I watched “The Greatest Showman” the other day. It was a kind of spiritual journey for me. The sound track has been echoing in my head ever since. There were so many lessons, so many truths about living life embedded in the lyrics.
One of the biggest is to simply wake the hell up.
In the song “Come Alive,” we hear a call to more. To figuratively “come alive.” To get off the treadmill and to become truly present in our lives.
To those of you who know me well, it’s a familiar mantra. I’ve often talked about getting stuck on life’s treadmill or the hamster wheel, but here in the middle part of my life, despite being aware of this tendency of human beings, I have often questioned if that is in fact where I am at: stuck in a rut, going through the motions.
You stumble through your days
Got your head hung low
Your skies’ a shade of grey
Like a zombie in a maze
You’re asleep inside
But you can shake away
‘Cause you’re just a dead man walking
Thinking that’s your only option
But you can flip the switch and brighten up your darkest day
Sun is up and the color’s blinding
Take the world and redefine it
Leave behind your narrow mind
You’ll never be the same
It goes on to say:
And you know you can’t go back again
To the world that you were living in
‘Cause you’re dreaming with your eyes wide open
Jackman is addressing a psychological truth here, though I doubt he even realized it.
Our brains are literally wired for novelty. Our brains are continually taking in so much stimulation that, if nothing changes, our brains decide that we just don’t need that information and so we don’t even perceive it. Essentially, our brain defaults to auto-pilot, or the zombie mode that Hugh Jackman refers to in his song.
What does this look like? Let me try to explain.
Have you ever been in a deep sleep, but bolt awake when the fan, the AC, or the furnace stops running? Why do you wake up when the background noise stops?
Because it’s a change. Our brain is listening to everything. Our brain hears the blood rushing through our veins, the ice dispenser when it drops ice in the middle of the night, the traffic on the street in front of your house. Our brain literally controls what we are aware of. It is continually making judgement calls on our behalf–and sometimes it gets it wrong.
For instance, if you’re a parent, you’re probably pretty familiar with conversations that go something like this:
“Gavin! Get down here! I have told you 5 times to pick up you backpack.”
“Geesh, Mom! Why are you so mad? All you had to do was ask.”
“I did–5 times.”
“No, you didn’t. This is the first time you asked.”
Sound familiar? It should, or something quite like it.
The reality is that, to kids, we are really pretty much like the adults in a Charlie Brown cartoon: “Waa, waa, waa, wa, waa…”
Our children are so used to the sound of our voices in the background that our brains literally tune us out. It is not your child deciding not to listen (or at least not most of the time), but their brain says, “Oh, this is normal, nothing has changed and so you don’t need to hear this.” But when mom’s voice switches to an angry tone the brain says, “Uh, oh. This you need to hear.”
Our brain does this in all areas of our life. What’s new, what’s novel, what’s different, it tells us is worth seeing. What is normal, expected, mundane–not so much.
This can cause an enormous problem in our day to day lives if we’re not careful.
One of the biggest and most common problems I have heard about in marriages is “he stopped seeing me.” I know that was the truth in my own marriage. The thing that we fail to understand is that that is not the exception–it is inevitable unless we make a conscious choice to keep seeing, to keep changing, and to keep our significant other in the forefront. He or she becomes “status quo” and in the language of the brain “nothing has changed” so we don’t need to notice or see, and we stop seeing.
One of the most frequent regrets I have heard people voice is not appreciating the time they had with their children enough before they are gone. It falls into the same category: once we get used to something, we stop seeing it and appreciating it. The adage “you don’t know what you have until it’s gone” embodies this truth. You really don’t know until something changes, the change being the person leaving–and all of a sudden, often when it’s too late, you are aware of just how much that person meant.
If you’re a parent, think back to what you felt the first time your firstborn was put into your arms. Do you love him or her any less today that you did that day? But how often do you feel now what you felt then? It takes a choice, a determination to think about, and focus on those little people you love so much, and then it all comes flooding in.
My children are growing. My son turned 14 this year. I have four years left with my little fella (not so little anymore–towering over 6 feet tall). The years have sped by, and I am all too aware of the moments lost and not savored. I have made a choice to choose to actively see my children. To force my brain to think about and appreciate these little miracles I get to live with, at least for the time being, on an almost daily basis.
We do the same thing in all areas of our life. We get used to the routine. The job that once thrilled us becomes “normal.” The activity that once excited us becomes “mundane.” The landscape that once filled us with awe becomes the background. Emerson talks about this in his work “From Nature.”
“To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child.”
Emerson didn’t know the neuroscience that caused this “superficial seeing” but he had certainly observed it–as have we all if we are honest.
One of the choices I have made this year has been to be more present. In this modern world we live in we are inundated with noise. Being present requires reflection, and reflection can’t be had when there is a little glowing screen in the palm of our hand distracting us. I’ve made the decision to put that glowing screen down more often. To put it out of sight. To mute it.
To be present in my world.
I’ve also made the decision to consciously see what my brain thinks I don’t need to see. Most days on my way to work, I prayed that God would help me see who and what I needed to see. I consciously looked for the divine moments, the real life moments I was put in this job to be a part of.
You have to understand, in the life of a teacher, the moments fly by. We are assaulted with questions and decisions, class after class, and if I don’t make a conscious effort to see my students, I can go through the entire day jumping from crisis to crisis and/or just hitting auto pilot through my lessons.
But I didn’t get into teaching just to fill young minds with knowledge. I became a teacher to make a difference.
By being conscious, I was able to help students with real trauma and loss in their lives. I was able to inspire some. I was able to let them know that there was someone there who cared. How many of these encounters would I have missed if I hadn’t made a conscious effort to see?
How many did I miss because I am still a long way from living this way every moment?
I want to live with my eyes wide open. I want to see what’s right in front of me. The people who matter the most. The people who need me the most. The possibilities that are right there for the taking–if I only have the eyes to see.
Do you have the eyes to see those moments in your own life? The ones that really matter? The ones that are so very easily overlooked?
If not, in the words of Hugh Jackman, stop being a “zombie in a maze, flip the switch, and come alive.”
I promise you, you won’t regret it!