I was surprised when I read some of the things writer Terry Pratchett wrote or said about developing PCA, a form of dementia. I cannot now find the original source that I read, but there are several similar articles. He described some symptoms of the disease slowly robbing him of his own mind. The inability to see certain objects when they are right in front of you. Walking into a room but having no memory of why you went there in the first place. Difficulty comprehending written text despite recognizing every letter and word. Difficulty recognizing people’s faces.
I was surprised when I read this, because these “symptoms” have affected me, well, pretty much my whole life. I thought they were normal.
Since I was a child, I have had these problems. Until I have met people many times, I may have difficulty recognizing or remembering them. Sometimes I put something down, and then simply cannot find it again, despite the fact that neither I nor the object have moved at all. I stopped reading books on paper years ago because I just couldn’t manage to read one through; I would get distracted in the middle of a paragraph and forget what I was reading. And as for walking into a room and forgetting why you’re there? Hardly a day passes without such an event in my life. Sometimes I return to the room two or three times before I manage to complete the task I set out to do. Sometimes I never remember what I was planning to do.
Part of my obsession with systems is the result of this bizarre array of mental quirks that I have slowly realized are not entirely “normal” (whatever that means). Systems are a simple set of rules that I can keep in my head. Lapses in memory become less important when the system is in operation.
Ever lost your car keys? It’s bad enough when you can’t remember where you left them. It’s doubly bad when you can be staring right at them and not see them. (My family calls this quirk “object-blindness” and it drives them crazy. “Why did you put away every dish in the kitchen except that one?!” I didn’t see it!)
I no longer have to remember where I left my car keys; the rule says that keys are by the door. If I forget where I left them, I can remember the rule. If I notice them sitting somewhere else (which is rare), I move them into compliance with the rule. When I’m about to put them down, I remember the rule, and I put them by the door. One consistent rule to be applied in all situations. A rule that doesn’t even have to be remembered, because it can be derived again and again. (What’s the best place to leave the keys? What’s the first place I could put them down after entering the house?)
I live my life by rules like this. I have a system for everything I do. A system for packing my laptop bag to be sure I don’t forget anything. A system for loading the dishwasher. A system for making breakfast. It sounds ridiculous, but I have rules for all these things so that I don’t have to rely on my memory to get them right.
The most important element of my life systems is an attitude I learned only in the most recent quarter of my life, a skill Buddhists describe as mindfulness. Mindfulness means being fully present, in the moment. It releases you from remembering the past or worrying about the future and focuses your attention on the present, the here and the now. Mindfulness is what enables me to obey the rules now, as I perform the actions which later may confound me. It is what allows me to think when I put my keys down and observe the rule of where to place them.
By knowingly placing my keys by the door where they belong, I ensure that later I can find them again. By paying attention to my actions in the present, I ensure success in the future.