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Work With Your Hands

I often comment about how frustrating modern life can become. My lament is, “I’m not crazy but my life is crazy.” Closer examination revealed a simple truth: The primary reason my life was crazy was that I had no sense of control over my day. Sadly, that statement is probably true for most people reading this. Our life seems to become an endless series of little problems and interruptions. These are almost entirely caused by other people and by our machines and devices which are not functioning properly. Irritating people and recalcitrant machines that we are unable to control only reinforce the feeling that we are not choosing our actions, only reacting to outside forces. Would you like the satisfaction of making and executing your own plans, of doing things that you have chosen? How would it feel to be in control of your life? This article explores one action you can take to regain control.

My wife (a wonderful woman who occasionally reads my digital drivel) can change her mind three times before breakfast. Each change by her requires a change in my own plans. My seven-year-old son (a wonderful boy in every way) has the impulse control and attention span of a seven-year-old boy, i.e., almost none. When he takes off on a tangent, I – the parent, guardian, and medic – take off with him. My computer and smartphone and other digital devices operate under the principle of “Sometimes the magic works. Sometimes it don’t.” My internet access, essential for my lifestyle, is not dependable. In my home, the wifi speed is often maddeningly slow and unexplained disconnects are not uncommon. When one obstacle after another prevents me from completing even the simplest activities on my computer or phone, the frustration can drive me to digital road rage. I sometimes feel as if all my digital devices are quietly conspiring to drive me crazy.

In China Bound, I wrote: “How many knobs, switches, accessories, lights, and controls are there on the modern car?  And, what are the odds that, at any given time, every single one of them is working properly?” The same question could be posed about our modern computers and other digital devices. But those high-tech goodies have exponentially more functions and features than a car – with exponentially more potential for things to fail.

In my life, even the simplest operation on my computer (such as installing a new or updated app) can become a nightmare of frustration and delays. Yes, the process should be simple and linear: locate, purchase, and download the app; install it; set new passwords and confirm them; then reboot the computer and start to use it. That’s the theory, anyway. I don’t know about you but, for me, this simple procedure always becomes an extended and frustrating ordeal. Always. The fabled Mr. Murphy must have been thinking of computers when he created Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong… will go wrong”. (People updating apps on their computer and people playing golf often use the same colorful language but the golfers get more fresh air.) My wife thinks it is her job to make me crazy but my computer is offering her some strong competition.

Truthfully, working with humans isn’t much better. The people around us – including our loving family – are often the source of much stress and upsets. It seems the closer you are to someone, the more friction there is in the interactions. Work is no better; only more people are involved. Imagine that you have a group of people – qualified, focused, committed people under an experienced, respected leader – working together to complete a project. What happens? Typically, all the plans are completed in a lengthy meeting before the actual work commences on the project. The agenda for this meeting might include: deciding who is in charge of each element of the project, describing specialists needed and where to find them, division of labor, a schedule and order of assembly, and who is responsible for the procurement of necessary resources.

Once underway, however, problems with intragroup communications, digital surprises and internet jinxes, clarifying areas of responsibility, unwelcome surprises, and setting new deadlines all combine to complicate and extend the project. Then, since we are dealing with humans, we also have to expect to encounter some incompetence, ignorance, jealousy, personality clash, competition between team members, laziness, psychotic incidents, upsets in someone’s personal life taking their attention away from the task at hand, a new romance in someone’s personal life taking their attention away from the task at hand, training sessions by outside experts who sometimes produce more confusion than clarity, illnesses by key personnel, extra-long lunch breaks and inexplicable absences at critical moments, and equipment failures. Don’t forget the frustration and delays generated by computer updates. These all combine to make any group endeavor a psychologist’s incubator.

Does all this sound familiar? The devices and machines in our life make us crazy. The people around us make us crazy. Often family and friends are the biggest crazy producers. The morning traffic makes us crazy. The ongoing slurry of the latest-and-loudest news makes us crazy. (Crisis du jour, anyone?) Our job makes us crazy. Really, who or what doesn’t make us crazy these days? I can help with that last question; the answer is staring back at you when you look in a mirror.

What can you do when the people and machines in your life seem determined to drive you to the verge of madness due to their lack of cooperation, failure to communicate, incorrect assumptions, incompetent or incomplete work, or active resistance due to some ulterior motive? Not much, really. This is normal in both human and machine interactions. However, you can walk away from it for a bit. Here is a solution to regaining some sense of control over your life. Indeed, compartmentalizing your life so you can walk away from the general chaos and craziness is essential to develop any sense of control.


Gordon MacQuarrie was a popular writer and newspaper columnist from a previous generation. Here are a few snippets from some of his short stories:

He represents something almost gone from our midst. He knows the value of working with his own hands, of being eternally busy, except when sleeping.

There is immense satisfaction in being busy. Around the cabin there were incessant chores that please the hands and rest the brain. Idiot work, my wife calls it. I cannot get enough of it.

When a man is alone, he gets things done. So many men… get along with themselves because it takes most of their time to do for themselves. No dallying over division of labor, no hesitancy at tackling a job.

There is much to be said in behalf of the solitary way… It lets people get acquainted with themselves. Do not feel sorry for the man on his own. If he is one who plunges into all sorts of work, if he does not dawdle, if he does not dwell upon his aloneness, he will get many things done and have a fine time doing them.

And, finally, MacQuarrie coined the phrase

…alone but not lonely.

Can you see the common thread in these excerpts? In addition to extolling the virtues of solitude, especially if it involves being alone in a natural setting, not part of a group effort. Plus, MacQuarrie was writing about actually working with your hands, not merely your typing fingers. Throughout the vast majority of our species’ long history, man has been a nomadic animal, a hunter/gatherer. It is only in the most recent years, when we entered the “knowledge age”, that we began to spend most of our time sitting at a desk and staring at a screen while surrounded by blithering idiots. Sadly, with the advent of the smartphone era, even getting away from our desk is not sufficient to escape the constant clamor. A computer in your pocket means the craziness follows you everywhere.

Modern technology has eliminated many routines that were rooted in manual labor. “If it is dirty, dull, or dangerous, let a machine do it.” However, while making us much more efficient and productive, this change also carries significant negative aspects. For thousands of years, we lifted and carried, ran and climbed, cut and threw, dug and picked, fished and hunted. We moved about and did things for ourselves. Now, we sit at a desk, inextricably interdependent and connected with the people and devices around us… and without any sense of control.

Physical activity is our genetic heritage, honed through hundreds of generations of our surviving ancestors. Don’t misunderstand me; I would not give up our modern conveniences and devices to return to more primitive times. I love my creature comforts and it is indisputable that our computers and the connectivity allowed by the internet make us much, much more productive. But endless days of slaving over a keyboard at work, sitting through an interminable series of meetings (both physical and online) among colleagues with whom we must communicate, coordinate, and collaborate, then evenings spent hunching over a controller to change television channels or to play games… are all going against our human nature to, mostly, do things for ourselves. As the complexities of group life and digital life fill our days, they are making us increasingly crazy.

Yes, I know our remote ancestors also worked and strived as part of a group, but even those activities were mostly composed of physical activities, not endlessly sitting around long tables in meeting rooms with our digital devices in front of us, engaging in brainstorming and assigning responsibility and blame.

Another recurring theme in MacQuarrie’s writing was the curative power of nature. However, to be effective, you must get back to nature. You must stand up and walk away from all your devices, and find a more natural setting than a cubicle or shared desk. In one story, MacQuarrie has a frustrated deskbound character say, “I am tired. I want to get more tired – a different kind of tired. I want to go out there in those hills and walk my legs off, all by myself.”

I am aware that most of us are not free to simply walk away from our desks. Our lifestyle has too many devices and human relationships chaining us to our work and home spaces. We are both committed to and dependent upon those things and people. So what can we do? Well, we can take some modest steps to reduce those interactions (human and digital) and do more things by ourselves. In doing so, we can reduce the level of crazy-making digital stimulation and crazy-making human interactions in our life.

What can you do to work with your own hands? Well, for example, you can try cooking and baking, physical exercises and sports (preferably solo, not team sports), gardening (even if it is only a few potted plants on an 18th-floor balcony), and many other non-digital activities such as fishing, various handicrafts, and caring for a pet. What is important is that you choose something that you can do alone, something with minimum dependence on people or technology, something you actually enjoy, and something that has a discrete final result which you can see and touch.

Think about some physical activities which fit your personal interests that your current situation would allow. Look for opportunities to stand up from your desk, stretch, and get outdoors. Stop talking to the people around you – they’re probably not listening, anyway – and make some time for yourself. Find a place to be alone while you do something with your hands. See if you don’t start smiling a little more often.

For a glimpse at such a lifestyle from a past era, I offer this link to a previous blog post:

Join me again for the next installment in this series. I will offer another idea of how to reduce the chaos and crazy-making aspects of your life. Are you ready to uncrazy your life?

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