Recently, my wife almost burned down the house. She was cooking some vegetables and forgot to turn off the oven. No, she did not do it on purpose. She was not plotting insurance fraud or to destroy the whole kitchen.
After deciding at the last minute to go to a movie, we rushed out the door so as to not miss the best part of any flick, the trailers. In the process, she turned off the oven timer and the light. In her mind, she was done. Her body had performed the task of standing in front of the oven and pushing some buttons. In her preoccupied state, she did what she had done hundreds of times. She thought she had turned off the heat.
This innocent forgetfulness that we all experience is normal. We are distracted. One day, we are not sure where the car is parked. We don’t pick up everything we had planned at the grocery store. We miss an appointment.
Our brains, as magnificent as they are, take shortcuts. They go into auto mode. That is actually part of their magnificence. These abbreviations of our days are time- and space-savers. It is when we do the routine over and over again. The brain gets it. The ride home is programmed in. The getting-ready routine is fixed. Turning off the oven is second nature.
All of a sudden, something changes. Perhaps it sneaks up and surprises us. Other times, it is when we're in a rush, like running off to a summer blockbuster. It is like the brain says, “I am busy. I don’t have time to think.”
We call this state absent-mindedness. Our minds are indeed absent, AWOL, gone. Multitasking, such as watching a TV show, listening to music, texting a friend and studying all at the same time, doesn’t suit our neuronal wiring — or grades. We become overwhelmed.
This chaotic world is filled with distractions. Noise, commitments, worries and demands all take brain time. To simplify, the brain goes into autopilot. It runs in the background while we are trying to stay alive.
This is the time that more is less. The more we do, the less we accomplish. Something has to go. In our case, the vegetables were a burnt offering to the god of Hollywood.
There is a second lesson from our nonconflagration. Just as the movie started, my wife had a thought: “Are you sure you turned off the oven?” Being somewhat of a worrier, she dismissed the message as just one of those nervous moments. Whoever or whatever was the sender of that message was kind enough to not burn down the house. It could have been one of those “if you had only listened” moments.
All of us have mindlessly forgotten something. We have all ignored some message that would have been better to follow. Call it divine, call it a still small voice or call it intuition. Regardless, we have to quiet our acoustic domain so we can hear the whisper over the din. Rush is the enemy of solace.
There are times the message is to call someone, to visit a friend or even a caution about impending danger. One time, I was driving to the clinic and passed through the neighborhood of one of my patients. The mother had cancer that had been treated aggressively. At the time, she was in remission with the hope of a long life raising her children, including the one who was born after the initial diagnosis of cancer.
The mother forewent any treatment for herself with her only concern being her unborn baby. That day I passed by was the day she learned her cancer had returned. I had heard a voice but kept on driving. My wife kept on watching the movie.
In the case of my wife, the vegetables burned. In the mother’s case, it was not that simple.
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician, fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing physician for 30 years and a hospitalist at Primary Children's Hospital and the University of Utah. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org