Whatever Becomes Normal Becomes Invisible


I spent Friday cleaning out my desk and leaving instructions for my successors.

Having worked as a field surveyor for eight years I had never spent so much of my workday in the office. On a normal day we prepare our field work in the office for the first hour, then head off to a job site. Surveyors are dirt-and-sky people, and tend to get stir crazy if it takes them too long to get out of the office in the morning. They’re allergic to cubicles and photocopiers, and will start to suffocate if they don’t get fresh air. On the rare occasions I’d be in the office in the afternoon, aside from that slow suffocation, it felt unnatural and slightly inappropriate, something like when your friend leaves you alone in his house for twenty minutes while he whips out to the store.

On this final Friday those feeling never arrived, even though I was in the office all the way to 4:30 pm. It felt like I could have been anywhere and it wouldn’t have mattered, like it probably feels in the first few hours after you successfully fake your death.

That feeling, I guess, was the sensation of being released from authority, a weight that had been resting on my mind for long enough for me to forget that it was possible to remove it. For the first time in a long time I didn’t have to answer to anyone. I knew my company-issue Blackberry wasn’t going to ring, I knew nobody was going to ask anything of me. It was like walking up to a glass barrier that had always been there and realizing it was only air.

The rest of the day was full of similarly weird sensations. When I parked my car outside my building, I mentally prepared myself to perform the getting-home ritual I’ve done hundreds of times: heave my laptop bag out of the backseat, collect my equipment from the trunk and farmer’s walk to the door, pin my GPS case against the wall while I fish out my keys, then open two stubborn glass doors, careful not to bang the case against the panes, then unlock my suite and shoulder the door closed before setting everything down in the permanent temporary pile of equipment beside the door.

I had all but done the whole thing in my mind when I realized I no longer have a GPS or a gigantic laptop, and I could just get out of the car and go into the building like a normal person. When I got inside I reached to my side for my Blackberry, to check email one last time (a ritual that sometimes prevented unwelcome surprises in the morning) and found that there was nothing there.

Later that evening, my living room struck me as unnaturally tidy, because there was no dirty equipment there, no field books on the table, and nothing set near the door so that I wouldn’t forget it on the way back out. My car no longer has a Rubbermaid full of engineering drawings in the backseat.

Our lifestyles come with costs, many of which are invisible, or at least become invisible to us once we’re used to paying them. At all times these enormous invisible forces are acting on your life, shaping what it feels like to be you. They only become visible — and only momentarily — when they change.

Yesterday was a day of shifting bedrock, which allowed me to see clearly the rocks and hard places that had been steadily pushing on my life since I got back from overseas.

Most of the shifting is yet to come, and while most of it so far has manifested as different kinds of relief, it’s very early in the transition. There will be, undoubtedly, aspects of my life that become more difficult in ways I haven’t imagined. I have already noticed that this Monday is a holiday (Canadian Thanksgiving) but I’ll be at my desk at sunrise while my former colleagues are getting paid to have the day off. I have to pay for dental work again. I am already flossing more often.

I won’t even begin to learn what my new normal is like until Monday, as this weekend is like any other — catching up on the writing and errands that didn’t fit into my weekday evenings. I’m eager for writing to be what I do at 8am instead of 8pm.

As I wade into the new landscape, I’m trying to remember to notice what invisible pressures are releasing (and mounting) as the terrain of my day-to-day life shifts, before they all congeal into “my normal day” and I lose track of what individual things are weighing on my mind.

Because we’re so immersed in our lifestyles, it’s hard to see what individual parts of them are pushing and pulling on our minds. Imagine trying to describe what a building looks like when you’ve only ever been inside it. Moving parts of our lifestyles around gives us the necessary angles to know what it is we’ve actually built with our decisions about career, relationships and living situation. If they never change we never know what they’re doing to us.

For more wisdom from David Cain, get his new Thought Catalog Book here.