Alex Anderson

It is what it is

Becoming

2015-12-26 Alex AndersonThoughts

read an article from a guy named Mark Manson - a pretty sharp life coach (but a pretty profane dude - watch out if you ever read his stuff). This one in particular was about the Titanic (but you could put just about any massive object in it’s place - it’s all the same principle). Being a large, heavy ship, she was fairly inept at making quick changes to her course, which is the main reason she wasn’t able to avoid the ice berg after seeing it. She only had a single rudder and a couple of propellors to set its course with. She didn’t have port and starboard thrusters like modern maritime vessels do (and even then, it probably wouldn’t have helped her much anyway).

The point of all that, other than to provide a pretty powerful image, was to compare people to ships (we already do the same thing the other way around). And I’ve seen it over and over again in my life and in the lives of others - we just want to stick to the status quo and avoid deviation.

Interestingly enough, that’s not to say that we want to avoid a change of scene. In fact, I knew a guy who couldn’t stand to live in one place for a substantial period of time. Even well into his ‘settle down and raise a family’ years, he would pack the whole clan up and move halfway across the country. And that’s just it - that is the lifestyle he was used to.

Chances are, these behaviors and tendencies started when we were younger - perhaps these things we do are because that’s just what the family always did. But ultimately, these behaviors are simply because of repeated exposure over long periods of time - setting the course of our lives one moment at a time.

This is to be human. We all have this great inner psychological inertia in us… This is because our minds are essentially accumulations of habits. We all have physical habits, like brushing your teeth every day or flossing the cat. But we also have mental habits — biases and stereotypes we regularly fall back upon, worn and weathered explanations for the world’s difficulties, assumptions that get us out of a psychological pickle. You get the point. We rely on these mental habits just as we rely on physical habits — they sort and rearrange the world for us without having to expend any conscious effort.

I wish I had a source for this fact, but alas, I do not. However, at very least as hearsay, the human brain is designed in the most fascinating of ways. As neurons fire and electrical and chemical impulses travel between the synapses, those connections become stronger. That is, the more you think something, the easier it is to think, or rather, the harder it is to un-think. This is why muscle memory works, why you can remember a phone number from 20 years ago (before we had cellphones, so you memorized it of necessity) - because these patterns were embedded into the cerebral cortex over hundreds, if not thousands of firings.

While both of those thought-patterns were probably created on purpose, the patterns which affect us the most are the ones we create day after day, moment after moment, as we go through life living, acting, thinking in certain ways, determined by our lifestyle and life situation. Diverting from that becomes especially challenging simply because the way we’ve always thought and always lived is the path of least resistance for our neural signals.

So, when we do divert our course, wether it be moving out for the first time, a new job, losing your job, getting married, losing a spouse, etc. it takes us a while to adjust to the change, to divert our mental course to a path most conducive to the current life situation.

One example: There is a friend of mine (she’ll forgive me for sharing this story) who recently found new employment. It’s been a little frustrating for her. In her job, she just can’t seem to get over the feeling that she isn’t performing as well and as quickly as she needs to. As she puts it “I’m too slow.”

And I want to say “Of course you are! You’re just getting started!” And after writing this post, I might add “Your brain is still working on putting together the synaptic connections necessary to perform these tasks quickly and efficiently.” And I would finish with “Go easy on yourself. Is anyone else getting on your case? No? Then there’s no problem.”

That’s why it’s great to remember that we probably aren’t all human beings - we’re human becomings - striving to achieve something that we aren’t - yet.

Life transitions, even when good, are always difficult, and they are always slow and gradual. There have been times where I have felt lost, like I was no longer the same person I once was, but also unsure of the person I was becoming. There have been times where I felt conflicted and confused, where I mourned for a past self that I knew I would never see again while anxiously awaiting a future self who seemingly would never come. Old habits, both good and bad, have fallen by the wayside while I’ve picked up both good and bad habits to fill their space. This is my steamship, slowly, mechanically turning itself, veering onto a new horizon, an unfamiliar yet calming trajectory.

A few takeaways:

  • As the article states, you have to be patient. Change of this nature take a lot of time (and oxygen), which there really is no substitute for. But it is possible

  • If our mental thoughts (and emotional responses, for that matter) can create habits, then we need to be especially careful about what we think.

  • On the other hand, bad habits can be broken. Again, this process requires time and effort, but it is doable.

  • Flexibility means being able to adjust your mental habits quickly. I don’t know exactly how this is possible, but I do know people that can fit into any role or situation with little preparation and perform amazingly well.

And this is life. This is part of the bargain. The universe says, “Hey, guess what? You get to exist!” And we say, “Hot Dang! That’s great!” not realizing that existence is, by definition, a merciless and unending foray into the unknown… A good life is not a life without problems. A good life is a life with good problems. And so it’s despite the turbulence of the rocky waves and twisting tides, I can sometimes stare into the heart of my confusion and the crossed strains of joy and sadness, and smile and be grateful that it’s all there.

Cheers!