The first time I saw a genuinely tragic car accident was on the way back from my grandmother’s funeral last week. I was riding with my older sister and four year old nephew. An old Chevy pickup careened down the turning lane, moving at least 80 mph, and a trail of police cars followed close behind. It was a real-life police chase, and it made me sit up straight and grin like a child playing video games. These really happen!? Less than five seconds later that truck crashed, head-on, into the car of a lady who was on her way to church. We pulled over and cried.
The driver of that Chevy pickup had just committed an armed robbery at a bank some two counties away. The most heartbreaking detail, obviously, was the lady on her way to church that happened to cross his path. Imagine the moment she saw a huge metal box barreling towards her, and realized there was not enough time to get out of the way, not a chance she could escape its impact. That is what made us cry: her helplessness, her utter lack of control over things. Somehow, she suffered no life-threatening injuries.
I’ve been thinking about control lately. And how I compulsively write to-do lists because they make me feel like I’m in control. This is especially so at work, where tasks accumulate quickly and endlessly. The motto at my workplace goes: Excellence has no finish line. I could interpret this by saying there is always more room for progress; in other words, continuous improvement is the goal. I can also interpret it by saying excellence is tantamount to being in a perpetual rush. This is a race that does not stop.
I spent most of my previous working life in a hurry to check things off a list. That kind of tunnel vision rendered every bump in the road an annoyance. I was reactive and I snapped more times than I care to count. I broke things out of a lack of awareness: computers, appointments, promises… I made mistakes. A lot of ‘em. And there were days I trampled on the feelings of anyone who got in my way. I do not like others when I’m in a hurry. I do not like myself when I’m in a hurry. Neither would you. I’m trying to do some things differently with my new job.
Like slow down. And live as if equanimity was a priority. The priority. I’m trying to live as if time is on my side. Because whether we’re running away from the consequences of a terrible mistake we already made, or towards a goal that promises future excellence, it seems like the running itself is what makes us, and the unfortunate folks who cross our paths, suffer.
A paradox I’m trying to wrap words around: There’s something about sitting still, which can at first feel like a waste of time, that actually expands our experience of time. Something about releasing that very compelling and urgent need to get things done in favor of stopping to simply observe for a while, actually increases our capacity to get things done.
I’d like to think that if excellence has no finish line, it’s not because it’s an endless race, but because it isn’t a race at all. I’d like to think that excellence is a practice, this practice, and it consists of each step we take with care and awareness. If I’m honest with myself, I’ll admit that I don’t know where these steps are leading. I only know that I’ve recently taken the big one of resolving to sit completely still for an hour every morning before I even think of heading off to work. I’m a teacher, by the way, and my students come back on Monday. I’m interested to see how it changes my relationship with them and their relationship with me. I’m interested to see how it changes the quality of the lessons I teach, and the ones that I learn.