I’m trying to change.
I’m finding that old habits die hard, and old ideas die harder. The weight of every bad decision, the memory of each act of thoughtless unkindness done to others, the stinging charge of every carefully cultivated resentment is more than enough to slow the progress of change, and, if all of that weren’t enough, archived rationalizations are running relentlessly in the background, convincing me that I’m not the one who needs to change.
OK, so it takes some gumption to slog through all of that and recalibrate – maybe gumption plus the sense that living a nettled and swampy life is not much fun. I’d like to say that gratitude is my go-to response to all that the world presents, but the truth is that I often react rather than respond, and my first reaction is not always graceful. Rationalization can only take me so far, and I inevitably end up catching myself being myself again, nettled and swampy, and once again forgetting that I had intended to do better this time around.
I’ve read spiritual guides and self-help books galore and have found much of value there, but when I’m reacting with my dinosaur brain or trapped by my inner petulant child, I need immediate and foolproof correction. On the spot. Straightforward and uncomplicated.
Fortunately, I have stumbled upon a few helpful tools, not really mantras, but verbalized reminders that I have learned to consider before spinning out on one of the day’s curves.
I don’t take direct orders well. Even lighthearted orders. The British use the phrase, “Don’t get your knickers in a twist,” jokingly advising that there’s not much to be gained in acting as if the future has already arrived. It does seem reasonably clear that experiencing the emotional impact of things that might not happen brings neither comfort nor consequence, but I’m inclined to bridle at even this mild injunction. Apparently, I’m stubborn.
Fortunately, I overheard someone on a bus help a child who was very concerned that strawberry ice cream might be gone by the time they arrived at the next stop. I was not asked and did not offer my opinion, which is a good thing because when intending to comfort, I often revert to the extension of promises I might not be able to keep. “Of course, there will be strawberry ice cream. There is always strawberry ice cream.” Well, maybe not. There might have been a run on the flavor, or the freezer might have gone on the fritz. Thieves might have run off with all berry flavored confections; the FDA might have recalled all ice cream starting with “s”. Who really knows until one knows?
The enlightened parent on my bus simply said, “Why not wait until we get there?” Not an order. More a suggestion. Options still wide open. Here’s the thing: I am not wealthy or young. Things really do tend to loom from time to time. However, I am really not at my best when I invest all my energy in reaction to the might happen. Sure, judicious planning makes sense and actually is comforting, but, having done what I might, the possibility of misfortune is always at hand. So, by the way, is the possibility of lovely and unexpected good fortune. I get all of that in the abstract, but in the heat of the moment, old habits can kick in, and I have the option of turning on the awfulizer. I also have the option of reminding myself to wait until I get there.
The results are in: I feel better, act better, and plan better when I choose to wait until … well … whatever happens.
That observation brings me to the second helpful phrase. Having admitted that I don’t take orders well, I guess I might as well suggest that I would rather not do things that are difficult or uncomfortable. Preparing our taxes is difficult for me; visiting a sick person in the hospital makes me uncomfortable. Once again, over the years it has struck me that there are consequences to both action and inaction. A tax return not filed will bring pain, sorrow, and penalty. The same can be said of ditching a dental appointment or not putting coins in a parking meter. Cause and effect. Not visiting a sick friend, not returning a phone call to a friend in need, not addressing a sticky issue in a relationship, each has consequences. Cause and effect again, darn it.
It appears that how I feel about the relationship between cause and effect has absolutely nothing to do with how things turn out. Remember those classic rationalizations on perpetual loop right somewhere next to the limbic system? Here’s where they pump up the volume and coax me into believing, say, that there are a dozen reasons why everyone else should pay taxes, but I should not. Pick one:
Hedge fund guys are probably living in Barbados with the money I lost in 2008, three hundred and twenty-one million people live in the united States – surely the IRS won’t notice if one person not living in the lap of luxury misses a year or two, I don’t think I filed in 1969 – nobody seemed to care, the pothole on my street still hasn’t been fixed – I’m not sure where my tax money goes, people in the United Arab Emirate don’t pay tax, and so on.
In this case, coercion actually has worked; my taxes get done … grudgingly. But the things I do grudgingly get neatly sorted and filed in that chamber of resentments I mentioned earlier. I can only speak for myself – life in the chamber of resentments is no fun at all, and given that I only have this life to work with, I’d rather try to work out a way to meet the exigencies of life without grudging up on a regular basis. That being said, I need help in breaking out of old thinking and found that I do much better when I realize that while I can choose to wish that consequence might be cancelled this year, I can also choose to just do that which ought to be done anyway.
Do it anyway. See, the magic for me here is that I’m not being bashed for having all the screwy thoughts that I have. I get to acknowledge the difficulty in doing something I would rather not do. Sure, it’s uncomfortable having to tell a friend that he is out of line telling offensive jokes. It is uncomfortable; do it anyway. Moving the car from the handicapped parking place next to the door all the way to a spot a block a way is a pain. It is a pain; do it anyway.
Whew! Who knew I’d get more done and feel a lot better by just doing what I know has to be done. And we do know. We always know.
Oddly, I call up the final phrase, “I did that” even more frequently than the others. It serves two purposes: Obviously, it brings accountability. William Carlos Williams wrote poems, but when my wife asks who ate the plums, I have to say, “I did that”. It also gives me some perspective when I rush to judgment on other people. I hear someone boasting and pontificating, I prepare to assign him to the lowest ring in Hell, then remember, “Oh, yeah, I did that last week at the picnic”.
It turns out that I’m allergic to accountability. I don’t like to admit my mistakes, don’t like to admit I’m wrong, don’t like to admit I’ve done something thoughtless or just plain dumb. A lifetime of weaseling has not done much to prevent the accountability coming my way; it’s just made every situation a bit uglier. In the same way that I pretty much always know what ought to be done, I pretty much know when I need to own up and stand accountable. Apparently, knowing what needs to be done, even if my ego is battered, I have to do it anyway. I’m a work in progress on this one, but I am increasingly convinced it’s worth the effort.
It turns out that it is actually harder and more painful to wriggle and squirm, deflect and deny, than it is to own up. Once again, who knew?
Then, this judgment thing. I am currently unindicted and haven’t killed anyone or carried out acts of unspeakable cruelty, but when it comes to the ordinary catalog of human failings, I have pretty much messed up as frequently as anyone I might choose to judge. Abandon a friend? I did that. Make fun of someone behind his back? I did that. Want to be the star of the show? Ta Da! Pretend to be something or someone I am not? Did it. Stretch the truth? Uh huh. Bore a roomful of people talking about myself? Yep. Try to look cool? OK, once. And so on.
I used a phrase earlier – catching myself being myself. That’s really where I find any progress I might make in trying to change those old habits and old ideas. Here’s the thing though: I am starting to get a kick out of catching myself being my older self. I am occasionally amused and almost always informed. “Ah, there it is! I’m terrified of something that certainly won’t happen today and may never happen. I’m thinking about not doing what I know is the right thing to do. I’m trying to be important. I’m judging that guy when I’ve done what he does. I don’t want to own up to something I’ve done.”
Now I have the choice to wait until I get there, do something I don’t want to do anyway, and hold myself accountable.
I like having the choice; it feels a little like freedom.