I’m walking along Oxford Street heading towards work and, much like 99% of the people scurrying alongside me, behind me, in front of me, towards me, away from me; I’m apparently in a rush. I’m actually only in a rush because everyone else is in a rush – the street itself demands the pace. This is the busiest street in London – you must keep walking. Or you will be crushed.
We all bob and weave our way through those daring to cross our paths, agility skills constantly being put to the test – something I’m not quite prepared for pre-10am. I nimbly duck around the threat of potential contact to at worst brush this invader with the side of my ginormous gym bag – another addition not welcome on the battlefield.
But my duck and avoid manoeuvre is thwarted as my opponent idly drifts across the pavement straight into my path. We collide – game over. We collide because his earphones are in – nothing unusual there. But his head is down, because his face is also in an iPad. Not a phone – an iPad.
He’s walking along the busiest street in London and he’s shut out the demanding surroundings to watch a screen. As a result he has no awareness of the very sight that actually requires his attention.
I could get angry. But it just makes me sad.
This is more and more typical as we try to squeeze more and more into our lives in the same 24 hours a day we’ve always had. We’re so busy filling our head with stuff – worrying about everything we may have forgotten to remember – it seems we can’t even be content to listen to our own thoughts for five minutes, or just be content with the surroundings on offer as we walk down the street. And I’m not talking about the arse end of somewhere horrendous. This is central London – it’s interesting, it’s beautiful, it’s crazy, it’s bold and ultimately, it’s incredible. So why can’t we just look at it? And think for a minute? Daydreams are as valid as worrying about whether we double locked the door, but apparently our senses have to constantly be simultaneously assaulted. Are we so afraid of actual thinking, of listening to our own minds that we have to drown them out? What could possibly be SO good on that screen that you need to half-watch it on the five minute walk from the tube to work? You surely can’t give it your full attention, because you’re also walking, and listening, and half-looking at the blurry, fast-moving shapes that you demand move around YOU because YOU need to be distracted. YOU couldn’t possibly just put one foot in front of the other and look where you’re going, and open your mind to the day ahead.
London is a paradox in this sense – it is incredible because it’s full of amazing things to do and see, but to that extent it has no limits. I love this city whole-heartedly and everyone in it that makes my life my life. But it’s a vicious cycle – us dwellers of this wonderful, rich, cultural capital demand more and more of ourselves as the city grows to reflect our need to be doing or having more than we currently do or have.
Things are also faster and more readily available than ever before. London epitomises this with every ounce of its being, every second of every day. God forbid we have to wait three minutes – THREE MINUTES for the next tube. What is going to change in 180 seconds? Really? We want more, and we want it faster – whether it’s being expected to answer work emails at 4 in the morning, or achieve that dream body with a workout that lasts just 20 minutes. As a result, we’re in danger of spreading ourselves so thinly that we achieve nothing, instead of the everything we could achieve if we focused on one thing at a time. Our health and wellbeing being the fall out, when it should be the priority focus. Life IS more stressful and demanding than ever before, and we need our bodies and minds to be as strong as possible to tackle this. But they seem to be the first thing to get neglected.
It is engrained in us that more is better. More wealth, more clothes, more bedrooms, more love. But ‘more’ now is taken to an extreme level, and we are in danger of losing the values that a simpler life offers. Of course it is valid to be ambitious and want to achieve – I am first to put my hand up in that regard; but at what price? I’m never going to be a millionaire, but then I’m also never going to go and work in the City – work 14 hour days on four hours of sleep, each day punctuated with just enough of a hangover to need another drink come 6pm. And that’s more than ok. Ultimately I am at peace with what I bring to the world, how I treat others and my understanding of what is achievable. I’m not striving for more. I’m striving for better. I want to get better at my job, and better at writing, and better at saying no. Better at appreciating what I’ve got, better at understanding why people may behave in a way that you can’t comprehend, better at being a friend, an other half. Better at tuning into what my body and mind are trying to tell me – whether that’s related to my diabetes or not. And better at taking the time to take in my surroundings. In a city that’s full of beauty, wonder, colour and life, we’re all too busy striving for more to notice it.
The ultimate danger of this life of excess is that we get to the point where nothing is enough. Reckless, meaningless behaviour results as we search for the same level of thrill, never quite satiated. As a child we delight in the simplest of things as we experience them for the first time, but now the simple things that gave us so much pleasure are deemed standard. Obvious. Boring. If we’re constantly striving for more; the next drink, the next meaningless liaison, the next bonus – to the point it’s no longer actually benefitting us or other people who happen to be in the minefield when it becomes destructive, how much do we end up destroying while ironically trying to attain it all? The danger is that we’re so busy striving for the next thing that we fail to appreciate what we’ve got, here and now. A healthy family, a roof over our heads. The ability to laugh, money to buy food. The love and trust of others. I know it’s not as simple as this, I would be naïve and dishonest to state that it was, because then no-one would ever go anywhere or achieve anything, but where does it end? Where is the enough?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a willing victim of the socially connected world. I’m on my phone much more than is necessary, feeding my mind with other people’s thoughts and musings instead of forming my own, or discussing them with the people around me. But if you use them to nurture yourself, to learn and grow and understand the world better, that is different to being accessible in the dead of night for fear of missing an email or a notification, and feeling like a failure for not living in one constant stream of instant messenger. It all contributes to this need for more, instantly. Falling in love with cycling has helped me detach from the 24/7 technically chronic world – I only take my phone with me so I don’t suddenly find myself crossing the M25 without warning. If anyone texts I don’t look until I’m home; and I can’t listen to music because it’s too dangerous (DID YOU HEAR THAT IDIOT CYCLISTS WITH HEADPHONES IN). So what’s left is just me, my bike, my mind and the world. And that has been a release that no Twitter feed can match.
I’m much happier now that I demand less of myself, and once my focused shifted on making time for things that make me a better person from the inside out, my productivity and radiance in all other areas improved as a result. Indulgent? Maybe. Luxurious to a 20-something with no ties, dependents or mortgage? Possibly. Greedy? Perhaps, but if we keep demanding so much of ourselves we’re inevitably going to fail on something – or else just continue stretching our poor selves until we combust and it all completely goes to shit. And in realising this I haven’t regressed or become a recluse, but I have learnt that it’s ok to say no to things that don’t align with my priorities. The main one being taking care of myself, on the whole. If I do that a lot of other things become wonderful. I’m nicer to my friends, more focused at work, and more appreciative of the world around me. I’m constantly trying to get my body and my diabetes control to work as one – it definitely doesn’t always happen, but my world is much better for the effort. My body is my greatest instrument, not my biggest enemy. It keeps me living and breathing, so I should be nice to it, not battle it for giving me a condition that is quite frequently a pain in the ass. So I feed it properly, nourish it, and exercise it to make it strong.
I was fiercely ambitious for a long time – to the point that I wasn’t being the best person I could to the people that mattered. To the point that I sacrificed experiences with friends because I was too scared to take my foot off the pedal. And also scared of being around them and not being good enough. I wasn’t happy with myself inwardly, so outwardly I needed to be the best, and for me that was career. I’m not dismissive of that person; she’s got me to where I am today, in a job that I love, where I’m doing something that’s valid, for me. But now I’ve reached a certain point with myself, I don’t need to be the best or get there first. I’m content, at peace, FRIENDS with my body and as a result I can take delight in other things, and my career isn’t my world. My wonderful world is my world – and by demanding less of myself I’m now achieving more than I ever have. There are some things I’m just not good at, and that’s ok. Some things I want to be better at, so I go and read, and learn, and practice. I take on other people’s views more than ever before in order to put myself out of my comfort zone and evolve as an individual – so I can bring better to the world. Better. Not more. And the world looks much better when you take the time to take it in as you walk down the street at 9.45am.