I have instituted a new regime. For the last six weeks, three mornings a week, I have been getting up at 4am in order to write. Like a lunatic. Whether it’s the middle of the night or the very early morning, I am unsure. Either way, it is dark (even in Australian summer), and I am on my own. As long as you don’t count the chirruping cicadas and the occasional flutters of movement from our somnolent cat.
So, how did it come to this?
Last year, I barely wrote a thing and I realised it was contributing to a deep dissatisfaction in me. It also became clear that it was one of the things that was fuelling my anger, irritability and general ‘short-fusedness’. I was scratchy and brittle and spoiling for a fight. Perhaps on the surface there was an appearance of calm. The analogy of the serene water-bird comes to mind – effortless progress above the water, frenzied movement beneath. Except in my case, instead of evolutionarily-perfected webbed feet, I was attempting to blunder through the murky depths with clenched fists and gritted teeth, neither of which are conducive to effective swimming.
So the issue became one of how to unclench those fists, how to un-grit those teeth. My wife, having perceived for some time my restive state, had been asking me what it was I wanted but I had doggedly refused to hear her. I was more interested in focussing on her and her own tribulations and how they were affecting me. I had myself convinced that she held the key to my peace of mind and, fundamentally, to my happiness. Which is a terrible trap for the person who sees themselves ‘locked’, and an unasked-for burden for the ‘key-holder’.
The trap is the child of misapprehension whereby our desire to see something outweighs our inability to see things clearly. We consequently latch onto the only things that are visible and project everything onto them. We then pursue every possible path of justification to validate our position. We commit to that position because it’s the only thing that makes sense. We determine to progress remorselessly until we are vindicated but gradually we realise we aren’t really progressing at all, we are merely walking on the spot and our footfall is eating the earth beneath us. We are in a rut. An illusion of progress remains but really we are no more than a cog in a mechanism of our own making. And being a cog is problematic, because it is a surrendering of agency.
In Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), his hero, the tramp, at one point finds himself inhaled via conveyor belt into a huge construction of interlocking cogs through which he moves first in one direction, then the other, before he is spat out the same way he came in. It is a fantastic trick and a comedic treat to behold but unfortunately in real life it is much harder to get the cogs to go in reverse. Their momentum is propelled by every other cog they come in contact with, so unless you are some sort of metaphysical mechanic who can adjust not only your own cogs, but those of others, you are very much at the mercy of the machine. And the machine is treacherous, it has no desire to serve you. Quite the contrary, you become a servant to its needs. You become Chaplin’s conveyor belt worker, anonymously and methodically playing your part, but never actually getting anywhere.
In that regard we come to resemble someone lost in an M.C. Escher trompe l’oeil picture, endlessly walking up and down staircases that we always think are going to bring us somewhere else. Or perhaps a more modern purgatory would make a better analogy – imagine being stuck in an enormous airport trying to find your boarding gate as you move from one ponderous travelator to another, hoping to one day arrive at the gate that will allow you to actually get a flight out of there. I still favour the metaphor of the cogs, however. Because they have teeth, they feel more visceral, more threatening, and better lend themselves to the idea of being masticated in a labyrinthine psychological and emotional grinder to which we unwittingly gave birth.
So, apart from giving me an opportunity to indulge my addiction to florid analogies, what exactly is the point?
The point is, we don’t help ourselves. We turn ourselves inside out and upside down either looking for or avoiding solutions to the wrong problems. We distract and delude and confuse ourselves, not because we are Machiavellian and masochistic but because we are gloriously, earnestly, incompetent at unlocking ourselves. Because getting perspective on ourselves is one of the hardest things to achieve. We are far too close to ourselves to see who we are which is why the people closest to us become proxy mirrors and it is from them we draw damning conclusions about our status and success. But there is no guarantee that those mirrors are reliable. Which returns us to the ‘key-holder’ problem.
We see what we want to see. We see what we believe to be true. We are very good at locating in other people the key to our emotional or psychological state. Effectively, this is blame, which can also be understood as abdication of culpability. We say, “You are responsible for how I feel”, not “I am responsible for how I feel.” And sometimes we are right. Sometimes, it really is a matter of cause and effect. But what if we break the circuit and entertain the notion that we hold the key to changing the dynamic? It’s a big ask because feelings are messy and distorting, especially negative ones, and they can metastasise in so many ways. It is then, when they are completely dominating the internal landscape, we start pointing the finger. Because if someone else didn’t do this us, we did it to ourselves! And who wants to deal with that? The attribution of our vulnerabilities and frustrations to the actions of others is a natural response because it facilitates avoiding self-examination.
Avoidance is something at which we excel. The cogs and staircases and travelators mentioned above are our metaphorical mechanics of avoidance. In reality, we immerse ourselves in all manner of protective poses. To name a few: work; socialising; ‘projects’; consuming; victimhood; aggression; serenity; wisdom; certitude; beauty; detachment; and an obvious one – addiction. Addictions, or habits, are a classic type of rut. The repetition is an integral part of the coping schema. Successfully identifying your habit is central to locating your own key.
My addiction is doing sport. While I recognise the obvious benefits of my sporting regime, I have also always understood on a deep level that it has symbolised a running away, an endless protecting of myself – an endless endeavouring to be ready for some fight, some reckoning. It symbolises an inability to relax. Running. Karate (fighting, literally). Swimming. Cycling. Momentum, momentum, momentum. What am I trying to escape? What if I just stop? What then?
The thought terrifies me. Stopping would bring the machine crashing down around me. Then where would I be? Standing in the ruins of something that could be rebuilt, I suppose. I didn’t feel ready for such dramatic change. But, embracing the idea of being my own key-holder, I decided I was willing to make some tweaks.
I asked myself what I was willing to lose in order to get something better going. Not in a dread Faustian pact way but in a straightforward, logistical way. What could I put in place to invite better energy, better headspace, back into my life? Routines work for me. They are currently especially relevant as part of my responsibilities as a parent and husband. So, ‘stealing’ several hours a week in the very early morning to write in a peaceful and focused way has become a very obvious solution to what was ailing me. Simple! And so far, so good.
But there is another aspect to this discussion which has been engaging me. And that is motive. Why the relentless need to work things out? Why the relentless need to be active? Why the relentless need to articulate, to express? Why the relentless need to challenge myself? It’s all a bit too much like hard work, surely. Why can’t I be a good boy and just take a doggie biscuit and lie down beside the fire? What would be so terrible about that? Well, the problem for me would be that I would always be looking back wondering what if I hadn’t taken the biscuit. ‘Settling’ is a very loaded word with its implied judgement, but it best describes the feeling that twists me in knots.
I have a cousin who is a very successful businessperson. A few years ago, we were discussing life choices and their impact on happiness and success. He said something that made perfect sense to me which was that singularity of purpose is key to high-level success. Having all your energy focused on one thing, one endeavour, one enterprise, one dream, is going to bring results. Driven by a fear of being poor, his focus from a young age was financial security, something he has comfortably achieved in recent years. Singularity of focus is where I fall down. Because I feel I have multiple purposes and I am driven by the fear of being found wanting.
Wanting can be understood both as desiring something i.e. looking outwards, and lacking something i.e. looking inwards. So, to answer the question implied above of what it is I’m running from, what it is I’m fighting, it is simply myself. I know, it’s Psychology 101. My fear is being caught out by complacency. My fear is a life not lived. My fear is failing myself and those who are most important to me. My fear is to be found wanting as a husband or father. As a friend or brother. As an actor or writer. As a teacher or karateka. As whatever it is I feel I am living in the here and now. I don’t want to look back and have to say I never even tried. I am very aware, not being 18 anymore, that there is a received wisdom that dictates compromise. It dictates a tempering of passion. It dictates an encouraged jadedness and a smug cynicism. It dictates the admission of failure. It dictates a lowering of all expectations. It is a proscribed diminution that is presented as an inevitable ‘truth’ at whose feet we should all lay down our arms.
Well, I reject it.
I reject it with every ounce of my being. It seems to me to be so self-evidently fallacious that to subscribe to it is a form of self-lobotomising. We can all get stuck. I have no problem with that. I do think there is an inevitability to ruts and Gordian knots of delusion. But there is nothing inevitable about remaining there. There is nothing to say change is impossible. There is nothing to say you have to be found wanting. You don’t have to be on some maniacal Nietzschean will-to-power quest. You don’t have to be the triumphant clenched fist bursting out of the herd of plebs. If you can regain a little conviction and a little perspective, you can just quietly go about your business and perhaps you won’t be consumed by the machine.
And so, I drag my ass out of bed at four in the morning. And I write. Because I want to be better.
What are you wanting today? Do you have your hands on the key? Or are the doggie biscuits doing the trick?