Saturday, June 8, 2013

Pavlov's Freaking Dogs

I'm a person who often (maybe even "generally") makes choices about my own life that I hope/guess/calculate/infer will best serve the people I love, or (less commonly these days) those I feel responsible to.  And I am ridiculously, crazily, exhaustingly empathetic, with a strong and accurate sense of how others feel, what they "want."  However, if you ask me what I want, I am often unable to reply.  It is, I think, a habit of mind, a way that I make sense of the world and the people and situations I interact with each day. Seek to understand, as "they" say, then to be understood.  It is also a little teeny way to be in control and not be disappointed - if you never want anything, you can never be disappointed not to achieve it.  Tada!

How people make choices is a topic that interests me deeply, both as a person and as a writer.  It has only a little to do with your intelligence.  Smart people make stupid choices all of the time.  And over the last several months, I've been ruminating on the choices that keep us stuck--in jobs, homes, activities, behaviors, relationships, friendships--that don't suit us, that simply do not fulfill any part of who we want to be, the person we are at our core when all the stuff that doesn't matter is stripped away.  Habits of thought and behavior, habitual choices - they are not easy to change.  But I don't believe in "that's just how I am, baby."   The truth is that it's simply a matter of priority.  Things that we make a priority to change, we change.

So, there.  All set.  Just stop making wrong-headed choices.  Done and done!  Of course it isn't so simple, the comfort of the familiar is simply too strong.  It can feel so "right" to make a choice to do something that we know intellectually and in our hearts is self-destructive, or counterproductive.  Physiologically, we're often rewarded for making these wrongheaded choices--humans often feel less anxious when we make a familiar choice, no matter whether it is a good one.  But anxiety is born of so many factors--and sometimes it is born of trying to move toward dwelling in a happier, healthier, safer, cleaner, more aligned with our values but unfamiliar way of living or being.  So we make the choice that rids our bellies of that anxious fluttery feeling.  But sometimes, maybe even often, the choice made to quiet our butterflies is not a healthy one. It is merely familiar.

Right.  Got it.  Can I say that I'm so freaking sick of learning this lesson?  It is so frustrating to watch myself and the people in my life keep tripping over the same mistakes we've always made.  I'm not all that interested in the kind of psychotherapy that "undoes" trauma and the crazy bad decision making that we learned as coping mechanisms when we were children or young adults.  Conversely, I'm pretty invested in the kind that helps me grow, pretty interested in NOT continuing to use the skills I learned at 9 or 19 when the lessons I learned at 23, 29, 39 and uhm, well, 47 are so damned hard-won and valuable.

Which is why I'm annoyed with myself.  I've fallen out of some very good habits that I fought to bring into my life and back into some stupid ones.  I'm eating too much sugar and white flour.  I'm not working out.  I'm not writing enough.  I'm not reading enough, even though I can literally feel my brain calm itself when I'm reading great prose regularly.  I'm working too much and thinking about work when I'm not working.  I'm not holding people accountable to treat me as I should be treated - hell, I've slipped out of the habit of even thinking about and acknowledging to myself what I need/want.  Yep, big deal, I know.  I'm human.  First world problem.  We all fall off the wagon.  I'm busy.  My life has stress in it.  I'm super-cute and deserve my bad habits.  (Ignore the lack of logic in that last one - it's literally the kind of logic we use to self-justify our stupid choices 12-18% of the time.  Your actual percentage and mileage may vary.)

Blah, blah, blahhhhh.  For me, at my age, with my life experiences--it's all crap.  Excuses.  Reasons to keep being where I have said emphatically I.Do.Not.Want.To.Be.  Pavlov's dogs were utilizing the same level of thinking and judgement that I have in some of these choices.  Seriously.

And this week I attended another funeral for another great man who left this planet too early.  It can happen to any of us.  And once more, our mortality is on my mind.  And once again, I'm faced with the fact that this is the only life we'll be given, today and this moment are all is we have for certain.  I'm still the same freaking realistic optimist I've been since age 9.  I will try to be gentle with myself.  I will continue to live in gratitude.  But making excuses for myself and others has to stop--and stay stopped--if I'm to live the live I want to lead.

So, let's do this again.  Let's keep doing it until it sticks.  Let's get back up when we fall down on our great intentions and start once more.  Do not live in fear, but live fully in the knowledge that today, this moment, is the only guarantee that any of us have.  Make good choices, my friends.  Love people wholly.  Know what you need from those around you, and ask for it.  If they fumble or are defensive, try to forgive it and repeat yourself.  When the calm person in your life freaks out over seeming minutiae, ask why it matters so much instead of asking why they are freaking.  Pay it forward every chance you get.  Treat children, the less fortunate and every animal you see with kindness.  Treat the people you love with the courtesy and care and tenderness that you think about showing them "when you are less busy" or that you think must be obvious.  Move more, read more, dance more, smile more, laugh more, eat food that is made of ingredients you can pronounce.  Give 75%, not 50%, in your relationships and don't judge the people you love, don't assign motivation to their behavior.  Be less busy, and more determined to mindfully live each day with care.

Best to all who happen this way.