The Temptation of Living Multiple Simultaneous Lives

October 5, 2007 | By | 4 Replies More

“If everything’s under control, you’re going too slow.”  Mario Andretti

Like most people I know, I try to keep quite a few balls in the air.   Those balls represent things such as prosecuting lawsuits against large unscrupulous businesses.  

Today, for instance, the two lawyers who constitute my firm’s consumer class action practice area (I’m one of the two) sued a large corporate dairy that has been distributing “organic milk” to large retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target.  The problem is that the milk was not organic.  A federal investigation recently determined that the dairy engaged in willful violations of organic dairy farm standards.  Our plaintiffs are asking that the customers who paid big premiums for the “organic” milk should be refunded their money, at least the difference in cost between the price of the organic milk and the plain milk.  The plaintiffs in our suit are both mothers of small children.  They both reached deep to pay the extra money so that their children would not be exposed to the hormones and antibiotics of conventional cow milk.  One of the women is a chemist and the other is a biologist.  They had detailed reasons for paying the extra money for the organic milk.  Another reason is that they didn’t want cows to be mistreated in order to provide milk.  These women (and the thousands or millions of other customers in this potential class) were cheated out of substantial sums of money.  Just add up the cost of several gallons of organic milk per week for several years. 

At the law firm where I work, some of us operate on a sad assumption.  If there is a way to cheat customers and probably get away with it, some business, somewhere, will try to cheat its customers.  Cheating customers is not fair to the customers, of course.  But it’s also not fair to those other businesses that play by the rules.  In this dairy farm case, we suspect that the big dishonest dairy probably put some honest organic dairy farmers out of business.  That would be a terrible shame, and that is part of our motivation for suing dishonest businesses. 

Here’s another thing.  This case makes me wonder how many other “organic” foods are not organic.  My gut feeling is that half of the organic food out there is not appreciably different in the way it was grown compared to non-organic, yet people are paying big premiums for it, often to protect their children who are in neurologically sensitive development windows.

Filing lawsuits is only one aspect of my life.  It takes enormous numbers of hours to file and try lawsuits.  It’s can also be physically exhausting work, but it feels compelling and important.  We try to do things right, so we would be proud if anything we did appeared on the front page headline of the newspaper. 

Here’s a problem, though. Doing this demanding work drains hours from other important parts of my life.  I am the father of two young children who are bursting with thoughts and insights, with joyous curiosity.  They still enjoy spending time with their father–I understand that this won’t be the case in a few more years when they are teenagers. I want to take advantage of this time, to spend many hours with them so that I can look back someday and believe that I was a real parent.  There is nothing more important to me than spending time with my children and actively listening to them.  Doing the work of a parent doesn’t allow shortcuts.  A few hours of good quality time here and there doesn’t substitute for the many hours required to be a real parent. I am married to a wonderful woman who makes me laugh and makes me try extra hard to run my life in a way I am proud of.   I wish I could spend many more hours with my family than I do.  We do have bills to pay, though . . .

There are also the other things that are important to me.  We need to keep a household running, which requires cleaning and fixing the house and bill paying and cooking.   Sometimes, believe it or not, we lose things and we have to look for them!  

What are the other important things that require my energy?   Being part of the community, and supporting do-gooder organizations.  We support organizations like Free Press and Public Citizen and Children International.  All of this takes time and money.

What else takes time?  Exercising.  I do that by combining bicycling and commuting.  It’s one attempt at efficiency.  And oh, yeah.  Blogging.  That’s a big commitment.  For whom do I do it?  I won’t pretend.  I do it because it forces me to think more clearly before I hit that publish button.  I makes me analyze ideas more closely than I did before I blogged, because I don’t want to be embarrassed and I don’t want to confuse people.  I do it for because it helps me think more clearly, though I’m honored that others come to visit this site.  I’m amazed and honored, plus I really enjoy the interactions.  I think that blogging has changed me for the better.

What else is important to me?  Playing music (I play guitar and keyboard, occasionally performing in public).  It’s fun but also therapeutic.  Each of these things is a big part of me, but they sometimes tug at me at the same time and this disorients me.

I’d like to spend more time doing each of these things (and many other things I haven’t mentioned), but there are no additional hours.  Every hour at work is an hour away from my family.  Every hour writing is an hour not sleeping. Here’s a danger of trying to live multiple lives: if you take on one thing too many it doesn’t just feel as though you are failing in doing that one additonal activity. Instead, it can feel like everything you do is inadequate, faulty, defective.  But you often don’t know that you’re over that edge until you actually step over to the other side and feel the pain.

I’ve often try to be more efficient.  Sometimes I almost become almost obsessed with efficiency but I truly can’t think of many more ways to squeeze more life out of each week.  There are only 168 hours in each week.  That number is burned into my mind because it feels like a modest handful of time.  It wasn’t always that way. I am aware that my months on the planet are ticking away—months click away like hours did when I was young.  I heard today that the human heart pumps enough blood to fill 100 swimming pools over a lifetime.   I suspect I’ve filled more than 60 of them already.

Trying hard to live too many lives can bring one lots of excitement and satisfaction.  It can also bring on unrelenting stress.  It can make you feel as though your are drowning if you haven’t planned some sophisticated escape routes from your obligations, at least temporary escape routes that give you a breather here and there.  Yes, it occurs to me that people aren’t meant to live 2 or 3 or 4 lives.  But living multiple lives has become the gold standard for many adults.  We try to live multiples lives, not just one.  Some of us do it because we figure this is the only life we will get.  An old beer commercial (“Schlitz”) summed it up:  ”You only go around once in life, so you have to grab for all the gusto you can get!”

The result of stretching one’s energies across too many activities often doesn’t seem healthy or happy. It can certainly make you feel inadequate when you aren’t.  It can sometimes make you sick. The phrase “less is more” often occurs to me, but I find it difficult to do anything about it. 

Sometimes, I think of Stephen Covey’s 2 x 2 matrix from his First Things First book. This is one of many approaches offered by efficiency experts.  Here’s Covey’s approach in a nutshell:  we all know to take care of those things that are urgent and important.  We all know to avoid those non-important non-urgent things.   The problem is with the other two categories:

covey chart.JPG

Humans tend to prefer the non-important urgent things to important non-urgent things.   We let distracting (but not important) things steal our energies.  This is the recipe for getting eaten alive.  Yet we tend to do it.  I’ve often failed in this regard.  Realizing this tendency Should be a big step forward, but it often isn’t. Idea are a dime a dozen unless put into practice.

Covey’s idea is insightful.  There are many other ideas out there regarding how to be efficient.  These not really solutions, though, as long as we remain convinced that we should be living more than one life simultaneously.   How do we shake ourselves of that temptation, and should we?  Those are damned good questions. 

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Category: Communication, Meaning of Life, music, Psychology Cognition, Writing

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (4)

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  1. Erika Price says:

    We seem so obsessed with getting everything "right". In this lifetime, we have to find the "right" job that self-actualizes us, we have to get to the "right" place in life at the designated time- the time to graduate, the time to start a family, etc, and we want to schedule everything in our lives so that it falls into place just "right". Yet something always will fall through the cracks. No matter how perfectly we manage our time, something unplanned will shake the foundation of our little house of cards. Why do we strive for such an empty concept as perfectly designated, productive time? We are not robots and the brain is not a computer, nor are we on a conveyor belt of duties and expectations, no matter how much it may feel that way.

    This doesn't mean I've actually adopted a more fluid, forgiving relationship with time. I fret about fitting everything in my day, my week, my life, about tending to everything that deserves my attention. But I always miss something. I think we all miss things that our ideal, managed life would have. But that strikes me as a pretty boring fantasy.

  2. Ben says:

    "I do it because it forces me to think more clearly before I hit that publish button."

    Sometimes I like just hitting the button, and seeing what happens.

    In terms of saving time, sometimes you can trade money for time (if you have extra money, that is). For example, consider hiring a maid to come to your house once a week, or a gardener. And buy an electric razor — will save you 2 minutes every day, that's 15 minutes a week right there (the new ones are MUCH better than the old one your dad had). I normally shave while I am walking my dog in the morning. I brush my hair at stoplights, and I floss my teeth while I shower. I button my shirt while walking up the stairwell It takes me about 8 minutes to get ready for work in the morning. To save time I (occasionally) blog at work…shhhh.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    "I normally shave while I am walking my dog in the morning." Hmmm.

    I sometimes think about the time I can save by not doing little things each day. For instance, it probably takes 15 seconds to put on deodorant. I could save 1 1/2 hours per year by no longer wearing deodorant. What do you think, Ben?

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Epilogue (of sorts).

    I once asked one of my brothers-in-law whether he struggles over how to use each day. He looked puzzled. “What’s the problem?” he asked. “You just pick some things to do and you do them.”

    I do suspect that one can out-think one’s self in this regard. Perhaps that is my problem. I want it all and I want to optimally choose my daily tasks. On the other hand, I’m acutely aware of my limited number of days on Earth and I don’t want to be wasting my time. I want to plan enough before I start doing things. Perhaps my problem is that I am too greedy—that might be Nietzsche’s take on it:

    Oh, my greed! There is no selfishness in my soul but only an all-coveting self that would like to appropriate many individuals as so many additional pairs of eyes and hands—a self that would like to bring back the whole past, too, and that will not lose anything that it could possibly possess. Oh, my greed is a flame! Oh, that I might be reborn in a hundred beings!” –Whoever does not know this sigh from firsthand experience does not know the passion of the search for knowledge.

    The Gay Science #249

    Certainly, when one stops to ponder all of the possible things that one could choose to do, it can be paralyzing. That is part of the Paradox of Choice. 

    I have no real conclusion to this post or this comment. Perhaps my existential struggle is my own contorted way of being happy . . .

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