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Your Stories Don’t Define You, How You Tell Them Will


Jan 28, 2020

It was somewhere in the late 1970s when my father came home with a microwave oven. Definitely one of the first on our block and huge, my father proudly showed it to my mom as the "next great invention."

We had no idea what to do with it, though the booklet had recipes, and settings to defrost meats and soften butter. I remember using it regularly to heat up our frozen vegetables, peas, corn, green beans. I also remember experimenting with the defrost feature, and failing miserably, cooking to death a beautiful steak or a pound of ground beef to devastating effects -- precious commodities because money was tight. We made scrambled eggs a few times, but cleaning the crusty containers was a hassle so we didn't do that very often.

When my parents splurged on a baby sitter for a date night, I remember the excitement of getting to pick out special frozen dinners at the store, made especially for heating in the microwave. Full of salt and fat, they were such a luxury for me and my siblings. Ick. We would walk through the frozen food aisle, gazing longingly at the variety of Swanson's and Banquet options, knowing we had to avoid any in foil containers, which was most of them.

When we would find a few "Now in Microwaveable Containers!", we would excitedly pull them from the reach-in freezer and read the directions on the back of the package. While I was perfectly happy to pick one that read "hot and ready to eat in 18 minutes", my younger sister would compromise on her selection to get one that took less time, maybe 15 or 16 minutes.

A few years later, as the microwave generation started to take off and find its way through the frozen food aisle, I remember looking at the back of the package and returning it to the freezer if it said anything more than 12 minutes. Those 6 minutes meant hot food even faster! It was also a signal, now that I can see it from a few decades into the future, that our tolerance for waiting for anything had dropped dramatically, in a very short amount of time.

We don't use the microwave for TV dinners or other prepared food in our household now, except for the occasional Hot Pocket snuck into the house by one of our boys, but we do use it (very carefully) to defrost meats & fish, to warm up leftovers and frozen peas, and to soften butter and boil water. When we upgraded our old microwave a couple of years ago, I was pleasantly surprised to find the technology had improved so much that I could now boil water in under 3 minutes.

Oh dear.

This is why I call my generation the microwave generation. Every time we improve our technology and make things move faster, we decrease our tolerance and patience for waiting. You do NOT want to see me at Sea World or LEGOLAND these days.

What about you? Have you noticed a decrease in your tolerance for waiting -- for everything? What do you attribute that to? Do you find it more and more difficult to settle in and wait for things?

I noticed a while ago that people, myself included, avoid boredom by picking up their devices, phone, laptop, tablet, when they’re waiting for anything. My go-to is whatever version of Solitaire is handy, or maybe scrolling through Facebook, checking my email, etc.

What we’re doing, though, is limiting our opportunities to be mindful, to exploring our thoughts and letting our minds wander and explore. Why is that important?

I recently read an article by Jamie Ducharme on the Time website about boredom and its relationship to creativity and innovation. The author suggested that one of the critical factors in our lack of creativity is the fact that we have so much distraction available to us, that we’re rarely bored.

“If you’re waiting for brilliance to strike, try getting bored first. That’s the takeaway of a study published recently in the journal Academy of Management Discoveries, which found that boredom can spark individual productivity and creativity.” (Link to the article.)

The author suggested that we allow ourselves to sit with boredom when we experience it, to choose not to pick up our phone while waiting at a railroad crossing – or while we’re on the toilet. He suggested that when we allow ourselves to be bored for a little while, our brains start to wake up again, to start that slow whirring of idea creation, to begin to take a detour from our regular patterns of thought and explore different perspectives – it gives our brains the space to be creative again.

Distraction isn’t necessarily the opposite of focus, and mindfulness isn’t actually about focus, specifically. Mindfulness is about allowing your thoughts to shift, while coming back periodically to the moment, to paying attention to your physical body, and changing your relationship with those thoughts that cross your mind.

My friend Shelley Brown talks about mindfulness in a truly applied, accessible way. She suggests that when we stop to consider where our thoughts come from, to take a few moments to think about the thought from the perspective of someone on the outside looking in, we can see the reality behind the thoughts, which may be totally based in fear, unrealistic in their assumptions, and damaging to our relationships with ourselves and others. Perhaps if we give ourselves opportunities to be bored, we can also take a little time between a frustrating experience or conversation – and how we choose to respond to it.

There is that moment, after all, between stimulus and response, where we can choose how we see that stimulus. When something happens, like waking up to six inches of snow and single digit temperatures in April, we can choose how we respond to it. I can choose to see it as negative, positive, or neutral. My first reaction is usually: “No! I’m so sick of winter!” But if I take a moment to consider how I want to respond, I realize that the weather isn’t good or bad – it just IS, and I have no control over it.

I think it’s important to allow ourselves a negative response sometimes, at least for a few minutes, but after taking some time to be mindful of our emotions, we do have a choice.

The next time you’re waiting in line for your Starbucks pumpkin spiced latte, waiting for the download of the latest operating system update, or waiting for the water to boil in the microwave to make tea, try not to open the game or email or social media app on your phone. Instead, let your mind wander. Let thoughts come and go, like clouds shifting overhead. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll have an “ah ha” moment, a brilliant idea, a realization about how to solve a major problem you’ve been grappling with.

Use your short attention span to practice mindfulness – rather than finding distraction while you’re waiting, try being bored for a few minutes. Yes, really. It may be just the thing to help you find what you’re looking for.