Pay Attention

Our distracted age

The Art of Doing Nothing

Feeling anxious? Don't just do something, stand there!

I come from a line of restless people, who in some cases made bold choices when it might have been so much better not to have chosen at all.

Elias Eisenberg, my great-grandfather, as I've previously described, was the first of my father's family to emigrate from Poland at the turn of the century. Quite likely, that's why I'm here today, as opposed to having had my paternal ancestors wiped out by Nazis before I was born. 

So I'm grateful for that.  A few years after settling in Minneapolis, however, where he found work as a tailor and had fathered children, my restless ancestor returned to Poland to collect a family inheritance. Still good there. On the way home, however, Elias obeyed an impulse to stop in Monte Carlo, where he spent every last zloty on the gambling tables, champagne, and female companionship. Not so good. 

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Now, immigrants by nature are bold, restless people, who likely, according to some schools of thought, have a higher incidence of a gene mutation commonly involved in Attention-deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD. Diagnosed with ADHD myself, I'm more than ready to believe my great-grandpa Elias carried the gene across the ocean to America, and I think of him often, after I've over-indulged in dark chocolate (even though it's supposedly good for you), or hit that one-click button on Amazon too many times, or sent off yet another ill-advised email to an employer. My sins, of course, are small next to his grand adventures, but they often stem from the same spiritual source: a lack of what Elias himself might have called sitzfleisch, the Yiddish term for being able to just sit still.

Alcoholics Anonymous has many great mottos, but one of the ones I like best is "pause when agitated." One of the most poignant ironies about ADHD is that even as evidence accumulates that meditation might be just the right thing, most of us lack the sitzfleisch to do it. What we can do, however, is get in the habit of actively reminding ourselves to take that strategic pause throughout the day, and train our awareness of separating impulse and action. 

Katherine Ellison is a Pulitzer Prize winning author.

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