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: