The limits of energy

Of late, I’ve been thinking about energy. Not like Einstein of course. Not
in an E = MC2 or “holy smoke, look at the price of gas”  kind of way. I’m thinking more philosophically about our sense of get up and go. Our inner energy. The thing that fuels motivation and action and seems to be the grease that moves the wheels of social engagement and productivity.

Energy means both power and vitality, linguistically. I had thought energy in a nuclear fusion sort of way was quite a different notion to energy in a motivation sense, but now I’m not sure. Energy can be defined, quite simply, as the capacity for work. In that case it would seem a fitting word for our own sense of it. And why not, I suppose, since we are a living system of biochemical interactions, subject to physical laws like all systems in the universe.

Energy, in physics anyway, seems oddly metaphysical. Less a material, hold in your hand thing, but more a measure of potential. I found even high school physics a bit beyond me, but I do recall, as we all probably do, one key fact. The first law of thermodynamics. Energy cannot be created or destroyed. It is, by definition then, finite.

Energy of the sort that is useful for us personally, energy as vitality or power, is also not endless. As Covid, depression and doing a triathlon illustrate, it can get used up. Transformed perhaps into fevers, snot, and aching limbs.

I’m quite attuned to energy, because as someone who makes a living facilitating groups of people in conversation, monitoring, topping up, and redirecting the energy in the room is a key part of my job. It remains quite fascinating to me nonetheless that this invisible quality is so easily felt. It is a tangible thing, energy (for want of a better word), with a tonal quality and a definitive sense of quantity, and it is responsive to the room and the people in it.

As a facilitator you can observe first hand how energy gets used up in the act of both engaging with others and thinking hard, and how a lack of it has a direct impact on outputs. Energy can be manipulated too. Stoked up by acts of creativity, music, and the thrill of achievement. Evangelical preachers, despots and good entertainers know well how to squeeze the energy from a crowd, transforming our individual portions of it into one giant mass that moves people to acts of both love and violence.

If energy reflects our capacity to do work – to be productive not just in a job sense, but also as a human being joining with others to create something bigger than the individuals involved – and if our energy is finite, which it demonstrably is, then it makes sense to look after our store of it. To be conscious of it, and to manage it wisely. Both my husband and daughter rebuild their energy reserves by alone time. I, on the other hand, find myself replenished by the buzz of activity – exercise and friendships, activity, and conversation. Ten days of COVID isolation did nothing to help me fuel the fire inside. 

Energy here is perhaps a metaphor for life. Both are finite – limited, and what we do with it is up to us. But, more importantly, where and how we use our energy dictates the quality of our lives. Of this I am certain.

We waste so much energy on pointless things. Being angry at dickhead drivers in shiny fast cars or Trump supporters in a faraway land we don’t live in. All day long we are fed stories so far out of our circle of influence, designed to engage our attentional resources by outraging us. Sucking up our energy and transforming it into anger or despair or wasted moments scrolling through the mindless wastelands of social media. Energy we could put to better use.

As I always tell my group participants, it is up to us individually to take responsibility for our own energy levels. To note when energy is low, and replenishment is required. Getting Covid myself brought home to me how true that is in life too. It was a stark reminder that energy is a power source with limits, to be guarded as fiercely and distributed as carefully as one would a store of gold. But it is easy to forget this reality in the day-to-day demands of life. To squander energy on being grumpy or frustrated by things outside our control. Being mindful of energy levels requires practice. The building of new habits. And a reminder, now and then, about the importance of doing so.

Photo by Natalya Letunova on Unsplash

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