December 6, 2015

The train: linear v organic thinking

When speaking with family and close friends, ‘the train’ has become conversational shorthand for a linear life. In short, you board the train at one of its early stops: first job, relationship etc and follow the trip through an orderly set of station stops, no detours, no surprises – taking a safe, straightforward path through life. No further explanation required.

The train represents an organised linear life, with linear thinking and a clearly mapped route: safe passage and a comfortable journey through an otherwise rocky landscape.

Recently, I’ve been prompted to think about this metaphor and the tendency many of us have to try and control the complexity of life through linear thinking. Even if we don’t all get on the train, I feel we are all apt to adopt false security linear ways of thinking at times, I know I have.

Typically, it’s an old (pre-illness) pattern coping mechanism that I would revert to when feeling overwhelmed. A way of creating some control when nothing felt controllable. I would pick one aspect of life – say, work – to focus on, giving myself a free pass to avoid dealing with all other inter-connecting areas of life that make you a whole person at any one time (health, spirit, love, family etc).

In this I don’t mean focusing on one aspect of life for a short period of time to achieve a specific goal, eg: exams. I’m talking about total non-participation in anything but that one safe chosen ‘coping’ area of life for an extended period of time, supported by a linear thought process that says: ‘I’ll just focus on this, then I’ll deal with my health, then family, then love, then spirit…’ As if these things can be completely isolated from one another and the neglected areas will patiently wait.

But, as we all know, life isn’t always straightforward.

It’s full of curve-balls, unexpected events and challenges which happen despite all our best-laid (linear derived) plans. So (I’ve since learnt!) our best strategy is to empower ourselves by thinking in a more organic, connected way.

Life is messy, complex and unpredictable. It all happens at the same time. None of us know what will happen. We can plan endlessly or procrastinate or not participate for whatever reason we give ourselves – all with this view that we’ll do whatever the things that scare us are….just later, after we’ve made one aspect ‘perfect’.

I know others who compartmentalize life at all times, only ever focusing on one aspect at a time. Sometimes this appears to work, but we all know plenty of people who have de-railed despite having one aspect ‘perfect’ or doing everything meticulously in the right order.

Back to that clunky metaphor: Trains aren’t great at taking sharp corners, can’t swerve to avoid incidents on the tracks, only go in one direction, don’t take random detours, are driven by other’s etc – you get the picture! This metaphorical train presents a false security.

Accepting and embracing a non-linear view of life can be scary, with no clear next steps, but I now see that by adopting a more organic thinking approach we’re actually better protected, and more able to cope with life’s ups and downs.

*Image: Jonathan Pendleton via Unsplash.

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