I’m feeling overwhelmed these days, like Hokusai’s Great Wave keeps hanging above me, threatening to swallow me whole. This episode explores the feelings of being overwhelmed that can paralyze us, and suggests some of my own solutions for dialing it all back, and turning the flood into flow. Let’s talk about it.
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Good morning, I’m David duChemin and this is A Beautiful Anarchy, a podcast for those whose creative lives seem to be more about mud-wrestling with the muse than simply following her, but who wouldn’t on their lives give up the struggle. This is episode 002.
Well, I completely wasted the first two hours of this morning, until I finally came to my senses and shook myself loose from the pull of Instagram and Facebook and the endless digital hooks that seem to catch my attention these days. And at the end of that two hours, I felt overwhelmed, absolutely swamped. I felt small in the face of it all. I felt not only uninspired but that my creative light, a flickering fragile thing at the best of times, had been doused for the day.
I’m hearing this more and more from my friends, and from total strangers online, many of whom, like me, have taken to social media to complain about social media. And the word I keep hearing is “overwhelmed”. In fact I’m hearing it with such frequency that it’s fast becoming my word for the year, the one word that seems to sum up the prevailing mood for me.
Last year in Rome I stood in front of the great Japanese painter Hokusai’s painting, Under the Wave off Kanagawa, often just called The Great Wave. It’s a painting you’d know to see, a great tsunami of a wave on the left side of the canvas, all swirling whites and blues, about to crash down on two long boats of Japanese fishermen, dwarfed by the force of the wave above them that seems to reach out for all of them with grasping fingers, while the presence of Mount Fuji sits dwarfed in the background, as if it, too, might be enveloped by the wave.
I feel Hokusai's great wave in my soul these days, the ocean moving under and over me all at once, threatening, at times, to swallow me whole in one great overwhelming wave of obligations, over-commitment, emails, and the constant tinnitus provided by social media that makes it hard to hear anything else very clearly, least of all my own voice.
I don’t think we’re hard-wired to be able to deal with this much information, this many so-called friends, fans, and followers and likes and news clips from corners of the globe we are powerless to change. Our hearts and minds aren’t large enough to contain, much less filter, the many voices and images we take in. And if you’re a creative person, seeing the flood of other people’s work, their successes and awards, and being exposed to a volume of thoughts and chatter that no generation on the planet has ever had to deal with: it’s just too much raging water through pipes too small. It’s too much noise.
It is in the truest sense of the word, Overwhelming. To be overwhelmed is to be submerged completely, so it’s no wonder Hokusai’s Great Wave provides, at least for me, a powerful visual metaphor. What makes it even stronger for me is that, at least in the painting, the wave never falls. It hangs there day after day, in permanent tension and threat, and the rowers, day after day for the last 200 years haven’t made a foot of progress. There they are still, one assumes terrified of the wave and the threat of washing them away entirely. That, I think, is the worst of it. And it’s what I fear most about the threat of being overwhelmed in my own life: not so much that the one rogue wave is coming, but that the fear of it will keep me cowering, and if not cowering then paralyzed.
The most fulfilling moments in my creative life have been the moments in which I am moving forward, exploring new things, chasing some idea that just seems to be right right now. When I’m in the flow. The great wave is not flow. It’s flood. It’s uncontrollable and unsustainable and too big to do anything with. It makes a great metaphor but it’s lousy if I want to accomplish anything. Flow is the opposite. It’s focused and smooth and, yes, sometimes it feels a little too fast, like it might get away on us, but when it happens you never feel like you’re so in control, or maybe that it’s in control of you sometimes but it’s benevolent and exciting and you can’t wait to see where it’s leading. The great waves, on the other hand almost always seem to lead to the shore, where if we aren’t dashed on the rocks we’re stranded on the beach wondering where we are and what the hell just happened.
Here’s another water metaphor, but first let me say why I think this all matters: I have never, not once, made anything good - a photograph or a piece of writing, or some other more mundane creative output - when I’ve been paralyzed by the overwhelm. I just freeze up, my eyes going to the top of the wave and holding there. And if I do act, if I shake myself free from it, there’s a good chance I’m just frantically bailing out the boat. Reply to email, post to Instagram, get busy doing the million things that make up our daily lives and seem to guarantee that the wave will always hover.
I promised another metaphor. What if all this is more in our control than we accept. What if we have the ability to turn the water off at the source. To close the browser. Put the phone away, and disengage from social media, if that’s what’s overwhelming you. What if all this talk of being overwhelmed, as real and scary as it can be, is just a result of abdicating our agency, our choices, as human beings? When did we forget what the world was like before Facebook, and days carved into thinner and thinner slices by anyone and everyone that asks for a piece? When did I stop saying no?
Current means of communication tends to just be a pipe with no faucet, the water just keeps coming, often uninvited. And there we are at the end of it, knowing it’s too much, knowing our bucket isn’t big enough, and looking frantically for another bucket, a bigger bucket. I don’t think there’s a bucket big enough, and still it comes.
Years ago I wrote a book called Within The Frame, The Journey of Photographic Vision. To my great delight, it became a best-seller, such as best-sellers are in the small world of popular photography. Suddenly I was inundated with emails and invitations to speak and the gentle flow of water that was my creative and business life at the time, was suddenly coming out of the pipes so hard I had no idea what to do with it. I was completely overwhelmed. For a while I loved it. And then it was just too much. Emails I once welcomed were suddenly mixed with angry missives from people that wondered why I hadn’t replied to them and just who the hell did I think I was that I couldn’t just take a moment to say thank you for the kind words or answer their question? I hadn’t asked for their email, hadn’t known that it would be only a drop in a bucket of hundreds of emails, didn’t have the time to reply to enough of them to make the slightest difference. Very quickly the blessing had become a curse.
I think many of the things in our lives that overwhelm us do so because they start out so good. So small. They seem manageable, even exciting. But like so many things they get bigger, they take on a life of their own. The wave builds. How many of us started down the social media road with even the remotest of ideas that it was so intentionally designed to be addictive? Truly, scientifically, addictive. How many of us have any idea when we commit to the things we do that they’ll take so much time, go off the rails, or become the emotional drain that they can become? Life has this habit of sneaking up. In the freelance world we call it “scope creep.” You agree to do something for a client for x amount of dollars and it’s not long, if you let it happen, before tiny little changes happen to the scope of work, little tweaks. An addition here, a redo there, a quick favour that takes us half a day. Scope creep always, always builds. Until one day we’re treading water and wondering how it all just got so out of control, knocking us from the boat.
When the success of my first book proved too much to handle I felt like I was on the edge of meltdown. My bandwidth was taken up by this new flood of attention and work and all the things that come with that, things, by the way that I’m truly, deeply grateful for, but have had to learn to control. I was forced to find strategies that would help me free up that bandwidth, because it’s not enough just to learn to deal with the new level of demands. If my entire world becomes dealing with those demands, if that becomes my work, then when do I do my real work? When do I make my photographs? When do we write our next book or next article? When do we find the margins of silence and solitude that we need to even contemplate the deeper work? And what about the relationships that fill the well into which we dip to do that work? When will we find time for those?
Ultimately this is about resource management, specifically the very limited resources of time and attention. Those are the buckets that keep getting filled to overflowing and they’re not getting any bigger because our stores of time and attention aren’t increasing. We have what we have. And many of us are squandering them as if they’re limitless, and that is where the overwhelm comes from.
It isn’t my intention to tell you how to deal with the flood of things that overwhelm you, though I have some ideas. I think many of us just need to know we’re not alone, that it’s a shared struggle, and to understand that we are in control, or we can be if we’ll wrestle that control back from those to whom we’ve accidentally relinquished it. What I’d like to do is leave you with the same questions I’ve been asking myself in my own struggle to claw back my resources so they’re available to me to do my best work, so I have wider margins and more breathing room, so I have time to do not only my work but my best work, my deeper work, as well as to live my best life.
What would happen if you recognized how scarce and limited your time and attention were? How would your life change if you realized that saying yes to all the trivial things, the ad hoc obligations and scope creep was the same as saying no to the most important things in your life?
How long are you going to wait before you start saying yes to the right things and no to the rest?
What would happen if you tracked your time this week, and what changes would you make if you realized you’d spent 6 hours on Facebook, six hours of your life with which you might have done something meaningful?
How can you buy back the margins in your life, reclaim some of your mental bandwidth?
How would your life change if you stopped watching the news and focused instead on the lives you could change, and didn’t work yourself into a lather about those you could not? Surely empathy isn’t limitless either.
And practically speaking, what would you do with the 6 hours of your week that you could buy back by paying the neighbour kid to mow the lawn or shovel the driveway or hiring someone to clean the house?
There are ways to reverse the scope creep, to dial back the obligations, to take control of what makes demands on our attention. We are not passive players in this life. There are things enough that we can not control, things that will rock our worlds and send us to our knees. A pregnancy, a diagnosis, a layoff, an unexpected success, the passing of people we never imagined our worlds without. Making our art, whatever that means to you, has always been a way of navigating those deeper waters, a way of experiencing them more fully, coping with them, and making sense of them. But we can’t do that while paralyzed under the great wave.
I’m not for a moment suggesting this is easy, it’s one of the main struggles of my own life. But I am suggesting it’s necessary, and well worth the effort, and deeply liberating. Sometimes the greatest freedom comes from knowing there are others out there feeling this way. You’re not alone, but you’ve got this.
Thank you so much for listening to this new and speculative thing I’m making. I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback and would be so grateful if you’d both subscribe, leave a short review, and invite the people in your life to listen. Until next time, go make something beautiful.