The Tao of the Alarm Clock

alarmclockBefore the housing bubble burst, my husband and I were among those who built a house in an expensive subdivision, on the theory that it was just as good an investment as the stock market and—yay!—we got to live in it too.  I had just recently started working after the children reached school age, and we were feeling quite suddenly prosperous after having lived for years on my husband’s salary.

Our starter home was a small bi-level in an area that my husband described as “off the edge of the world.”  The plat was half empty, with trees and weed-overgrown streets on one side where an overly optimistic developer had failed to attract buyers, and cornfields behind the houses on the other.  At first it seemed like the ideal quiet location, given the fact that our son had inherited a considerable number of my autistic traits, including a tendency to wander off and go adventuring any chance he got; and his little sister was quite happy to tag along, climbing trees and exploring the woods.

After the kids grew older, however, they no longer needed constant watching.  The temptation of a new house became too much to resist, even though we knew it meant that we would need both our salaries to pay the bills and there wouldn’t be much money left over.

There wasn’t a tree to be found anywhere on the flat and neatly graded lot we bought.  Its main attractions were a large backyard and a convenient location for a much quicker commute.  I planted a row of willows along the back lot line, imagining that in a few years I would put blackberry bushes and assorted perennial flowers in front of them for a natural-looking landscape, complete with chirping birds and other wildlife.

Of course, things don’t always turn out quite the way we envision them.  The wildlife promptly started eating the willows, which I had to wrap in plastic netting to survive the first year.  And the sounds we heard while relaxing in the backyard weren’t birds, but the traffic passing by on the all-too-conveniently located interstate highway interchange about a mile from the subdivision.

Although the highway noise wasn’t too noticeable in most of the house, the loudest spot turned out to be the master bedroom.  On a subconscious level, the sound of cars and trucks rushing by created the impression that the pace of life itself had sped up to an unmanageable velocity.  That feeling was amplified by our old alarm clock, which had a beep that sounded like a truck backing up.  The message it sent might as well have been the crack of a whip: Hey, wage slave, it’s time to get up and go about your workday, or life will run you over.

Somewhere in the back of my mind I now had a persistent worry, never quite going away, that I might not be able to do all the things I needed to get done.  As far as I could tell, it wasn’t based on anything in particular; and in fact, I had fewer demands on my time now that the kids were older and more self-sufficient.  Telling myself that everything was just fine, I made sure to exercise regularly and to eat a healthy diet, but that didn’t banish my anxiety.  Minor interruptions to my routine that would not have bothered me in the past began to feel much more disruptive.

I might never have figured out what was wrong if my husband hadn’t decided to replace our old alarm clock with something more up to date.  The new clock, which he wrapped and put under the Christmas tree as a gift to ourselves, has both a pleasant chime and an assortment of nature sounds.  Now I can fall asleep to the sound of birds calling in a rainforest or frogs warbling in a bayou, rather than always having my bedroom invaded by the rush of highway traffic.  Although I wouldn’t have expected such a small thing to make so much difference, I’ve found that my perception of time has shifted noticeably in just the past week.  Time seems to be moving more slowly and in a more comfortable and familiar pattern.

People in the modern world tend, sometimes, to forget that we are animals governed by the world’s natural rhythms.  Our brains unconsciously expect to receive inputs reflecting the conditions that existed when our ancestors evolved.  When we get other inputs that don’t match, we start to feel anxious and disoriented, often without understanding what has gone wrong.

Of course, humans are a curious species, and it is also natural for us to make new discoveries and to improve our technology.  I am not suggesting that it would be ideal to go back to living in primitive villages, which obviously had their drawbacks.  But we do need to gain more understanding of how our minds and bodies relate to the world around us, so that we can use modern technologies in ways that promote healthier lives.

on 01/11/10 in featured, The Unconscious | No Comments | Read More

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