China’s first north-to-south express highway is the G4. It is over 2,200 km long and you can use it to drive from Beijing all the way to Hong Kong or Macau. On a busy day, it looks like this:
Your mind has more than a mere 50 lanes, but on a busy day, the level of traffic is just the same. Each car in each lane represents a different version of you. A version that would make an alternative choice, behave differently, or think another way. But there’s a catch:
Only one lane is called ‘the present’ and only one version of you can drive on it at any given time.
As a result, there’s a constant, massive traffic jam from all these alter egos fighting over who gets to lead the convoy. Each one is trying to squeeze into the present lane, shove itself ahead and cut off everyone else. When 50 cars clash, who ends up in front is anyone’s guess. It’s impossible to hand any one version the reigns with all these options, desires, and arguments pulling you in opposite directions. But that’s not the worst part.
Imagine how present-you feels with this huge, pent up mob in its back. Everyone trailing slightly behind is honking, shouting, tailgating, just waiting for their chance to overtake. How could present-you possibly focus on driving, let alone drive calmly or look ahead?
Too Much Of A Good Thing
Søren Kierkegaard, a Danish 19th century philosopher and one of the founders of existentialism, developed a rather dark view of the world at a young age. Born into a wealthy family, he lived in constant fear of death and regret, both of which he saw waiting around every corner.
Eventually, he decided that humor was the only adequate response to life’s madness. He claimed that once he saw reality, he started laughing and hadn’t stopped since. In one of his most famous works, he also gave us a new word to capture the struggle with our own insignificance, a word that’s survived verbatim in both English and German to this day: angst.
“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom,” he would remark. It perfectly fits the image of the mental traffic jam we’re faced with in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Not just because the car is the pinnacle of personal freedom, but because the sheer availability of all these lanes to drive on can literally make us dizzy. All these choices about who to be and what to do, we’re actually free to make them, unlike Kierkegaard and his contemporaries, who were much more limited, yet plagued by the same issue still. It seems it’s gotten worse.
So how can we stop being dizzy?
The Road Ahead
When I was younger, I would race my Dad on the 15-minute drive from the city to our home in the suburbs. Eventually, we realized that even if you go 50% over the speed limit on the highway stretch, you only save one minute. Imagine how much you save going through the toll booth two cars ahead in line.
Most choices in life are like that. You raise all kinds of hell to go 50% faster, only to end up one day earlier at the same finish line. Often, switching lanes feels much more efficient in the moment, but, ultimately, doesn’t make a big difference. Gauging the impact of your decisions beforehand like that is one way to dissolve the mind’s massive traffic jam. Another is realizing that part of each alternative version lives on in you, even if that car gets left behind.
But the best one, by far, is having faith in present-you. Don’t look left and right so much. Life is full of chances to look back and say: “Oh, I should’ve taken that exit.” But if you take them all, you can never focus on the road ahead.
In rallying, one of, if not the biggest determinator of success is how much the driver can trust the co-driver. The person in the passenger seat announces directions and the driver acts. That’s why, when talking about their greatest wins, rally legends like Walter Röhrl don’t mention times, but the state of flow, of effortless performance, they were in. Because if you trust present-you completely, the road ahead always looks like this:
You might take a few detours, but eventually, that trooper will always take you home. For most of us, life is a long drive on a free highway. The anxiety is something we, like Kierkegaard, create in our heads. There’s no real need to rush. Cultivating this view takes time. But it helps to practice. Maybe that’s why later in his life, the angsty philosopher changed his mind:
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” — Søren Kierkegaard