Pterodactyls On My To-Do List

September 23, 2009

This is an experimental style of post for me. While I was planning and writing an article with a focused topic for my Burger Bites series about coaching, lots of “extra” ideas were spilling over. I was sure they didn’t fit in that article because they were tangential and even random. What better place is there for me to be tangential and random than this blog? It’s my playground and laboratory, my “play lab,” where I can mess around with concepts like psychological gravity and psychic density.

Take your neighbor’s hand and walk carefully here so you don’t get lost. And please don’t touch any of the equipment or materials or experiments you see in the play lab. It’s a bit alchemical and might distort the time-space continuum, or worse, the quantum field. If you’ve been through Alice’s Wonderland or the Wonka Chocolate Factory you know what to expect. Ready?

I was watching the season premiere of House on Tuesday. It debuted on Monday but I recorded it to watch later. The enticingly offensive lead character, Dr. House, was in a psychiatric hospital after a psychotic break. Are we having fun yet?

The psychiatrist asked him (and I have to paraphrase because I erased the recording before I realized I wanted an exact quote and the streaming video won’t be available here until Tuesday of next week), “Why do you focus so much on your failures and not on your successes?” I bet it was phrased in a more gripping style, but that will have to do. It led to a discussion of how failures can have ongoing consequences, while successes can be undone or overcome by another failure. The theme was perfectionism: If I perform exceptionally well, I can prevent bad things from happening; if bad things happen I must have failed; therefore I must do better and prevent all bad things from happening. Isn’t this play lab a hoot?

I pointed at the television and said (possibly out loud), “That’s my question!” I was remembering an idea from my twilight stage thoughts the night before, when I had been wondering if there is a good folksy saying or aphorism to capture an idea. It’s an idea that really needs capturing, like “A stitch in time saves nine” or “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” The idea is that the seemingly monstrous undone chore only has the weight of smoke once it’s done. When it’s on the to-do list it oppresses. When it’s checked off it disappears, actually and psychologically, from thought and emotion. Something like, “The vulture that leaves claw prints on the ground barely casts a shadow when it flies.” I know, it’s not very good. There are lots of starts and stops in the play lab.

I realized while thinking about this general concept that, since I don’t leap to finish the looming things on my to-do list, I am not really very motivated by “looming,” especially when it’s exaggerated or artificial. I’m more motivated by reward than punishment or negative reinforcer, by approach than avoidance. The idea that the looming “vulture” becomes a distant memory when it’s complete might explain why the darn thing walks around leaving so many claw marks, waiting for me to get to it (Boy, do I need another metaphor. A pterodactyl, perhaps?). I’m motivated by the value of what’s done far more than the value of what’s not done. Unfortunately, it has little value when it’s done.

That led to me pondering the way the mass shifts so quickly when it moves from to-do to done. Is there such a thing as psychological gravity? Does an idea or a concept exert a force on, or in, the mind and soul in relation to some inherent quality, the way the earth and the sun pull to each other with a gravitational force based on their mass and distance? If so, what is the nature of that quality? What gives an idea psychic density? And how can it disappear so quickly?

In the physical world of matter, a thing cannot lose the properties that make it exert a gravitational force. It can be broken into pieces and the pieces dispersed, but they each retain their share of the original thing’s mass and the gravity that exerts. If something seems to be massive but doesn’t exert enough gravity for its mass, that would be a clue that something is amiss.

Knowing more about science fiction than science, I naturally turn to the world of Star Trek to help me with this one. If one of the many starship crews in the Star Trek story world came across an object that looked like it had mass but suddenly lost its gravitational attraction, they would know it was not matter and that it was probably a hoax. Their sensor readings would be conflicted and they would have to figure out what was going on. It might be something much smaller, like a space station, with the ability to project an artificial image and cause the image to mimic other properties of matter. Looks real, and looks big, but it isn’t. This is definitely play lab stuff.

What is the parallel in the non-material world, the world of ideas? How could a small idea (the corollary of the small space station) project a large image with the properties of a large and looming idea?

Examples of this happen all the time. We place great importance on things, chasing after them or obeying their guidelines based on perceiving that they are significant or powerful. We whip ourselves into a frenzy to get to work on time, expecting grave consequences if we’re late, and notice a few people stroll in after we get there, sans frenzy, unruffled and calm. Nobody seems to notice, or those who do notice don’t seem to care. We agonize over choosing the perfect gift for a spouse or partner, expecting joy if we get it right and some unspoken banishment if we’re wrong. But most often, if it’s a good choice it’s appreciated, and if it’s a wrong choice we just hand over the gift receipt to make it easy to exchange. No joy, and no banishment.

What is the source of this inflated value, this “psychic density”? Beliefs and expectations we learned in a haphazard way, unconsciously, in earlier situations in our lives. Mom rushed us and scolded us to get ready so we wouldn’t be late, letting us know what she thought about tardiness and how she expected other people to react. Her emotional intensity built psychic density into the idea that being late is really bad and dangerous. The co-workers and the boss didn’t have that experience, so they stress out about being on time only when there’s a meeting scheduled, or only when they know other people are expecting them, or whenever there’s a chance to be noticed, or whatever the psychic density message was that got poured into them.

So I’m hypothesizing, here in my play lab, that the looming oppression of the undone items on my to-do list could be counterfeit. And I’m hypothesizing that one of my sensor readings is telling me there’s not a lot of real substance in that looming and oppressive thing on the view screen. When I see the list, I feel the pull of gravity due to the psychic density piled up from old messages that tell me doing and accomplishing are the source of my importance and even my value. The gravitational response in me draws up anxiety, hinting at bad outcomes if those things stay on the list. Shortly after I put the list away, though, my science officer whispers, “There’s no real gravity there so it’s no big deal.” The anxiety subsides and I put the to-do list out of my mind, until I see it or think of it later and feel the oppression again.

When I’m anxious about the list, I don’t ponder the possible bad outcomes mindfully. If I did the psychic density would unravel. I understand that I am not a more worthwhile person because I drop the old computer off for donation on Monday instead of getting to it on Friday. I am not more successful in my business because I carve thirty minutes out of an unexpectedly busy day to sketch out ideas for possible projects I may never do. Yes, it was on my schedule, because ongoing planning and brainstorming keep the energy flowing for new ideas. But nothing would have been lost by letting the rhythm of my day change my plans, the way the winds and the current influence a planned sailing excursion.

This, of course, begs the question. If there are ideas that aren’t really so big, but can project a looming presence through psychic density, are there ideas that are really big, but can be cloaked or made to look small?

The answer is yes, because that’s what happens with long lost dreams that once stirred us but have not been remembered for years. They matter, and in a very big way, but we no longer see or fully feel them.

How and why that happens is a question for another day in the play lab. Can you pass me that elixir?

May You Know the Joy of Sharing Your Gifts,

Steve Coxsey


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