As a college freshman, there was one essay we had to read in composition class that made an indelible impression on me that lingers still: George Orwell’s “Hanging,” with its vivid irony in observing the curious behavior of an about to be executed criminal in Burma, where Orwell had served in the British imperial police for six years years. The narrator takes no part, except to observe:
It is curious, but till that moment I had never realised what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we are alive. All the organs of his body were working – bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming – all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned – even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone – one mind less, one world less.
While the essay surely delivers a right upper cut to capital punishment, its underbelly embraces that instinctual element in all of us for well-being, or the comfort zone, or as the behaviorists tell us, the quest for pleasure and the avoidance of pain.
This got me thinking just now of the myriad ways we try avoiding life’s stressors, or dodging puddles, and so this brief list to which I’m sure you can add your own items:
Accepting personal responsibility: Beginning with Adam blaming Eve, it’s been a human tendency to fault others for our often self-inflicted wounds or make excuses for bad behavior. Rationalization, like a subterranean stream, lies embedded in the psyche, seemingly dormant, only to spring to the surface in moments of duress.
In baseball, the sport I passionately love, I see it all the time, the batter striking out, jawing with the ump about a wrong call; the pitcher disgruntled with a strike zone, scowling menacingly at the call-maker.
In the legal realm, even in the most heinous crimes, defendants rarely plead guilty, buttressed by lawyers resorting to context.
Unfortunately, evasion rewards wrong conduct and encourages its repetition, often alienating our fellows, and even those we love; in worse case scenarios, severing relationships. Its remedy lies in keeping our temper hosted, maybe counting to ten. What really helps is learning from our shame and wanting to do better to be our best selves.
Confronting fear: No one lives without anxiety. It’s simply a matter to what degree. We can either face up to our fears or let them take charge, minimizing our happiness. Unfortunately, many of us resort to escapism, often through excessive indulgence in diversions such as TV, movies, net surfing and video games. When we take hold of our worries we often discover their baseless origins, making it easier to give them the toss.
This isn’t easy, of course, and often takes practice or determined resolve to see it through. Small steps count, particularly in desensitizing ourselves to chronically embedded fears such as public speaking or phobias that make us dread high places, narrow spaces, and social gatherings.
Running away doesn’t solve anything and, worse, may feed our anxiety and exacerbate our escapism. The bottom line is, Who is in charge: you or your fears?
Avoiding exercise: Along with making changes in your diet, namely, cutting back on fats, sugar and salt, exercising vigorously minimally five days a week fosters good health, significantly reducing your risks for heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and even cancer. But it’s easier said than done. Who likes coming home from work having to exercise? For many of us it’s simply a good idea we’d like to go away, since it gnaws at our conscience knowing its importance, yet our seeming inability to get it done.
The trick is setting up a time and place; for me, it’s first thing shortly after breakfast that’s now a fixed habit. For some, going right to a gym before coming home works best. The good thing is that it takes only about six weeks to establish the habit and it’s self-reinforcing in its dividends, reducing weight and stress while increasing energy and improving our mood.
Giving-up cravings: Bad habits inevitably lead to bad consequences. The problem is that they can be pleasurable, not only to the senses, but psychologically as modes of escape. Consequently, indulgences in eating, smoking and alcohol dominate a good many and, unresolved, become addictions affecting personal health, wallets, daily focus, and even those we love.
Alas, even the best counsel often falls short of remedy, for their resolution depends on motivation, which sometimes comes only as things worsen and we don’t like our excesses and what they do. And even this is sometimes not enough.
But there are exercises psychologists often miss that can strengthen our resolve. Try focusing, for example, on your goal. Visualize it. Post pictures on your mirror or wall that capture it. See yourself as thin, muscular, photogenic. Or family amazed and delighted that you no longer smoke or drink.
Meditation with its centering on a mantra to reinforce focus provides yet another formidable exercise in strengthening will power and fostering self-realization. Replace bad choices with positive alternatives: carrot sticks coated in hummus instead of potato chips; fruit replacing candy and baked goods. You can do this!
Unpleasant tasks: There are things we don’t like to do and wish they would go away like paying bills, writing a paper, household tasks, running errands, etc. Accordingly, we procrastinate, with the inevitable result the list grows longer and guilt accumulates. I like to schedule things, a thing here or a thing there, making keeping-up more manageable. It also helps to think of what happens if I don’t follow through.
And then there are the good vibes that always come when I follow through. Having said this, there are some things that may need elimination, if possible, from your list if the payoff doesn’t justify the effort. The more what we do fulfills ourselves, the less difficult it becomes to do them and the more joy leftover to spend on others.
Truth facing: There are things we don’t want to hear, since they make us uncomfortable. I’m as guilty as the next fellow. Yesterday, my doctor asked me if I’d been checking my blood pressure and I had to confess I’ve been afraid to. It’s silly behavior on my part, for it changes nothing and can make things worse. Similarly, it’s sometimes not fun turning on the news, but again, we live in a real world where, yes, bad things happen, injustice occurs, people suffer.
I believe global warming exists and we’re the primary factor, but I know good people who don’t share this view. They have every right, of course, though sometimes we filter what makes us feel insecure. It helps to have someone you can talk to who really listens and can provide context, or a larger view of things.
Don’t flagellate yourself because you have anxieties. We all have them sometime or other. Just don’t hide behind them. As for personal beliefs distilled into unthinking habit, better a mindset that follows truth than hugs deception.
Change: Time often brings new outcomes and altered perspective. It keeps company with sadness, for in forfeiting our past we often leave behind something of ourselves. Memory may help us revisit, but the reality is we can’t go home again. Transitory creatures in an ephemeral world, we wish for permanence of life’s good things: experiences that gave joy and provided purpose and vitality; family and friendships that made for laughter and sharing and assured our acceptance; eagerness with each dawn to make good on the new day’s promise.
Though, understandably, we like to structure our security, we often find our best made dikes prove puny against time’s flow. But change also has its recompense: a fresh start and a maturity that refines our goals, separating the wheat from the chaff; a way of atoning for past shortcomings; a means to resolving festering resentments with new found forgiveness nourished by time’s insights.
Change teaches us to cherish now what we must ultimately let go. Although change demands adaptation, it also makes room for new possibilities trekking unexplored roads and discovering fresh vistas that soften our losses. The poet Tennyson had it right, “Ring out the old. Ring in the new.”
Be well. Do well!