A few weeks ago I went to the pool with my family. We were in the middle of a heat wave, but it had been a warm few months already. It was my first time swimming in about a year, and as I glided through the cool water I wondered: “Why exactly haven’t I being doing this all summer?”
I cycled through the usual excuses, so automatic as to be boring by now. The pool’s too far — but it’s not, the pool is less than twenty minutes by bus from my home. I’ve had to watch my kid — but of course, I could have brought him with me. I had too much work to leave my desk — but surely a refreshing swim would have improved my ability to focus.
At the end of the pool I stopped for a breath and to look around, then pushed off again. I was swimming breast stroke, which I find soothing. It gives me time to think. And what I thought was that many of the things that feel really good to me, that make me happy, that give me the sense that I am in the right place doing the right thing, are incredibly hard to start doing.
This makes no sense. I am not talking about doing difficult paperwork or taking out the garbage. I know why I don’t like to do those things, why I try to put them off. I’m talking about activities that are both good for me and pleasurable. Why is it that I have to fight an entire war with myself every time I go to the ballet studio? I know by now that as awkward as I feel going in, forty minutes into class I start to feel really good, and I leave floating like a goddess. I know, too, that slipping into bed is one of the most delicious sensations there is, so why do I postpone that feeling every night, as though determined to be miserable and tired the next day?
I know, too, that when I am writing, I forget the rest of the world, I can ride the inspiration like a wave, surprising myself with what I find. But starting to write? Couldn’t I just lick coal instead?
I’ve read an embarrassing amount of self-help literature in the past few years, and its secret is this: few people really need advice about how to live their lives. They know how they ought to be living their lives. The trick is learning how to follow their own best instinct.
The answer I so often hear to this problem is discipline. “Discipline” is the chorus of a one-beat, assembly-line pop song. It’s bad, but it’s played so often it gets into your head anyway. Discipline is what’s supposed to make the difference between doing the sustaining thing and succumbing to Resistance.
The language of discipline is interesting. It often involves the behind. “Get your butt in the chair,” say a million writing guides and self-help mavens. “Move your ass,” say the fitness experts. It’s like they want to give us a spanking. Or it evokes purity: nothing makes me less eager to get to bed than hearing about the importance of “sleep hygiene.” Or torture. I am convinced that CrossFit is secretly a nod to calvary — and the idea that exercise has to be some kind of agony to be worthwhile.
Here is what I’m starting to wonder. What if, what if, what if it’s not just some vague nameless Resistance that keeps us from doing what feels right, but the very fact that we’ve attached discipline to those activities? What if the moment our better self suggests an early bedtime or a lap in the pool or writing a poem, it starts to sound like a scolding parent telling us what we ought to do. So we become a little like a stubborn child, asserting our independence by digging in and not moving. If we feel like we’re being disciplined into doing something, even if we in fact deeply want to do that thing, we wind up rebelling in every way we can.
Ever try to get a child to take a bath? They will do anything to avoid it. And then once in the bath, they love it and don’t want to get out. And no amount of prior experience of how awesome baths are seems to help.
The problem is that the person we’re actually rebelling against is ourselves.
More and more, I think the only good answer to Resistance is play. I know people who play soccer or basketball or go skiing, and they don’t have to be convinced to do it. They go because it’s fun, not because they feel it’s something they should do. If that were their motivation, they’d probably go on a treadmill for an hour instead.
The most important writing courses I’ve taken have been with Clare Wigfall in Berlin, whose prompts unlocked stories in me I could never have imagined. I once had coffee with her and she told me that she’d started teaching writing to children, and then she took the exercises and gave them to adults. I met people on the way out of Clare’s classes who were burned out from prestigious MFAs, but in Clare’s class, they could find the playfulness in writing again.
I’ve done a small amount of writing instruction too, and I’ve noticed it takes a while to open up to the idea of play. Adults feel they ought to be working, being productive. As long as they do it’s hard for them to settle into their own voices. But the more they relax into play, the livelier, more moving, and more original their prose gets. They’re not fighting themselves anymore. They’re just being themselves.
This takes a while. It’s a process. I’m learning too. But right now, another heat wave has settled. It’s time to go to the pool.
If you have read this far, I’d love to hear your thoughts on play, discipline, and tuning into what you already know. And please do share this email with anyone who might find it interesting.
My latest column for the Times Literary Supplement is about St Mary of Egypt and the problem with being perfect in public.
Also at the TLS, out this week, is a brief review of Kathryn Schulz’ moving new memoir about loss and love. (Does it sound broad? It is. But it works.)
I contributed an essay to a recent Chronicle of Higher Education Review cluster on whether Twitter is good for scholarship and for scholars. It will not shock you to hear that I think the costs of Twitter have become too high — though of course it is up to every individual to decide if it’s right for them.
And at Times Higher Education I contributed to a group piece about the happiest time in our careers. For me, that was graduate school, because (I suppose unlike anyone else on the planet) it was the one time I really felt I had the freedom to play. My apologies to the faculty who had to deal with the satirical footnotes in my seminar papers. I blame the eighteenth century.
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One way I like to think about it is whether I am deciding to do things because of fear or joy. i.e. I should exercise because if I don't I am at more risk of bad health outcomes. I was invited by my partner for a run earlier this week and was shocked by how much I loved the feeling of running outside.
A thing I noticed was that this dichotomy is very well layered. See if it happens for you. The impetus to play may start to feel like it slides over to being a fear. i.e. "You should play or you will miss out on all the joys you should be having".
I've found that acceptance of fear and uncertainty and loving that I care, but being separate enough to feel the tug of joy is the easiest way to "play" with the fear based thoughts.
Your article resonated with me quite a bit, as it put into easily digestable paragraphs, what feelings and thoughts have gone through my head, more than once!
My comment on this has 2 parts:
1) Learnings from my therapy: the idea of your ideal-self
Many ideas about personality, habits and how to grow as a person, that i got in touch with in the past, I would categorize as cognitive-behavioral theories. So when I finally got myself a therapist instead of another self-help book (can recommend), I picked one with a humanistic person-centered approach.
Many struggles, regarding what I knew to be the right thing to do, versus what I wanted to do, versus what I thought others expected of me, got untangled in the process. Those new theories were a good addition to how I understood behaviour in the past.
2) My personal solution
One idea I learned through guided meditation, was to notice feelings or thoughts, rather than following them. So when I get the idea to go for a swim and immediately some resisting thoughts pop up, about how it's too far away and so on, sometimes - i need to meditate more regularly - i manage to notice the resistance against the initial effort - but keep my body moving - packing my swim gear and getting on my bike.