On the Inertia of Being Overwhelmed

A poet I hold dear (ee cummings) wrote: “I am abnormally fond of that precision which creates movement.”

Why does it takes so little to confound, confuse and perplex most people?

How on earth can a bosses’ unkind word, an acquaintance’s slight, a looming deadline, an overly large agenda, an unconsciously tight timetable, a lousy husband, disappointing child, any younameit–generate the sort of angst that results in debilitating anxiety? It’s a forest and trees situation. People are lost in the forest.  They have lost sight of (or never had) a mapped out journey.  Finding themselves confronted by a sea of trees, with no discernible way out they are thus overwhelmed.  Some of you may say that this perspective is a Polly Anna perspective (for those born after 1950, look her up).  First, yes, it can be viewed through that lens. But be sure of this, the theory espoused here has had  a host of opportunities in my own world to be put through the rigors of serious testing. It is Pollyannic  because I take  the view  that the earth shattering things in life generally do not appear in the guise of miscreant relatives, spouses, bosses,  neighbors or events but in the contemplation of  things that threaten it (life) or threaten to alter it considerably.

While some may say this is a doomsday approach, in fact it is quite the opposite. If, for example, you believe that an asteroid might crush the planet and reduce those who survive to life as it may have been thousands of years ago (doomsday for sure)–and therefore measure all crises by that stick, you are apt not to get seriously overwhelmed by life’s every day distresses. Perhaps the preoccupation with things that seem big is part of humankind’s way of coping and passing time. As Virgil said: “Sed fugit interea, fugit irreparabile tempus, singula dum capti circumvectamur amore”, translated: “But meanwhile it flees: time flees irretrievably, while we wander around, prisoners of our love of detail.”

For those for whom the process of deciphering between what matters and what will pass I offer this: The fix for nearly every man-made obstacle or crisis is: time. If time will heal the wound, if time will present and ultimately demonstrate one’s ability to emerge from a crisis or problem then, in fact, the crisis at hand is not only not overwhelming it can be said to be a “mere”— as in, merely a momentary setback, merely a condition (and likely temporary in the large scheme of things). If the passage of time, in your lifetime, will not fix the problem. If it will not present ways to overcome the obstacle. If there are no options or work-arounds, the odds are the problem is indeed an overwhelming one, of the sort that demands your full attention and justifies worry (but likely will still not benefit from inaction.)

Echoing this theme is poet  Robert Frost in his poem: The Road Not Taken. Note this advisory: he did not mean to say when he “took the one less traveled by”–that the unconventional way of life is the preferred, not to be regretted option.  Read carefully, he opted for a road that seemed “equally worn” but that the odds were, he wouldn’t be getting back there, to try the other avenue anytime soon.  Whichever road he chose was the one would therefore a make a difference in the end. His “road not taken” was a Rubicon of sorts, a cross-roads, a life altering choice. The unspoken word in Frost’s poem was the fact that he had choices. We all have choices. What I am suggesting is that life be viewed in terms of having to choose between being mired in a state of overwhelmed and anything else. There is almost always a choice, only the inertia of being overwhelmed prevents people from exercising it.

A lawyer doesn’t get half so many chances as one would want to quote poets, but there are two narratives offered by a poet that I have found compelling. The poet (ee cummings)  offers, if not a solution, insight into overcoming the IOBO (Inertia of being overwhelmed) in the form of two  introductions to two different poetry compilations. The title of the first publication is:  Is 5. The quote from the forward:

Ineluctable preoccupation with The Verb gives a poet one priceless advantage: whereas nonmakers must
content themselves with the merely undeniable fact that two times two is four, he rejoices in a purely irresistible truth (to be found,
in abbreviated costume, upon the title page of the present volume).” 

If you missed the title…return to the sentence above which provides you with the title of the collection. Ok, too tired?   Is 5…as in 2 x 2 = 5. When you read this remember your elementary school grammar lessons: verbs are action words. Overcoming the inertia of being overwhelmed requires: action.

The second insight comes from Cummings’ introduction to his Collected Poems and reads:

“-it’s no use trying to pretend that mostpeople and ourselves are alike. Mostpeople have less in common with ourselves than
the squarerootofminusone[1]. You and I are human beings:mostpeople are snobs. Take the matter of being born. What does being born
mean to mostpeople? Catastrophe unmitigated. Socialrevolution. The cultured aristocrat yanked out of his hyperexclusively ultra voluptuous
superpalazzo,and dumped into an incredibly vulgar detentioncamp swarming with every conceivable species of undesirable organism.
Mostpeople fancy a guaranteed birthproof safetysuit of nondestructible selflessness. If mostpeople were to be born twice they’d improbably
call it dying- you and I are not snobs. We can never be born enough. We are human beings; for whom birth is a supremely
welcome mystery, the mystery of growing: the mystery which happens only and whenever we are faithful to ourselves. You and I wear
the dangerous looseness of doom and find it becoming. Life, for eternal us, is now; and now is much too busy being a little more
than everything to seem anything, catastrophic included.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself:  “[N]ow is much too busy being a little more than everything to seem anything, catastrophic included.”

There you have it.


[1] Forgot your calculus? Square root of minus one = i

The Third Metric

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This week, came to my inbox, courtesy of LinkedIn,  a headline from Huffington Post—“Are you living your eulogy or your resume?”  The answer for me is easy, the eulogy, but dread is not far behind—what if that’s the wrong answer?  I’m not quite sure what living your resume means, but I am quite sure I understand the former—living a life that you hope to be proud of, a source of inspiration to your children,  a life with meaning and impact in the making a difference arena.  I know it sounds morbid, but I hope many people will remember me, will say that I made a difference in their or someone’s world…that my time on the planet was not misspent or, worse yet, ill spent.

So imagine my joy when, voila, I got the right answer—living the Eulogy.  But imagine my consternation when I find out that a) someone has come up with a name for what I hold dear: “Third Metric,”  b) its mathematical (how could you spoil something so lofty with math) and c) the idea, while worthy, seems to be the subject of a new campaign of Huffington’s Post to redefine the meaning  of success.

You will recall that in my first blog post I wrote of my consternation over life in a world where few seemed cognizant, aware or even remotely concerned with “the bigger questions.”  The big questions, you see, inevitably lead you to the leading the Eulogy life ethic…or as Huffington calls it, the third metric.

Well before I let you know how it works, here’s why philosophers make good lawyers: Both have a love affair with asking questions. I remember well asking way past my quota as a student making me the thorn in the side of many a teacher.  Give me an example you say?  OK, I’m in first grade. Big news is earthquakes in South America.  We are doing “journal entries” for a class assignment. President Eisenhower is on the news extending his heartfelt sympathies to the quake victim families . I think that’s worth putting into my daily journal.  But, how to spell Eisenhower?  I ask my teacher. Who quips back:  “What in the world does a first grader need to know how to spell Eisenhower for?”  (I’m sure she ended the sentence with a preposition). I explain about the earthquakes and the journal entry. She makes a very unkind face, spells it and gives me a disdainful look every time I raise my hand going forward.  Thus began my miserable experience with elementary education, about which I will someday write.

So, the Third Metric—my version of it goes like this: You ask a few key questions: What are we doing here? Why are we so special?  Haven’t we learned anything from the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans? If not, why not?  Why do we work a five day week, i.e., is there a race, the largest most profitable economy when we reach the end of the “game” wins?  From a long game perspective, who gets remembered, and why?  Does the short term matter at all? And, in a nod to my Italian heritage, why is everyone in such a hurry?  Do the Roman ruins tell us nothing about the grandeur of the present, soon to be past?

Ask these and other related questions and you come down to this: What matters?   I disagree with Huffington about what Steve Jobs will be remembered for (she thinks not the iPhone or iPad). Whenever I  wash with a really nice cotton towel, I do think occasionally about Eli Whitney and what his cotton gin did for us. And then there’s John Adams, who had such insight and intelligence shaping life as we know it—and I suspect he won’t be remembered in 100 years hence, except in the hearts of school children memorizing the names of the U.S. presidents in order. Now, that’s a shame.  But the stout smart lawyer who sometimes took on unpopular causes and did a damn good job, will not fade into complete oblivion. He mastered the Third Metric, I think.

Now Huffington disparagingly suggests that no one wants to be remembered for answering all of their emails and promptly.  I beg to differ. I’d like to be remembered for that and for being willing to work long hours for little pay because all those things say I gave it my all. To coin a cliché, I treated my life like opening night, no dress rehearsal for me.  And, with a little more research into Huffington’s Third Metric, I see that she and others (notably a psychologist named Perlman) have hijacked the concept into the women’s empowerment movement. Shame.  It’s not a woman issue. It’s a people issue. A humankind issue.  If you contort this uniquely human complexity into a woman issue, the concept will be dead in the water.

So while I leave you with these thoughts and your own eulogy vs. resume or Huffington’s “third metric” analysis, I will go try to find out just why on earth she had to give something so significant a mathematical name (which is bound to alienate some of even the brightest minds) and whether the math angle is just a ploy to get on the quantitative bandwagon that is so popular these days–culling more data to generate numbers that tell us more about ourselves than we care to know.