Have you ever noticed that the closer you get to something you really want – attaining a goal, buying a house, embarking on a new relationship, graduating from school – the more afraid, sad, and downright dissatisfied your mind becomes?
What’s up with that?
On the one hand, you can see where you want to be; it’s right there, just at the end of the road. And you’re rubbing your feet together in bed in excitement the way you did when you were a kid on Christmas Eve or before a trip to Disneyland or the day before the public pool opened. But, on that other, sinister (left) hand, your brain is screaming things like “I can’t do this!” and “This sucks; I hate paperwork” and “I’m all alone.”
Yep. That goal, that shiny, haloed, glowing Nirvana is right there in front of you, just steps away, and your brain is turning you around, and forcing you off the road and onto the trail that leads from anxiety to self-loathing and despair. One minute, you’re rejoicing in the warmth of your connections, the intensity of an emotional bond. Seconds later, your brain says “Why did you say that? That was really stupid.” The brain then leaps off of the road you’ve so carefully paved and into the thickets of “They don’t really want you here. No one wants you.” From there, it’s a hop, skip, and a flounder into “You are going to die alone on an iceberg and even the seals won’t want your pathetic corpse.”
It seems deranged that the closer we are to some sort of achievement or happiness, the more likely our brain is to try to snatch that vision away and steer us into the darkness. Certainly every social condition says that this train of thought is nothing short of demented. All of our interactions with others, with our computers, our radios, our televisions tell us that in this mindset, we are completely alone.
And there is nothing like believing you’re the only one so pathetically lost to really fuel that trek through the dark woods.
“Wow, your race is coming up fast. You must really be excited!”
“No, actually, I’m scared shitless, and I can’t remember why I’m doing this anymore.”
“Oh that’s just nerves. You’ve been training so hard. You’re going to do great!”
“Pretty sure I’ll be hauled off by the clean-up wagon as they sweep the streets. If I bother to go. But thanks.”
“I can’t believe you’re graduating already. You must be thrilled to be done!”
“Not really. I think I’ll go back to bed.”
“Aren’t you excited about your new school/job/travel?”
“No. Pretty sure I failed that last final, and not looking forward to sitting in the sun in a hot gown, but thanks.”
“Ohmigod, congratulations! You two are just so great together. I have goosebumps just looking at you!”
“I’m feeling really lonely right now.”
“That’s just because he/she is away tonight. You’ll be so happy tomorrow!”
“There’s a giant hole burrowing into my heart, and he/she is probably going to dump me anyway, but thanks.”
“Congratulations on your new job! How fabulous!”
“I think I should stay where I am.”
“Don’t be silly. This is an amazing opportunity! You can do so much there!”
“I’ll be canned in a week and a half. Plus, I don’t like the hours. But thanks.”
“What a beautiful baby. You must be so thrilled to be a mom.”
“Not really. I’m leaking from places I didn’t even know I could leak, and I haven’t showered in three days or slept in seven.”
“Oh, the first week or two is always hard. You’ll be such a terrific parent!”
“I’m pretty sure I’m going to leave the baby carrier on the car roof, and I’m not certain it’ll be an accident, but thanks.”
I’m going to go out on a vulnerability limb – yes, that’s me sliding along the branch, please put down the saw – and suggest that most people can relate to one or more of the above (purely hypothetical) dialogues. We’ve all been there. And we’ve all been the person with the superfluity of exclamation points as well as the person tacking on the obligatory, “but thanks.”
We haven’t learned comfort with our own darkness. The deranged voice trying to steer us away from our shiny goal isn’t the enemy. If we let it in, maybe even offer it a nice pillow, it will reveal itself to be, if not a friend, at least an ally.
That voice is our devil’s advocate, our fact checker, our bad cop. It exists to make sure that we are, in fact, doing the thing that is right for us, that we have prepared, that we understand the risks of both failure and success. But it has to shout to make itself heard over all of the cheerleaders. So, like anyone with a sore throat who feels that the pom pom girls and drum majors have once again stolen the spotlight, it gets a little testy – and a lot strident. Instead of saying, “Hey, maybe you want to slow this attachment thing down a bit; go for a walk or something,” it says “You suck at relationships; you’re going to trash this anyway, so you should just prepare to die alone.” Rather than pointing out that you might want to make a contingency plan or develop some good self-talk for when you get tired in a race, it says “You haven’t run farther than 20 miles; you’re going to hit that mark and your legs will just stop working. Don’t even bother thinking about 26.2; just prepare to fall over and die at 20.”
I make no secret about the fact that I adore writer/director Joss Whedon. Only the tatters of my sanity and self-respect keep me from approaching crazed, stalker, fan girl status where he is concerned. He gave a graduation speech at Wesleyan University in which he addresses this notion of our inner contradiction and embracing that duality. I’ve embedded it below. Watch it. It’s amazing.
As I’m currently the rope in the tug-o-war between cheerleaders and inner doomsayer, I don’t have spectacular answers for handling this dichotomy. However, I’ve learned one thing. Fighting the voice is useless. It will be heard. You might as well sit back and listen. Say to yourself: “I feel like a failure. I feel sad. I feel alone.” You can hear it. You won’t die. Because, here’s the thing; you do have to listen to the voice, but you don’t have to do anything about it. You can feel like a loser and still go out and train. You can feel sad, and still do the things that make you happy. You can cry into your pillow with loneliness and still form increasingly close connections. The voice doesn’t change who you are, it just helps tell you all of who you are.
If I come up with any other insights on this, I’ll let you know after my marathon in two weeks. If I don’t die at the 20 mile mark, that is.