My car's speedometer quit working a few months ago. It had been malfunctioning for a while—showing speeds of either zero miles per hour (often while on the highway) or 100 miles per hour (often while braking for a stoplight). Finally, it just gave up for good, which has been remarkably freeing. You think I'd be paranoid—never knowing if I'm going too fast or too slow, always watching for cops and measuring my pace against the other cars on the road. Yet that hasn't been the case. Instead, I find myself driving in the rightmost lane, letting my thoughts wander to lovely cloud patterns over Lookout Mountain or the interesting pedestrians or the bumper stickers on the cars going by. It's one less set of numbers to always measure my life against.
Ever since the speedometer went out, I've realized just how many numbers there are cluttering up my day and weighing on my mind. I feel like I always have one eye on the clock, whether it's thinking, "Oh, it's already 11? Darn." or "How did it get to be 4:30 already?!" I measure out my workdays with software that times each task down to the second and watch it pile up, showing a rough measure of how useful I've been. Food is measured in calories, tallied up in my head as I estimate if I should order chicken or beef, soup or salad. I track my workouts, tallying up heart rates and calories burned and time spent and mileage, charting my progress week to week. I log in to my bank account, worrying about how much will be left over at the end of the month. Every time I adjust the thermostat, I mentally weigh how comfortable a temperature will be versus how big an impact it'll have on my utility bill. I step gingerly on the scale, curious how many pounds I've gained or lost.
The sum of these efficient measurements and calculations is supposed to be my success. We spend so much time running mental calculations like this: time spent doing my hair in the morning + time spent working hard to look fit in a nice dress that took X number of hours worked to purchase + number of tasks checked off to-do list – time spent stuck in traffic after lunch + size and location of office + number of friends = personal value. Or like this: number of boyfriends had since high school ∕ number of marriage proposals received + how many months spent single since last romantic entanglement + how many cats adopted + how many alcoholic beverages consumed per night alone in bed = likelihood you are doomed to die alone eaten by said cats.
I'm tired of living such a calculated life. There's something to be said for the older system we fault for being less accurate, the ones that count by phases of the moon or value your body not on how it looks but on what work it can perform. I enjoy weekends when I can take the luxury to lay late in bed or crack open a beer before 5 or eat meals at odd times, simply out of an impish pleasure in breaking away from my usual schedule. I love the days when I lose myself in something completely and go beyond time, whether it's talking for hours with friends or working all day on a painting without a break or losing yourself in the moment when someone grabs you and kisses you.
We're always trying to find new ways to get on the right side of the numbers. We buy beauty creams to turn back the clock; we fret about whether our clothes are "too young" for our age. We speak nervously to girlfriends about whether a guy is too old for us or whether we're getting too old to have not met some goal or milestone. We turn back our clocks in the fall and spring forward six months later, trying to get the most out of winter's daylight. We invented zero-calorie soda and fat-free cream cheese. We have pushed our lifespans so far with modern medicine that financial systems like pensions are thrown out of balance. New mothers breathlessly announce their infant's every accomplishment in terms of how many weeks old the baby is. We track Fantasy Football stats, eagerly look up lottery numbers, track the ups and downs of the stock market. We are always trying to beat the math, even though we're the ones who created these numbers and these rules.
Not all numbers are so problematic. There's beautiful mystery and magic in the Fibonacci spirals of ammonites and fern leaves and the growth formation of waves. There's the natural rhythm of how many beats per second our hearts make and the rate at which our cells reproduce over time before slowing dying off, letting us age. There is the precise dance of the stars wheeling in one another's orbit in the sky and the times of years the constellations appear depending on where Earth has gotten to in its elliptical journey. Yet these numbers don't ask much of us, or nothing at all. They are the structure behind everything there is, but never ask us to count against them or to use them to figure our success or to count down to some predetermined endpoint.
The sun will burn out in a few hundred million years, but even scientists don't know precisely when. There's no point eyeing the clock like you do at your desk when it's almost 5 or when you're hoping the guy you have a crush on will text you back. Nature doesn't work that way. We don't have to, either. Let go of the numbers. Forget to watch the clock, to eye the speedometer, to step on the scale. Get lost in your work or your play. Drive the speed that matches your surroundings. Judge your body for what it can do for you each day, lifting bags of groceries or a child onto your hip. Eat fruits and vegetables and delicious meals. Do what feels good without calculations or schemes or systems, but from your own inner rhythm. Just be.
Meghan O'Dea is a 20-something writer, pop culture critic and social media fanatic. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter if you have questions, comments or stories on being a young adult in the workforce. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.
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