Are We Cultivating a Culture of Cretins?

I wrote this tip in Brisbane, Australia, sipping a coffee in my favorite café. On my first visit here, the waiter insulted me. His words changed my life.

As he poured my coffee in a paper cup, he said, “From your accent, you’re an American. Good. You can answer a very important question for me.”

I cautiously accepted.

“Americans always order their coffee take-away. They never sit down to drink. What is that about?”

Before I could answer, a waitress chimed in, “Maybe they prefer drinking from a paper cup.”

Since I was running late for an appointment, I ducked my head and paid for my drink. I heard the waiter say, “Only Cretans like the taste of paper.”

The next day, the waiter smiled as I ordered my coffee to drink at a table. I defended myself by saying I didn’t have an appointment that day. I couldn’t admit that he spoke the truth. I would have ordered the coffee to go out of habit. Instead, I sat down to take pleasure in the people walking by and the beautiful spring weather.

Last week I reprimanded my friend’s dog for gulping down the treat I gave him instead of savoring the morsel. I guess I am not that different. Are you?

A POINT TO PONDER: I am not going to tell you to stop and smell the roses. This is old advice from thousands of articles, books, seminars, CD’s and gurus. So why don’t we do it?

I think we need to first look at why we choose to be busy every moment and run from silence. The answer goes beyond personal preference. Our behavior is entrenched in our culture and possibly, in our biology. Changing this habit will require that we look at these sources.

If we do not acknowledge the cultural roots of our impatience, we will only feel guilty and call ourselves lazy if we stop to breath. How many times have you justified your choice to stay busy with some vague reason like the precarious economy or the responsibilities of raising a family? Maybe we feel that we have to look busy. Too many times I hear people trying to one up each other on who had the busiest day. What is that about?

John Gardener, the novelist said, “Human Beings have always employed an enormous amount of clever devices for running away from themselves….we keep ourselves so busy, fill our lives with so many diversions, stuff our heads with so much knowledge, involve ourselves with so many people and cover so much ground that we never have time to probe the fearful and wonderful world within….By middle life, most of us are accomplished fugitives from ourselves.”

Are we afraid of silence? It is rare that two people allow moments of silence in their conversations. Someone steps in to fill in the space.

And what do we do with a rare free moment in the day unless we are tired and our brains are begging for a rest? We fill in the space with a chore, either physical or mental.

Yet some of the richest conversations we have are full of silence, whether we are in love, in rage, or in confusion. And our most brilliant ideas come to us when we become “mindless.”

I don’t know if the U.S. is the busiest culture in the world, but I do know that few of my clients, all over this planet, make the time to be silent, reflect and observe. As a coach, the one skill I still work to master is “listening until I am gone” meaning that I am only fully present when “I” no longer exist.

BRAIN TIP: I am not prepared to give you any answers. This tip is intended to inspire you to think about your thinking. My request is that you sit still for a moment, resist the urge to take your coffee to go, and ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What will it take for me to slow down and take time with my tasks, conversations, and movements from one thing to the next?
  2. Who is chasing me? What drives me to work so hard and fast?
  3. Is there anything I am afraid of seeing if I choose to let my mind wander for periods of time?
  4. What would happen if I allowed there to be moments of silence in my conversations? What would it take to relax into the silence?

I hope you find this request interesting instead of a chore. It’s time we get to know ourselves better. And it’s time we learn how to be with each another—to really see one another—and to be comfortable basking in each other’s breath.

Does this sound weird? It should since it is not common practice and will take practice to change our human ways. But I believe we owe it to ourselves to try.
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