity in the midst of our rapidly changing, high-pressure society. We can…and for our own good, we must.
"In the midst of movement and chaos, keep stillness inside of you."