Nicole Law looks back on the year just gone and learns that the tough moments also had their value.
I had thought the last place to find slices of insight would be TikTok, but look at where we are today. A recent phenomenon known as the ‘Burnt Toast Theory’ has been proliferating online – the idea that if you burn your toast before leaving the house for work and it adds 5-10 minutes to your trip, it’s saving you from something catastrophic.
I could definitely relate to the example. I’ve spent close to half an hour waiting for the feeder bus service during morning peak hour to get to the nearest train station, often to realise I’d missed a public altercation en route or thundery showers and slippery roads.
Or perhaps it’s the additional time spent in the queue for a hot beverage in the morning that’s led you to chat to the person behind you in the line and strike up a connection.
I know for one, I’ve made many new connections by simply standing in queues for tickets, food and literary events.
Yes, I get it and I’ve been there, stewing in life’s inconveniences and failures. It begins early in the workday when I feel tempted to write feedback about the (in)frequency of the bus service or to hurry past someone on the escalator. It then evolves into minor frustrations over work efficiency or being handed a complex task to fulfil.
I’ve spent much time ruminating over the ‘why’ of my present circumstances and been stuck in a rut of helplessness. Perhaps it was timely for ‘burnt toast’ to enter my feed, fed by the slightly eerie algorithm monitoring me through my devices.
I soon realised that part of my exhaustion stemmed from a narrow perspective of these detours and challenges. I had attempted to rationalise why the task was difficult, compared its relative difficulty against my peers and focussed too much on the ‘why’ of the circumstances I found myself in. More futile complaint than a genuine search for the meaning of what was happening to me.
While I know that growth is uncomfortable and necessary, this past year has felt a lot like outgrowing sneakers from my teenage years and starting to acknowledge that I need more specialised footwear to scale new terrains.
The ‘burnt toast theory’ exhorts us to reframe these roadblocks, with the belief that everything that happens in our lives is part of a bigger plan.
It may mean not losing the forest for the trees and knowing that the roles I play – daughter, colleague and friend – are but different facets of a larger purpose I have in this lifetime. The ‘burnt toast’ in our lives might be helping us dodge a bullet – an actual accident, a toxic relationship or a hasty business venture, or pushing us to go higher and to develop the stamina to do so in the process.
Reframing ‘burnt toast’ means seeing the toast not as a fully negative experience but one which we can learn much from. A friend shared that it has reframed the way she approaches dating too, where inconsistent behaviour on the part of someone you’re dating or their inability to commit frees up ones’ time to date other people and to find someone one really connects with.
In this view, failed connections, bad dates and dissolved relationships are simply a step of self-discovery and a preparation for meeting the right person who is able to communicate his or her needs and to love us in ways we understand and appreciate. Seen this way, the aftertaste of burnt toast doesn’t seem too bad after all. It simply serves as a reminder of the present disappointment, with no indication on what the future may look like.
The human instinct is to wrangle chaos into a tidy narrative which may prove the wider appeal of the ‘Burnt Toast Theory’. In other words, we try to justify our failures. But I don’t think this is what the theory is aiming at. Rather, I think the theory seeks to offer useful clues as to how we might navigate the inherent randomness of life.
The bigger questions which have weighed on our minds for centuries – how do I find meaning in suffering and why am I chosen to walk down this specific path? – will never be fully answered.
Some of the greatest mysteries of our existence are wrapped up in the linearity or non-linearity of time (which hinges on how you think of time, really) and whether we have full autonomy over our personal trajectories.
We’re definitely free agents but we are also shaped by circumstances outside our ambit. Despite our best efforts to stay rooted on the surfboard, we may get pulled into the cresting wave and find ourselves swimming in open water. While I am naturally inclined to let the water engulf me at times, I’ve learned (with necessary struggle) that life’s detours are sometimes a nudge in a bolder, new direction.
Thus, while feeling creatively depleted earlier this year, I had thoughts of winding down the podcast I’d built for the past few years. A few friends skilled in videography offered to help me video the podcast professionally (an upgrade from my spartan phone and tripod set-up) and it launched me into an unfamiliar terrain of being under bright lights, learning to edit professionally and watching the experts at work.
I see the ‘burnt toast’ as a gentle redirection to improve my podcast quality and to re-energize myself for the creative journey ahead.
I’ve chewed my way through quite a bit of ‘burnt toast’ this year and been taken up with feelings of failure and stagnation. Emerging from the tendency to swim in circles has been difficult, a bit like pushing a boulder up the hill à la Sisyphus – it’s a lot of stops and starts.
Yet, I’m beginning to see the crumbs on my blouse not as a sign of surrender but a sign of roughened palms primed to scale the next cliff face I find myself faced with. Relish the ‘burnt toast’ (in a counterintuitive way) and take some critical distance from your present conundrum.
The ‘burnt toast’ is the detour you need to get off the main road and onto the road intended for you all along. Roll on 2024!
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