The real fear is that I won’t do anything. I guess I’ve already said that, but it’s hitting me again this morning. I feel tired and discouraged, for no real reason, although I blame the continuing winter cold, the onset of my period, and the knowledge that in two days we’ll be heading to Florida for a week. I know—it’s scummy of me to feel discouraged about going to Florida. It’s Florida! But it’s a change to the routine and schedule in which I’m just now starting to gain momentum.
Some quotes from my morning perusal through the Bhagavad Gita, chapter 2: “Perform work in this world, Arjuna, as a man established within himself—without selfish attachments, and alike in success and defeat. For yoga is perfect evenness of mind.” And from the middle of the next verse: “Those who are motivated only by desire for the fruits of action are miserable, for they are constantly anxious about the results of what they do. When consciousness is unified, however, all vain anxiety is left behind. There is no cause for worry, whether things go well or ill.”
Am I motivated by the fruits of my commitments? A difficult pose held in perfect alignment, an articulate and artistic blog post, a song sung powerfully with great feeling? Well, yes. Those things motivate me. I can see that they tinge, sometimes saturate, the action with anxiety. They are inspired in part by vanity, a desire for admiration.
But beyond outcomes, the anxiety I felt this morning was that I would not write—or that if I would write, it would be exactly this bloggy-style stuff I’m doing now. I suppose my being here, at my desk, should feel like an accomplishment, but it feels more like avoidance. I’m using words—easy words—as a way to fill space so the poetry doesn’t have a chance to rise up. Notice the wildly vain assumption that I’m full of latent poetry?
Even my posture in my desk chair is one of readiness for flight: legs turned to one side, butt on the edge of the seat. Writing is scary. I’m scared I won’t do it, and I’m scared of what will happen (or not happen) if I do.
My fear is that if I’m right about having primordial poems swimming in my gut, my current slap-dash commitment to writing will not bring them to light. My fear is that poetry takes a level of commitment beyond me, a commitment much more flexible even as it’s deadly serious. Poetry takes a willingness to hate yourself, to stay relaxed through that wretched, sulfurous slag that has to surface before you can find the good stuff. My fear is that there is no good stuff because I’ve been feeding myself primarily genre fiction. My fear is that I’m just not smart enough.
(Anyhow, there’s a neat little illustration for you of what the BG means when it says those who care about the fruits of their action are miserable. So, how to write poetry without worry?
I’ve said that I want to structure my life to maximize meaning. Philosopher-type boys will shove their hands in the air, eager to point out that life is inherently meaningless. Fine. I get it. I know that on a metaphysical level, it’s hard to argue that anything has meaning, much less my blip of a life doing yoga and writing blog posts that hardly anyone reads and trying to strengthen my chest voice.
But whether meaning is real and can be achieved doesn’t matter. What matters is that I’ve chosen. What matters is that I act as if everything depends on my dedication to my choices.
For me, life begins when commitment begins. Committing to something helps me get to know myself. It helps me see what my limits are and watch what happens when I push them. Commitment snaps me out complacency. It snaps me out of the wispy, untethered feeling I’ve had toward life and grounds me in something “real.” What’s real is not the yoga, singing, and writing—those are just tools. What I’m grounding myself in is myself.
I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to reach this point. But neither can I look back at the past two decades of indecision, of flitting from one thing to the next, and regret it. Somehow, it all led to here. Many times during the past twenty years I’ve wished some God-like being would descend and tell me exactly what I was supposed to be doing with my life. Now, I can be that God-like being; I can travel backward in time to those past selves and say, “I’m proud of you for working so hard to grow. It doesn’t matter right now that you feel unfocused. Keep working, keep experimenting, and trust that you’ll get there. You will figure this out someday, and when you do, you’ll be ready for it.”
I take it all back. Anxiety isn’t trying to help me. Anxiety wants to kill me. It ravages, exhausts, drains, whines, depletes. It wants to die. It wants to live forever. It wants me to give up.
My husband, as I’ve mentioned before, gets frustrated with my approach to life. “You just like to suffer,” he says. For awhile I believed him. Suffering gets me attention, and I like attention. I used suffering as a way to drive people to tell me it’s okay to quit. It worked. Parents, sisters, husband, friend have urged me to give up; “you don’t have to try so hard” they say, or “don’t worry about it,” or “let it go,” their weary response to all of my vocal and dramatic hand-wringing.
But “just quit” is not the message I wanted. It was the easy message, the comforting one. What I wanted (although I didn’t know consciously) was for someone to tell me to focus, to forget about everything on the periphery. Do what you want, I wanted them to say. Forget about cost; forget about inconvenience; stop trying to not bother anyone; stop running around cleaning up after us.
It’s not that I wanted to suffer; it’s that I didn’t know how to not suffer.
I get why my husband has such a pessimistic and unflattering view of who I am: a junkie for suffering. We are all addicted to suffering. I read that in a spiritual text, and I believe it. We find ways to be unhappy, to complain, to blame the world for our problems. We wouldn’t know what to do with happiness if we had it.
But I’m arguing—because I’m finally understanding—that I do not structure my life to maximize suffering. I structure it to maximize meaning (knowing that “meaning” is a tricky concept—more on that in a later post). The anxiety gets in the way and causes the suffering. I’ve let anxiety control me, let it deter me from what I want, let it convince me I don’t really want those things, that nothing really matters except being happy.
Except…it’s not in my nature to be happy without development and growth. It’s not in me to enjoy a life that doesn’t require me to use my imagination, my creativity, my mind and body. My commitment to these things I’ve chosen—yoga, writing, music—allows me to exercise and grow in ways that feel important to me. The work that I do, when free from anxiety, brings me an abiding joy.
Looking back on my post about anxiety, I wonder if I can look at anxiety differently. Instead of denouncing it, hating it, trying to get rid of it—can I talk with it? Might it have gifts for me?
I’ve blamed anxiety for controlling my life decisions, but where would I be without the anxiety? Would I be a German-speaking track star? A make-up wearing psychologist with prize-winning books of poetry? A calculus professor/pianist/ballet dancer?
The thing is, I (don’t think) I’m sorry that I’m not those things. I’m grateful and happy for where life has led me, and I don’t think I’m just saying that because I can’t bear the thought of it not being true. I don’t think I’m in denial. I do think I’ve let myself wither a bit under a cloudy, “nothing really matters” attitude, an attitude I’ve used to soothe the anxiety that arises with any decision to make something matter.
I do think I’ve misinterpreted spirituality to tell myself that all that matters is not being anxious, and if not being anxious requires that I do nothing, then nothing I will do. If I have to spend all day placating myself instead of actively pursuing my interests, then placate I will do—and feel more spiritual because of it.
Well, no more. Maybe all this anxiety I’ve been trying to dampen through non-action has been trying to send me a message. Maybe the anxiety is saying, “Ignore me! DO something! Live your life!”
All the anxiety I feel about sleeping? Because I’m afraid I’ll be too tired to get up early enough to fit everything in? Maybe a piece of that anxiety is saying, “Get up! You need time!” And maybe that’s not a bad thing. All the anxiety and anger I feel about cleaning up after my family, about keeping the house nice for them? Maybe I should listen to that anxiety. Maybe it’s telling me to set some boundaries.
Of course, the trick of taking your anxiety seriously is knowing when to listen and when to ignore. It’s still true that anxiety wants to perpetuate itself. It’s still true that no matter what decision I make, I’ll be anxious about it. Anxiety about getting all the housework done feels the same as the anxiety about what will happen if I don’t do it, which feels the same as the anxiety I feel about asking for help.
Ideally, my anxiety would fade away and no longer hold such sway over me. Ideally, I’d be “normal.”
I have this hope, though, that if I focus on tasks other than keeping my anxiety at bay—if I, essentially, let anxiety drive me to the tasks themselves instead of to fixing the anxiety—maybe, eventually, the anxiety won’t be so powerful. Maybe in a weird way it will learn to trust me, to trust that I’ll do what I have committed myself to do. Or maybe I’ll learn to let anxiety scamper around my brain while I lightly observe and detach from it. Maybe I’ll learn to not think about everything before I do it.
Feel free to skip this long list of everything I did this week. It helped me feel good about myself (or it was supposed to, anyway--didn't work). There's a paragraph at the bottom that's kind of the whole point of this post.
Other things I did on Monday:
What I didn’t have time for but meant to do:
What else I did:
What else I did:
What I didn’t have time to do:
Friday, 2/22 (expected):
Friday hasn’t happened yet, but here’s how I hope it will go:
What else I will have done:
Looking back on this week’s schedule, I should probably feel good that I spent some time almost every day with each of my commitments. What I feel instead is tired—and angry and sorry that I couldn’t do more. And worried that maybe I don’t have the energy for this kind of life. And shame that I don’t have more energy—as busy as these days were, I still had time every evening for TV with my husband and reading genre fiction before bed. I didn’t sleep well most nights, and I woke in the mornings feeling anxious about whether I’d have enough time.
So I’m left with not-new questions:
I woke up angry and anxious. Angry and anxious because the kids’ school canceled for snow, and I was already feeling the anticipatory rage of them possibly staying here all day, ruining my day of peacefully and quietly going about my plans without noise, mess, and interruption. (They didn’t stay. Their mom picked them up at 9 a.m.) Angry and anxious because I didn’t sleep well and should have gotten up at 7 a.m. to start tackling the day’s commitments and chores instead of trying to coax my frenetic brain back to sleep for hour. Angry and anxious because I always let tiredness keep me from my goals. Angry and anxious because I’ve been eating too much leftover Valentine’s Day chocolate, which is surely compromising my sleep and clogging my voice. Angry and anxious because reviewing the day’s to-do list in bed made the day seem impossible before it even began. Angry at the anxiety itself, which pushes pushes pushes. Angry and anxious because I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing, trying to be committed to goals when life throws its wrenches. Am I being naïve and childish to think I can make my life more focused? “Go with the flow,” some would say. “You just love to suffer,” my husband would say (which would also make me angry).
And so…it seems my decision to focus on yoga, music, and writing has stirred up an anger maelstrom toward everything that gets in my way. Things like stepkids, for example, or the fact that I stupidly insisted, back when I quit my full-time job, that all of the house and dog care should be my responsibility since I’m at home.
This anger and anxiety are nothing new. Every time I decide to commit to something, life throws everything it can (including that pop-spirituality, go-with-the-flow self-righteousness) in my way to convince me I can’t do it.
I had lofty hopes of approaching my new commitment-driven life with an attitude of peace and calm—that I could somehow both do the work and feel relaxed about it—and I feel, on day 3, like I’ve failed.
But maybe none of that matters. I’m here, after all, writing. I chose to write this morning; a week ago, I might have been side-tracked into cleaning (might as well clean now while you’re inspired/nervous about how dirty the house is—you can write later, and you’ll be able to focus better in a clean house). I know by now that cleaning is never done. I know that the satisfaction I feel from cleaning isn’t as powerful as the satisfaction I feel after yoga or writing. So many cliches apply: feed your spirit, just show up, just do it. Now’s the time to test these and see what happens. What happens if I show up, every day, for these things I’ve decided are important to me?
I don’t know what will happen the rest of the day: we’re getting dumped on by snow and ice; yoga class might be canceled; my husband might work from home this afternoon, making it hard for me to sing or vacuum (self-consciousness, noise, interruption of his work); I’ll probably have to add “shovel driveway” to my to-do list.
I don’t know when I’ll ever have time to read the books I want to read: the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras, the new memoir by Jeanette Winterson, the stack of poetry books I requested for Christmas.
But somehow, as it usually does, writing has calmed me. The day feels hopeful again.
I turned 45 this week, and that plus reading a memoir about a woman who ferociously went after her goals has left me uneasy. The uneasiness is not new, but I’ve managed to keep it under the surface lately. Sort of. I’m the kind of relentlessly self-analyzing person for whom there IS no unconscious anymore because I dredge it all up and examine it at least once a month.
The uneasiness can be presented as a question: Have I given up on life?
Why do I ask? Because everything I do feels half-hearted, even as it feels urgent. It lacks the vigor and calmness and quiet joy I imagine commitment must feel like.
Since I was a child, I have loved books about school or learning, whether the school is traditional, magical, or specialized for some kind of mental, spiritual, or physical prowess. I love the depiction (fantasy?) of complete and total focus, of the pain and suffering endured to hone one’s mind or body to a sharp point, an arrow that will pierce its target’s core.
I did well in school, mostly because I wanted teachers to like me. I worked hard and quickly, getting the work done so I could move on to other things (i.e., reading novels about people in school). The only success I can think of that I’d call “hard-won” was the 98/100 I scored on my pre-calculus final in 11th grade. Did that achievement inspire me to take calculus the following year, even though it wasn’t required for graduation? No, it did not. Only the smart boys took calculus. Girls like me who had to work so hard at it and who didn’t see it as part of their future…well, what was the point?
The thing is, I enjoyed math, when I figured out the trick of it. Taking that pre-calc final and seeing each problem reveal its solution beneath my well-practiced pencil felt good. It felt miraculous, but it also felt earned. I had worked so hard the past two years, my father helping me struggle through algebra II and trigonometry, practicing the even AND the odd numbered problems, scouring the textbook for clues, feeling the building anxiety before every test.
Giving that completed final to my teacher, feeling shyly confident, filled me with a beautiful clear sensation of lightness. When the teacher returned the test on the last day of class and asked me if I would take calculus the next year, I blushed and said no, I didn’t think so. His face looked so puzzled and disappointed that I wanted to cry, to apologize. All of my hard work hadn’t given me confidence after all: it had given me only the dread of more hard work.
I also gave up on German. After three years of straight As in high school, I tested out of German in college. Did I take it anyway? No, I did not. I enjoyed learning German in high school. I enjoyed looking at German short stories and unraveling the meaning hidden in those hyperbolically long words. But in college, the entire class was conducted in German and you had to rattle off German answers to questions thrown at you in German. I imagined sitting three hours a week on the edge of my seat, heart pounding, and, well, why put myself through stress or risk ruining my GPA if I didn’t have to?
In an Old Testament class, I chose the easy way out for a final project: a group project over an individual paper. I made this choice after my professor, known for his tough grading and harsh demeanor, had handed back my essay-based midterm and said, sternly, “This was the best in the class.” I craved his praise until he gave it; then, it terrified me. It set me up to disappoint him.
I gave up on running in college, opting to throw javelin since my friends were all “throwers.” I was terrible at javelin. Abysmal. Even the specialist the coach brought in to help couldn’t make me better. I was too scared to lean back as far as I needed to propel that stupid spear and make it stick.
“That looks like a 2-mile pace,” the running coach would tell me as I sped around the indoor track. He smiled, but I knew he was frustrated that I refused to run for him. Alas, the pain of high school cross-country and track had made their mark, and the thought of an even more rigorous regimen—morning and evening practices!?—paralyzed me.
I gave up when I found out I’d have to get a graduate degree in Psychology to be a therapist; I added, in my junior year, a BA in English to my BA in Psychology. Clearly, I didn’t talk to anyone about these decisions (just how was an English degree any better for the job market??)—anyone who was in a real position to offer sound advice, that is. My parents’ mantra was always, “do what’s easy; don’t stress yourself out.”
I gave up in graduate school. I switched from an MA in English to an MA with a creative writing emphasis because 40 pages of a poetry ‘thesis’ seemed easier than 60 pages of research and argument about a some topic I’d have to pretend to care about.
After my MA, I gave up on the job market and half-heartedly applied for an MFA, choosing only the easiest or geographically closest programs that didn’t require me to retake the GREs, a test I took only once despite my poor performance on the math section. I asked no one for help in any of my application processes. I made it into Penn State’s MFA program only barely, because they had to fulfill a quota of some kind (or so I interpreted a comment my professor made).
In middle school, I gave up on flute and piano. Getting good required a lot of work—and if you get good at an instrument, then what? Performance, and I had no interest in performing.
In elementary school, I sat at my cubicle and filled out the required three pages a day in each of the “Paces” my small Christian school used. I liked to whiz through my Paces quickly so I could have the rest of the day to play with the others who had finished early (doing puzzles, playing board games, reading). When I worked ahead, doing up to 10 pages a day sometimes, it was only to compete with boys I liked, the smart boys who I thought would like me back if they saw that I was smart, too.
Ages 5-11, I learned to give up on things I wanted but couldn’t, for whatever reason, have. Ballet lessons (too expensive), horse-back riding lessons (too expensive), gymnastics lessons (too expensive); new clothes (too expensive), makeup (for adults only), shaving my legs (you’re too young, even though the other girls your age at your weird school are shaving their legs already), candy and junk food (too unhealthy), more friends (we moved too often, and I was too shy), a canopy bed (too expensive); roller skating (nowhere to do it except a 7-foot square patch of basement concrete).
And thus I’ve developed a pattern of talking myself out of everything that might interest me, especially once it becomes hard or expensive. I’ve been afraid of physical pain. Afraid of failure. Afraid of spending money. Afraid of the mental pain of research and formulating papers. Afraid of Bs. Afraid of professors who expect so much. You can do it, people have said. But how could they know? I may look like I can do it, I’ve wanted to say. But you have no idea. I don’t do well because I’m strong, smart, and capable—I do well because I’m a performer. I do these things for you, and all I want is for the pressure to stop. And yet I don’t want the pressure to stop because if it did, what reason would I have to get up in the morning?
As an adult, I have an image of what a committed person looks like. She has a passion and a goal. She gets up early and starts working and doesn’t stop until she goes to bed at night. Sure, she gives herself reasonable breaks for meals and walks and silence, but she’s a serious person with a heart devoted to her endeavors. Everything else—relationships, cleaning, food, child care, dog care, TV—comes in second to her life purpose.
I do yoga a few times a week, but I don’t push myself hard enough to develop the strength and flexibility required for true yogic greatness. I write…half-heartedly. I meditate. I read Tarot. I work with Reiki energy. I clean, I cook, I buy groceries and run errands and do laundry. I walk the dog. I halfheartedly teach the dog basic dog tricks. I try to eat healthfully but gave up on being vegan when I got married to a meat-eater. I’m not 100% anything.
I feel surges of desire for greatness, but I’m easily distracted by new pursuits—maybe THIS will be the thing I love enough to commit to! What begins as enthusiasm quickly dwindles to something like drudgery. Someone said once that if you love what you do, you love the drudgery of it, too.
My usual answers to this commitment problem are the following:
I’ve self-published three books. Each presented problems to solve, and I did my best to solve them. But a truly committed writer would have tested her solutions against the world, would have submitted her manuscript to publishers x 100, and would have worked all the more, with each rejection, to turn the book into something truly good. Art is only as good as the amount of suffering it requires, right?
I tried to persuade myself that self-publishing felt like freedom, relief—who needs the approval of the mainstream? But is it really freedom to reject the establishment because you’re scared you won’t live up to its demands?
Somewhere along the way, giving up started to feel almost righteous, like thumbing my nose to the idealists and the perfectionists. Somewhere along the way, I became an overprotective parent of myself. Somewhere along the way, “don’t cause yourself anxiety” became “don’t do anything that challenges you or causes prolonged discomfort.”
And thus we arrive at the root of the problem: not laziness, but anxiety. I’m starting to see that anxiety isn’t caused by external events, people, or problems; anxiety is a pre-existing condition, a learned response, way to prevent/protect me from anything that might lead me past the anxiety. What does anxiety tell me it’s saving me from? A lower GPA. Embarrassment. Failure. Debt. Bad decisions. Injury. Discomfort. Weight gain. Age. Loss of beauty. Death.
Anxiety protects that chaff that Jesus wants to burn away—all of the surfacey concerns about what people will think or whether I’ll have to rely on others. It protects me from people. It protects me from losing control.
Anxiety protects me only from the consequences of anxiety, and it doesn’t even do that. Anxiety cares only for its own survival. It’s a grand, well-oiled loop. What would it mean to step out of that loop? How would I even begin?
Commitment is the answer, I tell myself. Commit to something—anything—regardless of the anxiety.
Take yoga. Anxiety begs me to stop when it starts to hurt. It convinces me that I’ll injure myself. It convinces me I’ll overtire myself. It tells me I can’t. It tells me the financial requirements of true commitment to yoga are too great (teacher trainings, travel, retreats, massages). It convinces me that I’m not the type of person who commits to yoga—that if I want to commit to yoga, I’d have to have long, un-dyed hair, be 100% vegan, and wear only organic yoga clothes. Surely I don’t need all of that extremism in my life!
To which I say to anxiety, you’re right: I tend toward extremism because I’m anxious that if I don’t, I won’t be “authentic” or successful. I’ve conflated commitment with extremism and obsession. But extremism is about escape, anxiety, fear. It’s about the desire for attention. Commitment is about groundedness, focus, and a calm acceptance of where I am even as I test my limits.
Take music. Anxiety tells me there’s no point to singing if I’m not going to make it a profession, if I’m not going to start performing. It tells me I’m never going to be as good as Brandi Carlile, so why bother? It tells me that voice lessons are an unwarranted expense. Wouldn’t that money be better saved and used for necessities?
Above all, anxiety tells me to be very, very careful with time. Don’t use too much of it! What if you don’t have time to relax? You LOVE to read genre fiction and watch TV and eat too much—you NEED that time to relax. Never mind that anxiety also tells me I shouldn’t read so much genre fiction or watch so much TV or eat after dinner.
In the end, anxiety is ALWAYS at odds with me; whatever I’m doing, it thinks I should be doing something else. It’s convinced me that I need its warnings, its cautions, its sensible and reasonable standards of self-protection. It’s convinced me that without it, I will hurt myself or hurt other people. Anxiety is a bully, a bully dressed in the face of a concerned mother.
Writing all of this, I’m inspired, as I always am when I write about my failures, to start over. An enthusiasm starts to build, and something in me wants to follow it even though I know it will lead me back to this place, these confessions, this shame of not being or doing more.
But maybe this time will be different, right? Maybe this time, I can acknowledge the anxiety but do things anyway. A self-help champion whose name I can’t remember advises that we pick no more than three things on which to focus our commitment. More than three leads to distraction; it splits and compromises your efforts to the point that nothing grows.
Here are my picks: