Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Thwarted Goals

This is dense, I know. It's not a "read", to be skimmed for a cheap hit of confirmation bias. Like many Slog postings, it's a carefully-constructed lozenge for contemplation, which can spur reframing and reward multiple readings (and deep link dives).

One of the scariest monsters perpetually snarling just below my waterline has been a sense of shame at my growing tragic bundle of stalled and paralyzed plans and schemes. I've felt the weight profoundly. It's instilled a deep-seated conviction that I'm a miserable failure, and made every moment of repose feel like truant self-indulgence.
The snarling has, to my immense relief, diminished sharply with age. I'm old enough now to look back and see that I haven't, in fact, wasted my life. I got a lot done while feeling damnably idle and vagrant. I can finally see that my 15,000 item to-do list (not kidding) and gigabytes of stalled articles, books, and projects (some potentially distressingly amazing) are not a shameful burden, but more like a chef's leftover mis en place. One needn't grieve over stillborn chunks rotting in the fridge. The relevant question is: how did the meal go? 
This comforting late-middle-aged realization is - if you can embrace it when it arrives and reframe yourself to the new perspective - the saving grace of the familiar litany of aging indignities.
Like every stress point, this was, from the beginning, nothing but a simple framing malfunction. Think of it this way (flip along with me!): if you doggedly completed every task, idea, and goal you'd ever brewed up, how wrecked would your life be? How enslaved would you have been to your caprices? If you'd served as fervid henchman to your every passing whim, how scattered and random would the cumulative result have been?

The trick is in the winnowing. But no one is more daunted by that part than me. I'm cursed to know that the most substantial and tectonic ideas can be the least realistic; that the most pleasurable-seeming ones can prove the most tedious to sustain; and that the passion and drive accompanying an inception might be significant, but can later seem inexplicable (I once spent three hours feverishly combing Philadelphia for a "Beer & Cheese Love" t-shirt I felt I couldn't live without, and whenever I chance upon that shirt, abandoned in the bottom of my drawer, I cannot make myself understand what the hell I was thinking).
We don't really choose, though. If we did, we'd all be the perfect weight, tautly muscled, speak twelve languages fluently, live in immaculate homes, and never yell at our kids. If we were the choosers, I wouldn’t buy potato chips, nor ruminate over the horrible thing that girl once said. If you make a study of it, you'll find that thinking and choosing is not done by us. We do get to frame - that's our sole freedom - but thoughts and choices arrive as faits accomplis for which our chattering minds claim credit.
The carcasses of expired tasks and discarded goals are mental relics we keep around to fuel our epic obsession with What's Missing. But despite our best efforts, we don't live in the world of What Isn't. We're here for the meal we have, not for the ones we don't...much less for those plastic-wrapped bits of onion and mushroom liquefying in our "crisper". Such artifacts exert no actual pressure on us, unless we go out of our way to needlessly frame them as oppressors. 

Per here, "when an insight seems fully-baked, even after years of digestion, a greater clarity may appear in the very next microsecond, leaving you aware of how ridiculously incomplete or wrong you'd been. It's not like waiting for batter to become cake. It's all eternally batter."

Same for projects and goals. Another moment may cast these smokey, abstract mental constructions in a different light, and we ought not disregard the fresh clarity, even though sensitive responsiveness to such momentary shifts may make us seem aimless and undisciplined (see my posting about procrastination, which is a companion piece to this one).  

With our sole lever being our freedom to direct attention (a.k.a. to frame), best practice is to come back to your senses, opting out of convoluted mental stories about what you're doing and where you're headed, and focus on duly relishing your placement of attention, with the rapt delight of a child at play. In so doing, you're acting as the prime mover in this reality

And then pour yourself entirely into the task at hand (“the meal you have”), however trivial. The results may not ring one of the tinny bells of 21st century culture, but they will be good...and will provide comfort to your elder self (no old person ever regretted heartfelt good work).

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