I was sitting on a bench in the park – a very nice thing to do – but I had some things that I wanted to accomplish. We have all wrestled with that lack of motivation to break out of a comfortable position to go do something slightly less pleasant, but my to do list wasn’t exactly demanding. I just wanted to review some Polish vocabulary and stop at the grocery store before going home. It should have been pretty simple, but I couldn’t make myself do it. It wasn’t the first time that my body wouldn’t respond to what I thought I was willing it to do. For the past few weeks, basically since I finished my thesis, I’ve been struggling mightily with mustering the motivation to do just about anything. I literally said it out loud: “Ok, I’m getting up…. now” and nothing happened. I just sat there, sometimes in a catatonic state, staring off into space like a lobotomy victim. Sometimes, this is a very relaxing state, but when I don’t feel like I’ve chosen to enter into it, it’s rather unsettling.
Several times over the last few weeks, my rational mind would decide to do something, and then the rest of my brain would just give my prefrontal cortex the finger and do exactly the opposite. Or in the case of what happened yesterday, just nothing.
I had sat down on the bench to continue reading Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek, in which he lays out a bunch of steps to help people design an ideal lifestyle. I actually really like a lot of his tips. I was trying to work through an exercise he calls “dreamlining” in which you’re supposed to outline a bunch of things you want to have, do, and become over the next 6-12 months, a pretty solid exercise for someone just about to jump into the job market and start a new life.
But I couldn’t come up with anything. I just didn’t give a shit. There was nothing I really wanted to have, do, or become. I was fine just existing. The end state of this whole quest for enlightenment or adherence to stoic values or whatever you want to call it is to accept what we have, want what we have, and be happy with our situation. So why should I pursue anything? Ferriss opens the book with a story of this multimillionaire and all his uber-rich friends who have everything a person could want but are totally miserable. So why should I pursue any of it? Why not just prolong the feeling of comfort as long as possible, and then when I’m forced to move, just accept my new situation and readjust?
And thus, I learned what nihilism feels like. So I turned the whole exercise around (I think Ferriss suggests this at some point in the book), and I decided to think about things that I DON’T want to have, do, or become. Of course, the mental exercise went equally nowhere. So, I took the advice of a close friend seriously: sometimes we have to hit a low to remind us of what we’re actually doing. I’ve already learned my lesson with alcohol (it’s been six days now since a pretty rough night, and the thought of alcohol still makes me a little nauseous), so went after everything else, especially my eternal vice: food.
On the way home, I decided to start with a big one for me: meat. Although I’ve eaten plenty of meat recently, it’s all been leftovers. I haven’t bought meat in quite a while. But I went full awkward and bought myself a nasty kebab roll at some overcrowded joint in the mall. I didn’t even try to order it in Polish; I was just the typical ignorant and hungry American tourist. While eating, I plugged in my headphones and remained in a state of multitask overload with cynical political commentary podcasts in my ears and mindless flipping through articles on my screen. After finishing the completely unsatisfying meat wrap, I had a few minutes before my train left, so I grabbed a hot dog for the ride. When I got home, I went to the store to dig up whatever junk I haven’t touched in months. I even made a trip to KFC for a box of wings and stopped off for an ice cream cone on the way back.
For the last 24 hours, I have done everything wrong. (well, damn near everything; I didn’t let the dog die). I just tossed my clothes on the floor haphazardly, allowed a pile of dishes to stack up in the sink, stayed up late watching movies after eating a frozen pizza and drinking half a liter of Coke, slept in, went to McDonald’s for breakfast, just threw my quarter-full paper cup of stale coffee on the ground on my way to get a Subway sandwich for brunch and picked up a chocolate chip cookie, a bag of Lays, and an energy drink on the way. I slouched all day, didn’t exercise, avoided as much human contact as possible, and I puked my guts out because my body had forgotten how to digest sausage (now thinking about it; it’s a miracle I could ever eat that garbage).
And all the while, I had my journal open on my desk with the headline “Things I hate about the ‘EASY’ life”. “Easy” being the undisciplined, reactive, and self-indulgent life controlled by the Sisyphean pursuit of dopamine hits. By the end of my experiment early this afternoon, I had twenty things on there about who I don’t want to be. Some examples:
1. Being monolingual.
2. Being impulsive and emotional
5. Being fat and weak.
7. Being immobilized by anxiety.
10. Being lonely.
13. Hearing about extremely successful people and accepting I can never be one of them.
15. Not being able to find my clothes.
20. Feeling sick and tired because my diet is akin to fueling a jet engine with crude oil.
The past day has been the logical extreme of what would happen if I were to let my standards slip, and the person I was yesterday is someone whom I never ever EVER want to take even a step on the path toward becoming.
I know that the things I’m proud of – my ability to focus, my ability to learn, my physical fitness, my social aptitude, my reliability; all of which depend upon my discipline – take constant practice, and even these aspects of who I am are still far from where I want them to be.
Even before my 24 hours was up, I was totally cured of my inability to act. As soon as I decided I was going to get up and do something, I did it. When the time was up, I gave myself a five-second countdown and immediately got my act together, cleaned the apartment, got outside, and got productive. Physically, I’m still recovering from the gastrointestinal abuse (and an illness, which is mostly gone), but I think I’m back on track. I will spend much of the rest of the evening laying out some positive character traits that I’m working to cultivate, but I now have an excessively clear picture of whom I don’t want to be. And without an externally mandated assignment, that is exactly the fire I need to have under my ass.