Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Do I have to think about "have to"?

Yesterday was all the abstract philosophical stuff about "have to," the projection of necessity upon our daily situations. But what I didn't really talk about was the personal . . .

I confess there are times when I've felt like Gil Buckman in Parenthood: "My whole life is 'have to.'" A neurotic, performance-minded guy, I've always felt an inexorable pressure (wholely self-generated) to meet certain standards of success and to be liked and admired by all. Since it is wholely impossible to please everybody, and probably not even desirable, it makes for a life of constant frustration and tension. I spend a lot of time feeling like I "have to" do things that are not achievable.

Fortunately, I have had a few bosses who have helped me past those hang-ups. The conversation always goes something like this:
"I have to do X for so-and-so."
"Because if I don't he's not going to be happy."
"So . . . ? Let him be unhappy. It's more important to do Y."
"Oh . . . I guess you're right."

When you're working too hard to please all the wrong people, you tend to get burned out. Burnout = no joy in your work = everything is "have to." You work out of duty, or habit, or sense of obligation, rather than whatever motivated you to the work in the first place. And that can be deadly.

When talking about building spiritual communities with Augie Turak, he told me, "All I know is that nothing really creative and powerful can happen until people are working on things they really want to do. So ask yourself, 'What do I want to do?' And then go do it."

In my spiritual life, in my career, and in my life in general, I'm at a point where it makes sense to ask, "What do I really want to do? What kind of life do I really want to have?" I've lived out most of my life driven by a sense of necessity; to see my path as freely chosen is an altered state of consciousness.

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Friday, May 04, 2007

Do I Have To?

So, yesterday I suggested you consider the difference between "want to" and "have to," and question the motivation beneath "have to." I ran this experiment myself, and here's what I found:
  • "Have to" is a rhetorical way of removing choice from a situation. Although the truth of the matter is that we always freely choose our actions (and are therefore fully responsible for them), sometimes we take choice off the table.
  • Sometimes we are deliberately taking choice off the table. Sometimes there are good reasons to do so; we want to deny ourselves choice in certain circumstances, because we know we might make the wrong choice in if given the chance to do so. "I have to do my homework tonight" is another way of saying, "I have chosen to do my homework tonight, and the decision is not open for reconsideration." Sometimes our reasons for removing choice are not so good: "I have to have a drink now" takes a conscious moral decision and turns it into an inevitable consequence of powerful forces beyond one's control. Or, more sinisterly, "I have to; I have orders."
  • If "I have to" is freighted with all sorts of hidden meanings, then it is doubley so for "you have to." Someone can impose all kinds of restrictions on you with only the slightest of justification, by cloaking the command in the rhetoric of necessity: "You simply have to come to my party this weekend," or "You have to fill out this paperwork first." These rhetorical gambits are the equivalents of: "Do this, but I'm not telling you why." Listen to politicians and salesmen: they lace their speech with have to all the time, building urgency without having to make long explanations or justifications.
  • There is nothing necessarily wrong with any of this. I am not suggesting that you banish all have to language from your speech. I am suggesting, though, that you need to be conscious of how the language is being used, and what is being left unsaid. So much psychotherapy and marriage counselling is a long drawn-out process of the patient claiming, "I have to," and the the therapist asking, "Really? Why?" All kinds of flaws in reasoning are exposed, all kinds of misunderstandings eliminated, once the language of necessity is translated back into explicit motivations and purposes.

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Thursday, May 03, 2007

Necessity and Desire

"I don't care if you want to do it, you have to do it."

How many times have you heard something like that? If you're a parent, you might find yourself even saying it dozens of times a day. And yet, Marshall Rosenberg's nonviolent communication insists that it's simply not true: there is no "have to."

"Nonsense," you say. "I have to do lots of things I don't want to do. I have to go to work. I have to get my kids to school. I have to brush my teeth. There's all kinds of things I have to do."

But what do we really mean when we say that? No one is holding a gun to your head, telling you to brush your teeth in the morning. You brush your teeth because you decided to do so. You consciously decided that you like have clean teeth, that you don't like having bad breath, and you definitely don't like going to the dentist and having your teeth drilled. You brush your teeth because it gives you something you want.

"Po-tay-to, Po-tah-to," you say. "It amounts to the same thing. I still have to do some things that aren't fun."

Maybe it is just semantics. Maybe it is "just" the way you express it. But why express it that way? Why would you want to take something freely chosen -- something you want to do -- and turn it into a compulsion -- something you have to do? One way of looking at it implies freedom and choice; the other, restriction and limitation. Why would you want to go through life seeing everything as forced? You may end up like Steve Martin's character Gil Buckman in Parenthood. When his wife asks him if he "has" to go to Little League practice, Gil snaps, "My whole life is "have to"!"

When you find yourself saying "have to," you have removed freedom from the situation. You probably just become disconnected from the real reasons you do what you do: you have literally forgotten why you do it. If you reconnect with those reasons, maybe it won't feel so forced. You often hear: "Ah, now I remember why I got into medicine to begin with," when someone reconnects with their original motivations.

If you can't find that original motivation, a compelling reason to want to do what you do . . . well, then, maybe you really don't want to do it. Shouldn't you stop doing it, then? If you can't find the reason, then you are, literally, doing things for no good reason.

It makes for a good mindfulness meditation. Every time you think "have to," stop and ask yourself, "Really? Why?" See what happens.


Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The thrill of victo- ! Shit.

Today was the sort of day that led me astray into bad work habits. I stayed up late last night trying to fix up a program, in a desperate lunging attempt to regain a customer's confidence. I worked until my brain ceased to function, around 1:30 pm. I solved some difficult problems, the sort that leave you muttering to yourself, "I'm a genius." I crashed on the couch, and came to again around 4 am. I continued to work until 6:30 am, still obsessing over code and missing my optimal blog window. I did manage the rest of my morning routine. While everything wasn't perfect, the client was impressed with the progress we had made and very upbeat and positive. When I finally get off the phone around noon, my arms are raised in victory, and I go off to take a brief nap.

I cruised through the afternoon. Another customer had some issues, but I solve them fairly quickly and came off looking like a hero. I'm starting to think that I'm actually really good at what I do.

I take the kids out for ice cream after supper. As they run around a grassy field, smudges of chocolate around their lips and bundles of clover-flowers in their happy fists, I'm thinking that life couldn't be better. Only mild exhaustion clouded the experience. I went from good-tired to not-so-good tired to man-I'm-wiped in the space of an hour.

More phone calls came. More issues, more things to fix. But by that time I was too tired to care. I worked hard, won the day, and feel like I deserve to crash. Except . . . man, I didn't write this morning. And now my brain feels like it's been put in sidewise. Have I sold a little bit of my soul for another fleeting thrill?


Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Schedule check-in

At the beginning of the year I committed to living according to a strict schedule, with all time accounted for and specific time committed to particular priorities. I hadn't written about it in a while, and people keep asking me how it's going, so I figured I'd check in.

Overall, it's going great. My morning routine is really solid: up and 5 am, write, exercise, shower & dress, breakfast with the family and get the kids out the door by 8 am. It hardly ever changes, and it makes life better for me. I find that writing first thing in the morning is vastly superior to writing during the day or late at night. I do it, I don't worry about it, and it's much easier and more enjoyable when the house is quiet, I'm rested, and focused. On the very few days that I haven't written first thing, I find it's much harder to find a good block of time to do it, and more difficult to stay focused on it to the end. Exercise has yielded tangible results: I shed about five pounds, my abs have the faintest ghost of six-pack-ness about them, and I feel pretty good.

Sleep . . . well, my sleep habits are much, much better than they used to be. I'm getting enough rest more days than not. I had a rough time through February and March when I was almost back to my old ways, pushing the limits of how little sleep I could function on. But I'm on the wagon again. What I've found is that between the ideal amount of sleep (when I ought to go to bed) and the point of exhaustion (when productivity becomes almost non-existant) is only maybe an hour or two, tops. I just can't get enough done in that time to justify feeling like hell the next day.

Work . . . that's the beast that refuses to die. I still don't have control of my work-time. The habits that led me to hit bottom on the scheduling front to begin with (over-committing, frantically working, falling short, leading to more over-committing, etc.) are still there. I've had to resort to more drastic means to support myself through the temptation to work more than I ought. I check in with my boss at the beginning of every day, to tell him the schedule and commit to sticking to it. I write up my billing notes every day, mostly as a means of confessing where the time actually went, and to get perspective on the schedule. I'm still working in the evenings, which I would eventually like to get away from entirely.

I have managed to give consistent time to the important-not-urgent things like the SKS and financial matters. I could, and should, have done a lot more with the SKS. Now that summer is here I will have to resist the temptation to ignore it entirely. At least I got the books entirely caught up with the taxes, and I'm starting to chip away at more long-term things: rolling over retirement accounts, reconciling investments, etc.

The Armenian mystic G.I. Gurdjieff said, of spiritual work: "In the beginning: roses, roses! Later on: thorns, thorns!" It was his way of saying that the fruits of spiritual work are pleasant in the beginning: you shed some psychological burdens, you get healthier, you get happier, things feel great. But, as you delve deeper into demands of spiritual life, you start to feel the pinch: rather than being ego-affirming, the spiritual life becomes ego-reducing, which is experienced at the time as stress and trauma. My scheduled life is following the same arc: I had some easy and wonderful gains in the beginning, but now I am facing up to the challenge of cutting away things that I'm tightly identified. My work life will not change until I stop identifying so much with my work.


Monday, April 30, 2007

Jet Li's Fearless

Ever since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won four Oscars in 2000, a whole new line of movies opened up for me: arty martial arts films my wife will actually watch with me. Since then we've seen House of Flying Daggers, Hero, and now Fearless. (Unfortunately, we have to call it "Jet Li's Fearless," lest it be confused with Jeff Bridges' 1993 film Fearless, which is also a good film with spiritual epiphanies, but with vastly fewer cool fights.)

What makes these films an entirely new genre? We can probably thank Ziyi Zhang for giving us beautiful heroines that can sustain romantic themes worthy of any chick-flick without slowing down the action. We can also credit Ang Lee for making art-house beautiful films (in Chinese with English subtext, no less) that take advantage of the ubiquitous bullet-time slow-motion to add a Zen-like clarity and visual depth. Not to mention complex plots that scramble time sequence and perspective in ways that Pulp Fiction and Memento pioneered. Oh, yeah, and genuinely spiritual themes, as opposed to the pseudo-spirituality served up by Kung Fu and its many successors. We've come a loooong way from Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris slug-fests.

Fearless is actually based on the true story of Huo Yuan Jia (1869-1910), the founder of the Jin Wu Sports Federation. Rather than lingering on the gravity-defying acrobatics of the new genre, this film works hard at historical accuracy in hair and dress, and the shows the gradual invasion of Western dress and culture in China at the turn of the century. The title comes from a quote from Lao Tzu, used as the film's tagline: "Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself makes you fearless." That may sound trite and hackneyed after Kung Fu got through with it, but that is, in fact, the theme of the film. Huo Yuan Jia is transformed from a foolish, ambitious, and angry young man into a master of genuine depth, and it really is about him mastering himself. There is no attempt to try to correlate spiritual understanding with fighting prowess, a la The Karate Kid. Just the opposite: as Huo Yahn Jia matures, he learns when not to fight, when to pull back, when to let go of revenge and hate. And if Taoist philosophy is not your bag, be comforted that the film loads up Huo with Christ imagery, including symbolic burial, resurrection, baptism, scourging, and heroic martyrdom.

The plot of the film is not complicated, and at times a little slow. Aside from its big arc and spiritual themes, it has its surprising moments. One scene that stuck with me is when, after his fall from grace, Huo is working in a rice paddy, and he is surprised to see all his fellow workers straighten up at one moment and stand perfectly still. A slight breeze has come up, and all the workers take that moment to allow themselves to be cooled. At first Huo is baffled, and he keeps on working at a frantic pace. Eventually, he too learns to stand still when the moment calls for stillness. Any American movie would feel compelled to comment on that scene; but here is is quietly offered up, as it is. It's those moments of stillness, between the action, that make the film interesting, and give more than just lip-service to notions of respect, understanding, and restraint.


Sunday, April 29, 2007

Jackals and giraffes

Yesterday I started watching a video of Marshall Rosenberg, the developer of Nonviolent Communication, a method for "compassionate" interaction that totally eschews moralistic judgements and seeks to get everyone's needs met without coersion. I had heard it mentioned in various Attachment Parenting circles . . . evidently it's AP-squared, an even more counter-cultural viewpoint on managing conflicts, especially with children. Janet had gone in on a set of training videos with a group of AP leaders, and when I was completely burned out on programming yesterday I decided to watch something totally squishy and psychological.

Rosenberg started talking in his seminar, and I was settling into the usual talking-head seminar mode, and then he said, "Here's a song that says what I mean," and he picked up a guitar and started singing. That totally blew me away. Of course I'm thinking, "Hey, why not sing a song to say what you mean? Perfectly valid media." Still, in our culture only Mister Rogers moves from didactic lecturing to singing a song without missing a beat. The effect was only intensified when Rosenberg put on a wolf handpuppet on one hand and a sheep puppet on the other hand. There he was sitting in a chair, talking about dehumanizing Nazi speech like any other academic, but he's got some freakin' puppets on his hands. He hadn't introduced the puppets yet, but that didn't stop him from making a few casual gestures with a sheep on one hand. It was mildly surreal.

And yet effective. Rosenberg talked about "jackal language," judgemental right/wrong, win/lose modes of talking frame situations as conflicts where none need exist. Then he moved on to "giraffe" language (he has a giraffe puppet, too) that comes from the heart (giraffes have really big hearts, evidently.) It's corny, but it works. Rosenberg offers these labels with a wry grin, and manages to simplify a complex idea without being condescending.

I'm interested in his approach. I'm sure I'll have lots of intellectual nits to pick, but it's clear that he's trying to accomplish something that is emphatically not about analytical judgement.

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