I was lying in bed one afternoon trying to nap a bad mood away. It wasn’t working. I flopped from side to side on my pillow, my mind turning and turning over the same problem. I had recently become a full-time self-employed writer and coach. I loved the work, but I had not anticipated the stress I’d feel from having to generate all my income. When I had a regular job, I’d go to that job and get paid and come home and that would be that.
Now, all the money I earned came from the books I sold and the workshops I taught, and the clients I coached. Stories didn’t write themselves, workshops didn’t grow out of the ground, and clients needed to know how to find me. This is why I kept thinking: I need to do more. I need to do more. I need to do more.
Except the longer I thought this, the worse I felt. It was like a little internal whipcrack, from which I was hoping I would be driven to greater productivity. Somewhere in the middle of this misery, I had an idea. I was a coach, after all, and one of the rules I taught my clients was that if thinking something leaves you unhappy or stressed or angry, then you are thinking in opposition to your true desire. I decided to take my own advice. What, I wondered, is the opposite of, “I need to do more.”
I knew the answer, and as ridiculous as it seemed, I went ahead and thought, “I need to do less.” All my stress released.
Was this an invitation to laziness? Not at all. Rather, it was a recognition that the nature of creativity and productivity is collaborative. I have never believed that I write anything entirely by myself. Rather, an idea comes to me and I translate that into a story. And while I was happy to advertise my services and workshops, I ultimately had to trust that the people who were meant to find me would find me.
I popped up out of bed, ready to rejoin life, having set my whip aside for the time being. That whip is a poor motivator, though I have used it off and on throughout my life. It’s an understandable strategy. After all, I never want to suffer. In fact, seen from a certain angle, all the turns and angles in my life’s path appear to have been taken to avoid pain and boredom and despair. Why not create a little discomfort to get me moving in the right direction?
The problem with this approach is it misunderstands pain. Yes, if pain is punishment, avoid it. If, on the other hand, it’s information, I can use it. A stove’s hot burner isn’t punishing my hand if I touch it; rather, it’s providing information about the world and where my hand should or shouldn’t go. So too when I think to myself, “I’m no good,” or, “I’m wasting my time,” or, “This is hopeless.” I have thought these things and more, and each time I have felt the bottom drop out of my interest in living, as surely as my flesh burns when I touch fire.
Seeing pain as information does require taking complete responsibility for my life, accepting that nothing is ever really done to me. I admit this is not so easy. I frequently feel frustrated or overwhelmed by circumstances, an accidental victim of some great, uncaring machinery. I feel I deserve better than whatever I’ve got. That machinery I fear and hate is the expression of an unfriendly world, a world that cares for nothing and no one, where all suffering is random, pointless, and leading nowhere.
But in a friendly world, everything helps me, everything is working with me, even my pain. I’d rather live in a friendly than unfriendly world. In an unfriendly world, I’m running scared all the time, keeping my eyes out and my head down. It’s miserable. This is why I had to decide for myself where I live. So far, I feel I have chosen correctly.
There may come a day where I decide otherwise, but I doubt it. The less I lift that cruel whip of punishment against myself, the less I think to bring it down on others, and in making that choice, the world gets a little friendlier again.