Don’t Just Do Something. . . Sit there!

Don’t just sit there, do something!
(Aphorism, rightly or wrongly attributed to televangelist, Robert Schuller)

Sit there. . . the admonition levelled at the shiftless, the lazy, the unfocussed, the unmotivated. Capturing the essence of the Western idyll, elevating the list-makers — or more properly, the list-completers. And vilifying the ‘Type B’s’ (if there was ever such a ‘personality type’, characterizing the non-Type A’s), as the laid back, feet-up-on-the-porch-railing folk who seem content to just watch the world pass them by. In short, if you’re not moving, preferably forward, there’s a problem. A restlessness, agitation even, a kind of culturally sanctioned ADHD has come to be the norm.

Let’s try another one: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Basic, grade 11, Newtonian physics. And, so it would seem, basic social psychology as well.

My sometime running coach opened our first conversation with a simple question: ‘What’s your distance?’ Scraping away the obvious, he wanted to know how to shape a training program so it best served the mileage at which I intended to compete. I reasoned, from my modest (very modest) success in the dozen or so years I’d already logged at the sport, that marathoning was an open invitation to injury. Equally, I was never going to be a successful miler. So it was down to what is affectionately known as ‘middle distance’ — the space between endurance and sprinting. He exhaled, clearly relieved at my decision. Metaphorically, I’ve spent much time in this same space in the years since. Or at least tried!

This middle middle ground is indeed a challenging and challenged place to live. Sometimes dissed as fence-sitting, equivocating, ambivalent, passive, uncommitted . . . the list goes on (and on). Sometimes lauded: balanced, equanimous, neutral, considered. Generally elusive and unsustainable . . . and almost always preferred to the polarities that lie to either side.

The maxim of the quick hit, do it . . . and move on to the next (preferably as soon as possible), that so informs our culture in this era of the compelling need for instant gratification, is further complicating the process. The usual whipping boy (person?), digital distraction, heartily supported by myriad, internet-spawned algorithms and their wee squirts of dopamine (aka ‘Likes’, thumbs-up and their emoji kin) and immediate access to endless rabbit holes, may as much be a reflection and symptom as a cause. Automaticity, reactivity have been around for a very long time. A resistance to taking the ‘long way round’, ‘sitting with’, savouring, steeping is the norm. Goal attainment over process.

I’m currently slogging (??) through the 500 pages of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, a wonderfully detailed review of the research of the past several years of cognitive process — and how we do it. The title is a very succinct summary of these findings: we spend most of our time ‘thinking fast’, using our intuitive takes on things, our ‘knee jerk’ (often factually unsupported) responses to navigate our day. He points out that this is frankly the only way to deal with the multiple decisions, needs for quick action that face us. But at a cost of ‘slow thinking’, where time is taken to weigh and measure, to consider the evidence, to make truly informed and thoughtful choices. He neither lobbies for nor picks a preferred mode. Both are necessary and have a role to play. But his writing is a (relentless) reminder that critical (considered, slow) thought may be being further eroded, less valued, and just too time consuming.

The case for ‘the middle way’ is both simple and ancient. Just not easy! Practice, repetition, noticing and embracing incremental, gradual change occupy a place both in long established wisdom and in an increasing canon of modern research as the mysteries of the mind are progressively married to the workings of the body, our physiology. The benefits of pausing, ‘staying present’, reflecting and reshaping our neural pathways (aka, neuroplasticity) are rooted neither in speed nor ‘one-shot deals’. Both require patience and many iterations. And neither happen without intention and purposeful choice. Auto pilot serves us well — until it doesn’t. . . when life gets too complicated to just push back, to move on to the next rabbit hole, to dance to the limbic urgency to fight or flee.