Generally Speaking

A lot on my mind

It just occurred to me to count up the number of poster/flyer projects for different events that I am currently designing, negotiating and getting printed. Four! Each for a different event I am currently involved in.

Until I made the effort to think of them all at once – and it was a real effort – I simply hadn’t realised there were that many. So that at least explained why I was getting the stages they were at – drafting – seeking comments & redrafting (repeat ad lib) – posting online – arranging printing – a bit muddled in my mind.

This is what you get for having the kit and some years of familiarity with a simple desktop publishing program. Plus a certain inability to say “No! Not me! Not now!” (as my wife was once taught to say at an assertiveness training course she had been sent on, which I didn’t at the time think she needed).

So here they all are – not just in one think, but in one look. Hunted out of their far-flung recesses of my computer hard drive and assembled into one, 100% amateur, collage (using that same DTP program – Serif PagePlus – I love it) :

Collage of the four posters I am working on at the moment.
All in one look…

There they are – my four projects. I’m not actually in Macbeth as it happens – I’m just doing supporting stuff this time. But I’m in all the others. And the thing I’m trying to write about here is the way our minds manage to keep so many things so extraordinarily separate in our minds. Without us fully realising they are doing so. Almost as if our minds are keeping them locked away in separate boxes

I wrote about ‘memory boxes’ years ago in my book The Paradox of Progress. This was from the context of a morning surgery in my general practice (as an NHS family doctor) dealing with a succession of patients coming through the door, almost all of whom I had known very well over a long period of time. This gave me insights into how, as I concentrated on each person, their story unfolded out of a memory store whose total size must have been larger in total than anything I could consciously imagine.

I explained how this experience made me realise the extraordinary, hidden power of the automatic mechanism which kept each patient’s story locked away a separate ‘box‘ in my mind. Until I opened the lid – and everything came flooding out. (This link will take you straight to that chapter in the free online edition).

And thank heavens they (our minds) do keep things separate from each other in this amazing way – otherwise we would be constantly overwhelmed by the complexity of our experience. But it is the fact that this mechanism is almost entirely unconscious – almost entirely automatic – and that it is vastly more powerful than we imagine, or, as I argued in my book, more powerful than we can imagine, that is so important in understanding the difficulties that beset generalists – of whom the general medical practitioner is perhaps the best example – in the modern world.

And now I am now discovering that the same thing applies just as much in retirement. With one additional wrinkle – by and large the threads in a retired life are all of equal precedence. In other words, as there is no one thing that you call work – i.e. nothing you are paid to do – there is nothing that takes automatic priority. So you end up with a large number of threads in your life which are of equal priority and which often have little or no connection with one another. And you never have occasion to think of them all in one think, even if that were possible, and certainly you can’t see them all in one look – like some neatly-arranged collage.

But, just occasionally, something happens to give you an insight into the hidden complexity seething away deep down inside. Something like me deciding to count up the number of ongoing items in one of the categories of threads in my richly varied and privileged retirement life. And you marvel, rather, at the hidden mechanisms which protect you from getting it all a lot more muddled than it actually does.

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