simplifying

We finished moving into the new house this weekend, and no sooner had we done this than Emily flew back to Melbourne. This commuter relationship thing can’t end too soon for either of us.

I am taking some time now for “nesting” — unpacking all the boxes which weren’t completely decanted out onto the bookshelves, figuring out where all our kitchen implements are, calibrating the heat given by the six settings on our solid-element electric range (no longer cooking with gas, folks). And listening to soft soothing early music while journaling. There is also some cleaning back at the old place, to be handled this weekend in one big stretch.

As I continue to unpack physically, there will be scope for unpacking mentally: throwing out things to which I’m unhealthily or unnecessarily attached, or which are no longer relevant, or which have long-procrastinated associated actions which I can simply do because there are no longer any fires burning up all my free time (or so I have declared, for this week at least). The postmodern condition tends to clutter up my mental space, until it gets so packed with junk inside my head that I can barely breathe — the constant demands of the world become such a cacophony that I’m paralyzed, having no idea what desperately urgent thing needs to be done next. The junk needs to be taken out occasionally, and now is no exception. I’ve never read Walden (though I hope to soon), but Thoreau’s mantra — “simplify, simplify, simplify” — is my mantra of late.

While it is common for us academics to succumb to the guilty feeling that every moment spent on mental health is a moment not spent working, I’m not sure it’s a uniquely academic disease. It’s equal parts academia, American, and 21st-century global, I think: the sense that we are defined primarily, if not solely, by our social status or how we pay our rent; the sinking feeling that nobody in the wider world is looking out for you except yourself, and that you better run like hell just to stand still; the certainty that there is little to no room to just stop for a moment and remind yourself what’s really important, even in an optimally functioning routine where every square microsecond is packed with action of some kind. Of course, I don’t in reality come anywhere near to the asymptotic limit of perfect efficiency, particularly in view of lost efficiency due to anxiety and confusion — the “thrashing” of a mental memory which doesn’t page out to disk effectively. I don’t remember suffering from this nearly as much in graduate school as I do now, as busy as I might have been.

But let’s set that aside for now. Consider for a moment that we may have intrinsic worth, and things to offer others, in virtue of being human beings, that is, apart from work. I don’t do the best job of recognizing this on behalf of others I meet in the world, and I certainly don’t cut myself much slack, so it’s unsurprising that I don’t expect the world to do anything like this on my behalf. That may be a theme worth exploring further, both here and offline.

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About Richard

I'm an American scientist who is building a new life in Australia. This space will contain words about science and math, but also philosophy, policy, literature, my travels, occasional rants, all sorts of things I find strange and awesome. The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer at the time (currently University of Sydney), though personally, I think they should.
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