The Unappreciated Art of Staying in the Background

I awoke the other morning without the dread that’s greeted me every morning for the last four years. Some days that dread was no more than a nuisance while others it loomed large, red-faced, and potentially dangerous. During this same period, others awoke each morning to something much different–happiness, anticipation, excitement, I don’t know. The only thing I’m certain of is this:

For the number of years it takes for an infant to grow into a preschooler, virtually everyone in my native country had to think about the President of the United States of America every damned day. What did he say? What did he tweet? What did he do? What might he do? What won’t he do?

The 45th presidency was unlike any other in many ways, but this in particular was an anomaly. Politicos and policy junkies have mouthed off in American taverns since we were British colonies, but the overwhelming majority of Americans have always been more interested in living their own lives than obsessing over politics–particularly national politics. All the way back to the Washington presidency, when politics came up in conversation us lowly rank and file types stuck to a few safe cliches and platitudes: The gubment is picking our pockets, those fat cats just don’t know what it’s like for the working man, my kid could do a better job than those bozos, etc. We had better things to do than worry about whether Woodrow Wilson was calling Fatty Arbuckle an unfunny, failing, so-called comedian.

Some argue that our political apathy is what led to Trump’s election in the first place and frankly I’m too apathetic to argue with that. My point here is that politics, like most aspects of everyday life, remain unnoticed until they break down. Think of roads, for example: We don’t really notice them until we’re stuck in traffic, hit a pothole, or face some kind of danger (black ice, a crumbling shoulder, etc.) We don’t consciously think about roads, we simply leave them alone to do their good work. Only this isn’t universally true: An army of planners, engineers, accountants, heavy equipment manufacturers, laborers, and bored orange-vested guys holding portable stop signs think about roads daily so that the rest of us don’t have to. That’s what they’re paid to do.

And when was the last time you called your bank just to tell them that everything was fine? “How’s everything over there at Multiglobal Mutual National? We’re good here. Linda and I are having coconut cake tonight after dinner.” Unless you’re feeling melancholy over that time in high school when you briefly dated Multiglobal Mutual National, my guess is that you only think about your bank when you have to: an online bill payment didn’t go through, you lost your debit card, whatever. We pay those bankers to pay attention to our money so that we don’t have to.

Plumbing. If you wake up in a sweat nightly worried about the hundreds of gallons of water pressurized behind your paper-covered walls, ask your doctor about Prozac. However, when one of those copper pipes bursts and you’re Yelping plumbers with one hand while trying to stanch the flow Three Stooges-style with the other, having your plumbing front of mind makes sense.

Health is a big one. Those among us with fitness and nutrition on their minds daily are looked upon as…something. Strange. Obsessed. Vain. Judgemental. Foolish. Hey, we all end up in the grave anyway, am I right? May as well go over to Linda’s and Bob’s and help them finish off that coconut cake. Even our health care system seems to assume that our well being is a background process, with its emphasis on reacting to crises rather than preventing them in the first place.

Humans simply have too much to think about, too much to juggle. If a dung beetle was writing this he’d; well, he wouldn’t write this because all he has to worry about is rolling around a ball of poop. What a great life! We have the bills, the job, the roof, the groceries, the car, the time, the dog, the plants, the planet, COVID, our friends, our family, on and on. If we had to think about everything all of the time we’d go nuts.

Family and friends! While we can’t think about the people close to us 24 hours per day, our affinity for ignoring things that seem to be running smoothly in the background gets us into trouble now and then with family and friends. One person’s “I thought everything was fine” is another’s “you’ve been ignoring me.” Sometimes when things get to that point we’d have better luck getting the city to fill that pothole that made us think about roads than we’d have repairing the damage accidentally done to a relationship. This is why when it comes to cake we invite people for whom we care rather than banks (also: It’s very hard for a bank to take an Uber).

Plumbers, accounts, bankers, road crews, mechanics, politicians: We hire all of them to pay attention to our lives’ important background tasks because there’s no practical way for all of us to think about all things all of the time. Every horrible customer service story you’ve told or heard has at its core “this thing that’s supposed to happen in the background required my attention.” The same goes for every traffic story, every internet or power outage story, every undelivered/damaged package story, and every “why do I have to think about the President of the United States every day” story.

So yeah, it was nice to wake up the other morning and not have to waste any energy wondering how the 46th President of the United States of America was going to divert my attention to him. It made me appreciate the importance of keeping background things in the background and the important stuff in the foreground. Speaking of which, I think I need to text a few friends and let them know I’ve been thinking about them. Maybe I’ll even invite them over for cake.

Categories: op-ed

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