When you forget how to live

This article was first published in the Duke Chronicle 7 Nov, 2014

Sometimes when I need to relax, I like to take my tacky purple bicycle and go for a ride downtown. It is not a glamorous way to travel, and within minutes, the hills in Durham reduce me to a quivery, sweaty wreck, but even so I feel an immense lightness the moment I begin pedaling. Everything falls away and I forget that I am a Duke student with midterms to take and papers to write and responsibilities to uphold. It’s easy to forget since I have to focus on what’s ahead of me, if I don’t want to get run over by some sedan. And there’s nothing quite like flying down Chapel Drive, the breeze tangling my hair (er, the breeze underneath my helmet, safety first kids!), and watching the gorgeous gray stones blur on either side. I see the shapes of things and the colors, and I feel the breath raspy down my throat and the energy in my legs and for a few minutes, I am so intensely aware of the sensation of living. It’s quite glorious.

I don't always feel so in tune with my surroundings. In fact, I cherish the moments when I feel like I'm truly present because, most of the time, I'm not. My consciousness is constantly somewhere else, distracted. I realized I had spent so much time inside my own head that I had not been alive for very long at all. 

What I had been doing was existing. I was walking to class and thinking about why he hadn’t texted me back, or eating with my eyes glued to the Facebook newsfeed, or sitting with friends and making little mental to-do lists. I was participating in the real world, while listening to the imagined judgments of others, the voices of my own insecurities. Sometimes these voices would even stop me from acting naturally, because I was afraid that others would judge my state of existing and find it subpar. 

And this was what I thought it meant to live. 

And this is how I feel so many of us live. Not in the present. Not alive. Take a walk on the Main Quad and there are too many people whose faces are frowning in concentration, eyes faraway or focused on the brightness of a screen. We have learned to multi-task and plan and think ahead while still going through the motions of life. 

We've projected our minds to be in other places so that it's almost as if physical presence doesn't matter anymore. 

I believe this kind of detached existence is why, on a campus with 6,000 other students, it can still be lonely. Maybe this is how for some of us time passes and we’re 19 and then 20, and then 40 and wondering why we still feel discontent. So many beautiful and significant moments might pass us by and the tragedy is we won’t even know—because we never truly lived them. 

I don’t want to just exist and miss the whole experience of living. I want to enjoy the moments—the seconds, the minutes, the hours of conversations with friends and midnight Cookout runs. No doubt I will sacrifice something for this resolution—the efficiency of multi-tasking or the benefit of long-term thinking. Of course, it’s also impossible to be immersed fully in every moment. But devoting so much of my liveliness and thoughts to petty concerns and fears is just not worth it.

In the last few days, I’ve started to do things slower and with more awareness. I’ve tried to relish the significance of every moment, and curious things have begun to happen. The taste of food started to overwhelm me, like the sourness of red wine when I roll it around my mouth or the delicate sweetness of bread. The warmth of fresh sunshine after being inside all day began to feel delicious. I noticed the funny little idiosyncrasies my friends had more—how one twisted her hands and another used different voices with people. 

It was like having a blindfold taken off. I was seeing. I was present. I was living.

Maybe I’m just going through a mad-hippie phase, but I don’t care. Right now, I’m discovering so much joy in the mundaneness of everyday things. I wish you would join me. Life is happening in real time, right now, in all its glorious tastes and smells and sensations. 

So why don’t we live it?