The Richness of an Absent Mind


Article by Akika Altman-Chandler, Writer

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Recently, I missed my morning bus. I woke up at 6:48, two minutes too late, bundled together my stuff and hustled out the door of my apartment. I live in Futakotamagawa, so it usually takes around an hour and a half to get to Chofu if I can’t catch the school bus. It took me three hours. Somehow, I managed to board a shuttle headed in the wrong direction (twice), leave my wallet on public transportation (I got it back!), get off at the wrong stop, and get lost in Nogawa Park. I arrived at ASIJ barely in time for lunch.

With that many mishaps, I suppose I should have been worried along the way. But I enjoyed my adventure. Among its chaos, my mind wandered with the red, orange, and yellows of wilted dogwood leaves in the wind. I sat staring out a window, soaking in the wooden browns and stone greys of traditional Japanese homes speeding by. The endlessness of the bright blues and soft whites in the Greco-esque sky above me seemed to swallow all my anxieties.

I admit that I was absent-minded that morning. But it’s important to acknowledge that there are varying degrees of inattention: I was so distracted by the vividness of everything around me that I forgot to focus on where I was going. Yet oftentimes, I struggle with the opposite issue. I get so caught up thinking about the future that I forget to appreciate my surroundings. If I hadn’t been so starry-eyed that day, I might have made it to school on time―to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have missed my bus to begin with. But I would have missed a lot more: The rich palettes of paint on each street would have blended together to create a colourless streak of continuity that’s just another ordinary aspect of a patterned commute.

International students tend to approach high school with an attitude of efficiency. Most of us high-school students adopt a doctrine that I call The Get Mindset: Get the assignment done, get good grades, get into college, get out of here. And if we have a goal that we’re willing to dedicate ourselves to, that works. I know it does. But a mindless modus operandi can leave us with a sense of purposelessness, and that purposelessness festers. It’s why so many students struggle with mental health.

I understand this situation because I have tried to power through school. I recognise the listlessness and lethargy of working on assignments for the sake of just completing them. That kind of box-ticker mentality is normalized, but it’s destructive. It doesn’t encourage personal passions and can snuff out any flicker of curiosity. Students begin associating school with a burnt-out, brain-dead feeling when really, school should be a place of learning and unadulterated curiosity.

In 1972, the psychologist Walter Mischel led a famous study on immediate and delayed gratification known as the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. In this study, children were offered a choice between one or two marshmallows depending on whether or not they were able to wait for a period of time. Mischel conducted follow-up research on the educational, health, and overall life outcomes of the children who participated in his study to investigate a possible correlation between self-control and success. The outcome of that experiment illustrated  that people who are good at deferring gratification tend to be more accomplished in life. And I agree, patience is a valuable virtue. But if we defer gratification forever, what’s the point of living to begin with? At what point do we tell ourselves that it’s okay to take a moment to breathe? As admirable as it is to chase lofty ambitions, setting goals that don’t pay off until much later on can leave us feeling unaccomplished, unhappy with personal progress, and ultimately unmotivated. So, it’s okay to enjoy things; it’s okay to slow down now and then and eat marshmallows, both figuratively and literally.

We’re trained to look towards the future and do things for the benefit of bettering our prospects, but that isn’t always the healthiest approach for life. It’s cliche to suggest living in the moment as an escape from that kind of mindlessness, but that’s my honest advice. If we stop to smell the roses, if we soak in our surroundings with gratitude and relentless optimism, we value and learn from each moment.

I’m not suggesting that we should disregard our dreams, but rather, that we invest time into appreciating the beauty of what’s around us, whether that’s family, friends, or even just a flower by the side of the road. Being aware of our environment simplifies satisfaction, allowing us to derive happiness from otherwise mundane moments. It means that even on mornings when I’m lost and losing everything on my way to school, I try not to get stressed out. I look around at strangers and say hello. I run through piles of leaves in Nogawa Park. So perhaps I spent that past morning absent-minded, but I took the time to appreciate my surroundings, and I felt far more present than I have in a while.