Saturday, June 13, 2009

This Year's Project

I started writing this post more than two weeks ago, so forgive me if it's a bit disjointed.

In summers past I've been able to take on significant personal-improvement projects intended to simplify my life and eliminate internal conflicts. For instance, the switch to vegetarianism was remarkably easy once I was able to take it seriously and focus on it. The unfortunate part of this process is that summer is the only time I have the presence of mind to take on these issues. When school is in session I don't have the mental resources to do more than tread water, in a personal-development sense. Even during times like now, when I'm teaching a smaller course-load, and teaching familiar classes where I have routines, I devote much of my time at home to preparing and grading. Add to that the usual complications of imperfect lives (and our complications this year were significant, if not epic), and it feels like an accomplishment just to not fail every day.

Part of the reason for this instability is just natural to me: I'm interested in everything. I've always had trouble focusing because I stick my nose in every subject, have a comment for every conversation, and generally want to know everything about everything. As a result, I flit from book to article to essay to discussion, each move taking me further away from a productive place in my mind. I sacrifice--without even considering it--my agency as a person in order to indulge my thirst for information.

It's not just input, either. I also have this deep-seated drive to try to make life better--or at the very least, not let efforts to make life worse go unchallenged. Because of this, I'm driven to argue with people even when I know I won't change their minds using reason. Because of this, I'm driven to point out articles on the internet where people advance stupid ideas, or even lies. Because I want to keep things from getting worse I dive into every controversy and throw ideas around and then dive into the next one.

This has to stop.

The end result of all of this snooping and swooping is that I add to the noise but not to the substance. It brings on pangs of self-loathing, which is another distraction I don't need. Who cares what I think about Michael Gerson's editorials? There are people who deal with that nonsense professionally, they're good at it, and they make it their life's work. There's nothing I can say in the ten minutes I consider him that they can't say in the time they devote to his nonsense. Is it really worth my time to post about a twenty-year old debate during which John McCain stood on a box to ameliorate his insecurity about his height? And should I bother ranting about some old lady having interpersonal communications trouble at a Target store eight hundred miles away? No. No, no, and no.

Every one of those things distracts me from the substance of my life. If I commit my attention to that nonsense I have less mindspace for being a good teacher, a good husband, and a good person. Oh, and writing. Even if I eliminate all of these distractions I still have enough going on in my writing life to simulate ADD. Every day I don't write on my novel my brain erodes a bit. I have essays piled up in drafts and more ideas coming every day. One of my screenplays feels about one draft away from being ready for mailing, and I just got an email announcing the opening of Zoetrope's annual screenplay contest. I'm like a dog with eight bones.

A while ago I was paging through the latest issue of Tricycle magazine, and I paused on an article by Gaylon Ferguson entitled "Fruitless Labor." One passage stood out in my quick reading:
In this wider sense, our entire life has been training. The question is: training in what? This question means: training in which direction? If we train ourselves to reach for a snack or pick up the phone to text-message whenever we feel frightened or bored, this is definitely training. The next time we feel uncomfortable we will also tend to reach for some comfort outside of ourselves, eventually establishing a deeply ingrained habit, another brick in the wall of our mental prison. Are we training in how to distract ourselves from inner discomfort or anxiety? Are we training in numbing ourselves in the face of fear, or training in waking up?
The last two sentences woke me up a little. It feels like the distractions I allow myself are, at least to some degree, intentional. When I put down the papers I'm grading to check my email, it's because I don't want to face the rest of the pile of essays. And when I'm dissatisfied with myself for that poor choice, I want to change something, but I'm still reluctant to face the essays, so I check a few blogs instead. After a few dozen rounds of this I'm so aggravated with myself I jump into discussions and start lashing out. And then I'm even angrier at myself and I start to break down.

Again--this needs to stop.

I have to disengage from most everything for a little while in order to get a grip on the foundations of my life. That's going to be my project for this year. I need to get healthier. I don't exercise at all--I move from one chair to another. Yesterday the Wii Fit told me I'm Way Fat. It's right, you know. I've been sick more often in the last year than I have in the past decade, and I know that's because I don't exercise. I'm tired all the time for the same reason. And I haven't been blogging. That bugs me, too. Time to get it together.

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