Friday, February 26, 2016

The Challenge of the Shoulds*

An active mind and time alone are not a good combination for me.  Ironic, considering how much of my time I spend alone, writing from home during the day (or not) and alone in the evenings as often as not with my husband’s travel schedule.

I have known for a long time that going for stretches without social interaction does something to me. It pushes me somehow in ways that are uncomfortable.  And while I know that this discomfort is a sign of something I need to examine more closely, my methods of examination push me in to a darker place from time to time.  

I am very good at telling myself what I Should Be Doing.  Years of being directed by my parents, a Marine Corps father and a mother who was desperate to be in control of her own destiny, to go here and do this and prioritize that taught me that inactivity was to be avoided.  It also taught me that service to others and their priorities was of paramount importance.  So I often find myself struggling to prioritize tasks in such a way that it becomes eminently clear which things deserve doing first, second, and on down the line.  Struggling because there is no way to do that. There is no universally accepted rubric that says this book review is more important than that load of laundry or taking the dog for a walk as he whines and follows me from room to room.  

I tend to give precedence to those things that serve others - laundry, cooking, shopping for household necessities, straightening up - and push off others that seem more nebulous.  I have, over the years, figured out that the dog only really needs to be walked every other day (please don't tell Cesar Milan), that if I make it to yoga or the gym twice a week I am really doing well, and that I can crank out a good book review in an hour.  

I know that the best thing I can do is banish "Shoulds" from my vocabulary.  And I've come a long way in that regard.  But I became aware today that I do it in so many other ways, I'm not sure I've really come as far as I thought.  Every time I catch that inner voice berating myself for wanting to do something more than another thing that is probably more productive or helpful, I am "shoulding" myself.  If I have the urge to lie down on the couch and take a cozy nap with the cat instead of folding that load of laundry or going to get Bubba's contact lens solution, the nap is vetoed even before it was fully realized as an option in my mind.  If, instead of reorganizing that closet of Lola's that disgorges random items every time you open the door, I would rather sit down and read for an hour (who wouldn't?), I hear this sweet, condescending voice in my head that says, "You can read on your own time, dear. That closet isn't getting any cleaner while you sit there, and you'll feel guilty the whole time you're on the couch, so you won't focus on the story, anyway."  

I have even become so sophisticated at this little game that the notion of spending an entire day rewriting a chapter of the book I'm currently working on becomes physically repugnant.  Not because I don't want to write, but because I have so thoroughly convinced myself that my writing serves nobody but myself (at least until I sell something), that every word I type is a piece of laundry left unfolded or six steps fewer with the dog this afternoon.  I have associated things that give me joy with guilt and feelings of laziness in an effort to convince myself to be more productive in the service of others.  

The truth is, I spend more time performing mental calculations in an effort to decide how to structure my day than I do actually performing the acts themselves.  It is as though I envision some stern judge and jury I will face at the end of the day as I justify the things I decided to spend time on.  And for what? There is no gold star that goes on my permanent record.  There is no jail time for dishes left undone.  From time to time there is an extremely hyper retriever in my face if I neglected to walk him, and almost always there is remorse that I didn't write more (or at all) today.

So the question remains, what am I avoiding by continuing to deny myself the freedom to choose things that please me each and every day?  What would happen if, for some portion of every day I sat down and did something that speaks to my soul? Something whose only purpose is to make me happy?  As I write this and envision myself doing it, the grounded, heavy feeling in my core is enough to convince me that I've been looking at this the wrong way.  The simple act of imagining that I have given myself permission to indulge my desires regardless of what anyone else may think warms me from the inside out.  Calms me. Settles me.  

That is not to say that the notion of implementing it doesn't frighten me a bit.  It is counter to everything I was taught and every example set for me by adults in my life.  But if I close the door on that chatter and sit in the space and stillness of the other imagining it feels possible.  

*This essay is one of several that originally appeared in BuddhaChick Life Magazine. As the magazine is no longer available, I have reposted it here so that readers can find it. 

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