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Getting Caught Up ... to What?

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These days, whenever I meet someone and ask how they are, the response is invariably the same: I am just trying to get caught up.

The words come swiftly, automatically, as if there were no other possible answer. The phrase predictably spills out, a confession of anxiety and defeat. But when I ask, "Caught up to what?" my companion will invariably stop, frozen, thoroughly silenced. They cock their heads slightly, confused, as if addressing a visitor from outer space -- or like a dog, trying in vain to grasp some impossible command its owner keeps repeating to no effect. "What," they seem to wonder, "could he possibly be talking about?"

Of course, no one has an answer. Our whirlwind of fearful rush and hurry saturates our days with the feeling that we are already somehow inexplicably "behind" before we make it out of the house, even before we get out of bed. As adults rushing headlong into getting "caught up"-- especially parents who understandably want to make sure we always do our best for our children-- we invariably feel we have never given enough, accomplished enough, properly scheduled or successfully used enough time.

What if we are trying to "catch up" to something more soothing, peaceful, and nourishing than this frantic, desperate, questing pursuit of everything. What might that be? What are we trying so hard to get caught up to? I suggest we look at the speed of things -- the speed of the world, of the mind, and of our very human heart that must, ultimately, make sense of it all.

Try this simple test: Allow your mind to conjure an image of an elephant; now a tree; now the Statue of Liberty; now your elementary school; now a Volkswagen beetle; finally, a television set. How are you doing? You are probably breezing though these images, impatient, as the mind can invoke each image almost faster than words can appear on the page.

But what if we try this experiment: Let yourself feel happy; now feel furiously angry; now feel sad; now absolutely terrified; then depressed; finally, feel fully content and at peace.

How are you doing? Are you falling behind? Of course you are. The mind can process facts and images infinitely faster than the heart can ever process the more human, emotional sensations and experiences that pass through it every minute, every day.

The mind can grasp data, forms, shapes, language and patterns at an astonishing rate of speed. Many of us recall, in the early days of the Internet, how long it took for those primitive connections to load a single web page. Sometimes we waited a full minute, and if it turned out to be the wrong page (as it often was) we had to start over, redial our connection, even reboot our computer. But while it seemed to take forever, it was the fastest way to access information we had ever seen.

Now, with high-speed broadband connections, a web page loads in a few seconds -- and we still feel frustrated, even angry that it takes so long! Because for a mind that craves information, facts, images or spreadsheets this instant, even these few seconds seem an eternity of unnecessarily wasted time.

As the world creates ever-faster technologies to serve us by striving to match the awesome speed of the mind, we inherit a subtle, corrosive presumption that our life and work should, if managed efficiently, be able to catch up to whatever those technologies can do. In the midst of the frantic pace of a world hurtling by at light speed, the heart struggles to find some way to keep pace with what is, in fact, a completely impossible and foreign language. In other words, the heart is trying to "get caught up" to the speed of the mind.

But we cannot know the truth of what is beautiful, necessary or true with our minds alone.

Whether we are working to understand and cure illness, teach children, build effective health care for real people, trying to reduce crime, help the elderly, or develop sustainable agriculture for an emerging, hungry world, everything we do must pass first though the chambers of our hearts.

The mind quickly grasps easy slogans about taxation or invasive government; but any daughter watching her father die a slow, ugly death from emphysema will wrestle in her heart for elusive comfort in why he was repeatedly denied treatment. Similarly, photos of aborted fetuses cling swiftly to the mind, yet the private anguish of a sexually abused sixteen year girl, aching to do the right thing regarding her unborn child, will be a choice burning her heart the rest of her life.

To relentlessly force the tender wisdom, thoughtful reflection, and perceptive honesty of the human heart to conform to the ridiculously impossible, inhuman speed of the world, its effortlessly generated images and mind- driven technologies, is to do violence to our most precious, valuable treasure: the necessary guidance of the human heart. Without it, we may get more and more done, and push ever faster through the gauntlet of our to do list, but we may never, in the end, catch up to anything.

Wayne Muller is a therapist, minister, community advocate, consultant, public speaker and bestselling author of several books including A Life of Being, Having, and Doing Enough (Harmony Books), now on-sale.

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