Recently my paperboy died. He was actually 60+ years old so “boy” may be inaccurate. He was run over by his own car while delivering papers – not 100 yards from my apartment.
My first thought was a Darwin Award, granted to those who perish due to their own stupidity (sorry if that sounds cruel). But then a few days later the story was reported in the local paper and I learned that this unfortunate gentleman had been working this very route for 15 years. It occurred to me that in that time he had probably delivered close to one million papers, most likely without incident. So how on this day did he manage to leave the car in “drive”, walk up a driveway and then get crushed by his own vehicle?
A few days later I was working at the trailer and, while stepping off, managed to miss the step and fall two feet, almost nailing my coccyx. I was stunned and lay on the ground a few moments feeling pretty lame. I have stepped off that trailer 1,000s of times…why miss that step now? Preoccupation…age-related clumsiness…stupidity?
Thinking about these two unrelated incidents it dawned on me that I, too, could die in a most innocuous fashion – quite possibly doing something I take completely for granted. It probably won’t be while cleaning my shotgun. I do that so infrequently that I do so with an abundance of caution. And I do so mindfully, fully aware of each step.
Things that we do often and in a repetitious, almost rote, fashion are governed by the law of automaticity – the ability to do things without occupying the mind with the low-level details required, allowing it to become an automatic response pattern or habit. John Bargh, a Yale academic, actually spent over 10 years researching the topic. Automaticity is a form of unconscious competence and the quality or fluency of the effort may actually be undermined if one actually stops to think about it. This is also known as the “Centipede Effect” and derives from the Poem, The Centipede’s Dilemma, wherein the toad immobilizes the multi-legged creature simply by asking it how it walks. The centipede’s normally unconscious locomotion was interrupted by conscious reflection on it. The psychologist George Humphrey referred to this parable in his 1923 The story of man’s mind: “No man skilled at a trade needs to put his constant attention on the routine work,” he wrote. “If he does, the job is apt to be spoiled.”
So where does this leave us? We are told to be mindful. To eat mindfully, chew mindfully, even breathe mindfully. But these things should be automatic. Am I benefitted by thinking about them or, worse, endangering myself by doing so? I could choke on a piece of meat.
Sign me up, Charles.
As long as I am being totally random, I thought this was cute: