I have a tendency—and I suspect many people do—to let my mind wander in stressful situations to some point at which the situation has been resolved, is over, or can be comfortably ignored. The first time I remember this happening was when I was ten years old, and I sustained a bad injury. As I was sitting in the kitchen with my mother holding me, waiting for the ambulance to arrive, my mind wandered from the pain and the fear of what had happened to later that evening, when I imagined my mother would make me tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich. I saw myself sitting and eating my soup calmly, the injury bandaged, the pain a thing of the past.
I have been involved in a court proceeding lately, which is very stressful. I was sitting in the courthouse a while back waiting for my attorney to meet me and discuss the likelihood of making progress on the case that day. I projected myself forward to later that night, when I had plans to meet some friends for dinner. I heard the laughter of my friends, felt the warmth of the restaurant, and thought about what I might order. That filled a few lonely moments for me.
I think this is a good mechanism for shielding ourselves from too much stress. Why sit there stewing about the problem at hand if simply projecting our thoughts forward to a calmer time can help relieve the pain? But there is also the tendency, in the extremely artificial lives we lead, to project ourselves out of too much, and into later times, thus robbing ourselves of a good portion of life.
We inhabit a ‘living for the weekend’ culture. We spend 5/7 of our lives pining for the other 2/7 of it. Sure, there are some people who love their work, but it is still work, and can’t compare, for pure joy, to the freedom of the weekend. The irony is that many of us actually do more work on the weekends. I am a library director. People truly don’t understand what my work involves, but my to-do list on the average day includes 10 to 12 items of varying degrees of urgency. But it’s true, it’s mostly administrative, clerical, paperwork. Some of it is even creative work that can be very gratifying. When I lived on the ranch, my weekends were always 8 to 10 hour days of grass cutting, moving hay, turning manure piles, mending fences, tilling gardens, and much more. But still I pined for the weekend as much as a day laborer who would spend his Saturday and Sunday fishing a quiet stream.
We also wish away whole seasons. I really believe that in the most ancient times, humans hibernated, or did something close to it, when the weather got cold. Remember, the earliest Roman calendar didn’t even count the months of January and February, just skipping those days until spring arrived. But for many centuries now we have evolved a lifestyle in which we expect to be fully engaged every week of every month. But both the cold of winter and the heat of summer wear us down and make us weary and longing for something else.
In older times, people had natural breaks in the year, times when activity slowed down. We still celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas, both of which are simply modern takes on ancient harvest festivals. But we don’t understand or pay attention to what they are supposed to be about; they are reduced to special days. Even people who post the Jesus is the Reason for the Season signs miss the operative word in that phrase—the Season. It’s supposed to be a season, a time set aside, a time to rest, recuperate. Instead it’s just a holiday, and work resumes the next day.
But our constant activity wears us down. It does no good to rail that this is an effect of capitalist society—which of course it is; commerce must go on and take no breaks!—nothing will change. For one thing, the people who make out best within that capitalist society vacation in Florida and other warm places in winter, or find lakeside houses and other cool retreats at summer’s height. I know people who spend so much time in their Florida abodes that they have surrendered citizenship in their home state. But of course these are options unavailable to you and me, or to 99.9% of the human population, and the boss doesn’t care.
Is it a problem that we wish away the last several weeks of winter? Groundhog day finds even the most rational among us wondering if the damn rodent saw his shadow. Or that we wish away most of the month of August, pulling our sweaters out of storage the first day the high temperature doesn’t break the 70s? It’s all well and good for the mindfulness crowd to urge you to be present in every moment, or for someone like me who obsesses about the seasons to insist that you should experience every season for what it is: in the end, we are humans, mammals who evolved within the seasons on earth. We can adapt to extremes of heat and cold, but that doesn’t mean we like them.
Fortunately we are also the only animals with a brain large enough to permit special functions like daydreaming about better, more salubrious times. My court case will extend deep into spring. My work is full of special challenges at this moment. I am like all of us in wishing for some magical, blessed, almost definitely non-existent time when everything will be better. Maybe tomorrow, or the next day . . .