There are moments of our lives that we consider more valuable than others.
For example, spending an hour with a friend feels more desirable than an hour commuting. We’d rather eat a nice meal than sit in the waiting room at the doctor’s office. It’s more enjoyable to go to the beach than it is to wait in the checkout line at the grocery store after a long day of work.
We instinctively attribute different amounts of value to different experiences in our day-to-day lives. If catching up with a friend is a 9/10, then our morning commute might be a 2. If the waiting room in the doctor’s office is a 3, eating a nice meal could be an 8. Standing in the checkout line may a 1, while going to the beach is a 7.
These ratings are obviously arbitrary and somewhat cold, and I’m not suggesting you should start rating everything you do on a scale of 1 to 10. There are many reasons not to do this — for one, the validity of each experience becomes a question of how much pleasure it immediately brings you, the “ice cream for every meal” strategy; this is a recipe for emotional or existential diabetes.
Second, this ranking of our experience blatantly ignores the inherent importance of this moment in connection with the rest of our lives. Why would you ever try something new and difficult like learning a new language (initially a 3 in pleasure) while you could just come home and watch TV, a guaranteed stagnant 7?
While we may not explicitly sit down and rate the experience of taking out the trash versus watching a movie, we’ll still always compare the value of certain experiences against one another—for example, our gut reaction that lets us know we’d much rather prefer to spend Sunday playing basketball instead of going to a museum with the in-laws. And this is okay. It lets us know what we gravitate to.
In his excellent and accessible guide to mindfulness titled You Are Here: A Modern Person’s Guide To Living In The Present, David Cain refers to the seemingly undesirable parts of our day-to-day experience as in-between moments:
“You don’t have to trot up the stairs. It is okay to actually be in the hallway for the four seconds it takes to go from the bedroom to the bathroom. In fact, it’s preferable.
The part of your life where you’re walking across the parking lot can be just as enjoyable and just as deserving of your attention as the part that happens once you’re inside Safeway or Home Depot.
These “in-between” moments make up the vast majority of your life, and most people find no value in them at all. If you can simply practice slowing down and letting yourself be present for these unsung moments, then life as a whole becomes a lot more hospitable. The prospect of having to run to the store to pick up a forgotten item, for example, ceases to be an annoyance and instead becomes another opportunity to relax and visit with life itself.” 1
In-between moments are, as the name suggests, moments that appear sandwiched between two things we’d rather be doing. For first-graders, this is normal and expected behavior. Homework is a prime example.
For adults… this behavior is also surprisingly common. Whether consciously or not, we’re constantly asking ourselves how we feel about this moment—how happy we are, how we feel, our impression of what’s happening and/or what we’d rather be doing instead of being here right now.
To some level, this is expected. If life were a menu, you probably wouldn’t pick washing the dishes and doing the laundry as your appetizer and main dish. That certainly wouldn’t be a good meal—lots of soap—and chances are it wouldn’t make a great life either. But regardless of your preferences, dishes and laundry are two things you’ll probably have to deal with for the rest of your life.
“As much as we’d prefer to skip these moments, we can’t. Like it or not, we must inhabit them for as long as they take. Life is much easier when you inhabit these moments willingly. The stress doesn’t come from having to experience the physical tension or awkwardness, but from the unfulfillable need to not be experiencing what you’re already experiencing.” 2
As Cain suggests, the biggest problem surfaces when we try to run away from seemingly undesirable experiences solely because they seem to be initially difficult or inconvenient. Our first impulse is often to blaze through these moments by rushing through them.
The act of rushing is almost always more agitating than whatever we’re trying to speed up. Washing the dishes is not an inherently anxiety-inducing experience, but by scrubbing the dishes as fast as humanly possible, by trying to fast-forward through the parts of life we consider an inconvenience, we agitate ourselves and misattribute our agitation to the horror of washing the dishes, completely blind to the fact that we are actually the sources of our own frustration and discontent.
Whether it’s washing the dishes, waiting for the elevator, or standing in the checkout line, we experience many in-between moments every day and will for the rest of our lives. We have the choice whether to slog through them, or accept them for what they are and remaining open to the possibility that they may not be as undesirable as we expect.
In-between moments are only inconvenient on the surface, and if you’re willing to keep an open mind, they can actually be quite pleasant. It’s entirely possible to stand in the checkout line and not rage with impatience, judging the person in front of you for buying six huge bottles of Diet Coke because those six bottles mean that you have to wait an extra thirty seconds before ringing up your own horde of sugary drinks.
It’s within our power to enjoy—or at the very least tolerate—standing in the checkout line, instead of rolling our eyes and ruminating about how criminally understaffed the cash registers are.
This transition occurs after accepting that every moment of your life is a perfectly valid option of experience.
This doesn’t mean you have to like or even prefer this moment over its alternatives, but you should have a higher baseline of respect for all modes of experience. Though each moment may not be ideal, it’s deserving of your respect, if only for the fact it’s happening right now. Resistance, denial, and disengagement fro the present moment often makes everything worse.
Let’s say you’re in the checkout line. There’s only one cashier for the entire supermarket, and you’re last in a slowly moving line of six. It’s frustrating that the store is understaffed, but unless you have the power make a cashier appear out of thin air, ruminating on the subject is totally useless and will only make you miserable. Your frustration may be justified, the store should probably have more cashiers working right now, but the best thing you can do for your sanity is to accept the fact that it’s frustrating and move on, instead of stewing about how unfair this is and cursing the store managers under your breath. Even objectively justified anger (if there is such a thing) still burns the hand that holds it.
After accepting the situation, the store being understaffed becomes an inconvenient truth, like the upcoming dinner at your in-laws or the fact that it’s raining outside. Resisting either of those things would be pointless—you certainly won’t get very far by shouting at the sky to stop raining.
That example is laughable, because we know that it’s going to rain regardless of our preferences, but the same approach can be applied to many areas of our lives— especially the in-between moments. It’s incredibly humbling to acknowledge that we don’t have as much control as we think, and once we stop trying to impose our will on the situations we can’t change, life becomes a lot more bearable.
There Are No In-Between Moments
In-between moments are something we designate, there is no such thing as an objectively in-between experience. We can call them in-between moments to reference the parts of daily life we reflexively consider inconvenient or undesirable, but beyond that purpose, it might make sense to do away with the concept of in-between moments entirely. “In-between” implies that some moments are more valuable than others, and by the same virtue, that some are inherently less valuable than others. This is a dangerous assumption that makes the value of our experience conditional on arbitrary standards of importance.
There are some moments which you might enjoy more than others, but every moment of your day-to-day experience is worthy of your respect, because the moments you don’t respect won’t respect you. Instead, whatever moments you consider beneath you will function as a kind of mirror, instantly returning your sulking, impatience, and agitation, until you decide to finally consider looking in the mirror with a different expression, if you ever do.
When you treat every moment as if it’s supposed to be there regardless of your preferences, suddenly the world expands, and you also make virtually every aspect of your life better in the process.
Of course, this is easier said than done, because it’s hard if not impossible to consider commuting as valuable as time with your loved ones. Some moments are obviously more pleasurable and stimulating than others, but the crucial thing to remember is that each moment in time is valuable for its own reason, if only for the fact that it’s happening.
Standing in the checkout line is obviously not critical to your career or relationships, but it is critical to the way you handle standing in the checkout line, and that’s more important than it seems. Because your experience in the checkout line isn’t limited to the confines of the supermarket—it speaks to how you handle situations that demand patience, acceptance, and your ability to gracefully accept what you can’t control.
If we assume that some moments are inherently more valuable than others, then we can effectively check out of consciousness during whatever we’ve decided are the less important moments, resigning ourselves of the responsibility to experience and engage with the present moment. Resigning like this creates distance between you and the world around you, a recipe for frustration, impatience, and anxiety.
Of course, we can choose to slog through the in-between moments by repeating this is a waste of my time on an endless mental loop until we finally arrive at a moment more meaningful, assuming we ever do. As Cain describes, in-between moments make up the majority of our lives—this is a huge chunk of time to write off and preemptively kick to the curb before giving it a chance to unfold and surprise us.
The biggest problem, though, is that our certainty about which moments are in-between becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
You can only be sure that waiting for the subway is going to miserable if you consider that experience worthless. You can only be sure that standing in the checkout line will be a nightmare if you see it as an unacceptable use of your time.
The moments we consider in-between have already been reduced to our expectations before they’ve even happened. Even though what we perceive to be in-between moments are generally less glamorous and stimulating than what we normally consider exciting or meaningful, they have their value.
If we’re convinced that certain aspects of life are in-between moments, then that’s all they can ever be.
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- Cain, David. You Are Here: A Modern Person’s Guide To Living In The Present, pages 56-57. (2015)
- Cain, David. You Are Here: A Modern Person’s Guide To Living In The Present, page 207. (2015)
This post is heavily inspired by David Cain’s writing. If any of this resonated with you, I highly recommend you pick up You Are Here and check out his writing on raptitude.com.