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Saturday, July 12, 2008

Alternatives to Standing Still

A lot of people who look for guidance on self-help and self improvement are secretly fed up with themselves and their lives. Mainly, they feel they aren’t ‘making progress’ and they’ve come to the depressing conclusion that they’re standing still. They feel as though their lives are going nowhere and they that they are stuck. That may be true, but if they think that standing still is a lazy place to be, where they’re expending no effort, and living each day in a way that involves no energy or commitment, they’re fooling themselves.

Try it. Stand upright, away from walls, tables and other support, and see how long you can manage it. If you’re young and healthy you should be able to stay that way for hours. But observe your body. It isn’t immobile, far from it. It fact it’s constantly moving. Every moment that passes your muscles are making small adjustments, keeping you in balance. Some people say the Sixth Sense is actually balance, and they may be right, but it isn’t an instinct, it’s learned behaviour. When babies start standing up, they aren’t discovering how to be upright. They’re learning how to avoid falling over. They do it be developing a sense of where their body is in relation to up and down, right and left, then learning how to move to compensate for the effects of gravity, dragging them in directions they don’t want to go.

It’s the same with riding a bike. Young people who are in the process of learning how to control the machine often wobble around a lot, sometimes falling off. The problem they have at first is that they think they have to somehow keep still and upright, which – they anticipate - will keep the bike on track. Wrong. The bicycle is constantly moving. The trick is to realise which way it’s going and adjust your posture and the position of handlebars and wheels in tiny ways so that you don’t fall off. Same with roller skates, skateboards or surfboards. People on these devices are continually in danger of falling off. The successful ones are the ones who sense in which direction they’re going and learn how to make the necessary adjustments before the ‘fall’ becomes catastrophic. In a very real sense, you aren’t ’staying on’ a surfboard, you’re simply in control of how gravity is making you come off it. Finally, ever thought about driving a car? There’s no benefit in keeping going in a straight line. You have to follow the twists and turns of the road and then make decisions when you come to junctions. Isn’t that a bit like life?

The sad fact is that it’s easy to think that just because something has become a habit, it’s easy and it involves less effort ‘carrying on’ than changing. Like getting up and going to work at the same job every day. If it’s ‘easy’, then why would anyone ever have a problem dragging themselves out of bed on a Monday morning? And why would a new job, or a move to a new town, or a new relationship, be any less easy than the energy you’re putting into overcoming that ‘Monday morning feeling’? I’m constantly amazed how people seem to think that ‘familiar’ and habitual equates to easier. I worked with a woman who was the proud possessor of a top-of-the-range computer but every month when she sent out mailings, she always wrote out the addresses on the envelopes by hand. It was ‘easier’, she said. Every month, same momentous effort. When I introduce a person to some life-changing activity, they often say, ‘I can’t go to your meeting. I go to Bingo on a Thursday/ wash my hair/ watch Seinfeld’. The sad fact is that we like to think that we are irreplaceable and we couldn’t possibly let our Bingo companions down. They would die without us. Really? Move to a new house, stop going and just see how soon they forget you were ever there. Or miss an episode of Seinfeld. Would he miss you?

However the commitment to TV programmes is routine and familiar and many people mistake that for ‘comfortable’. They don’t realise how much effort it takes to make that rendezvous happen. What about the opportunities that you have to cancel? Someone wants to take you out for dinner that night? Hey, a date with a rich man sounds better to me than an hour observing someone who doesn’t even know you exist. Even if he does make good jokes. What about getting stuck in traffic? How many of us pull out all the stops to ensure we arrive in time for the beginning of the TV we’re addicted to. No, but we’re good at ignoring that. We construct an analysis in our heads that comes down hard on the ‘positive’ side when we’re weighing up the pros and cons of missing our favourite TV show. Then we balance the scales a different way when we’re invited to do something else with our time.

What if we were honest and actually faced facts? What if we appreciated that yes, standing up is an effort in itself. When someone invites you to join the gym, or take a jog, or go on a sponsored run, why not think about the small difference there really is between the new effort and what you usually do, instead of exaggerating that gap? What if, when faced with the chance of a new job or a business opportunity, we actually thought hard about how much we hated our current routine, or our fellow workers, or the boss, or the company, or the hours we’re asked to commit? Sure, the new plan sounds like it needs a lot of energy, but think – think about the amount of energy you’re putting into your current life. Think about how much effort you’re putting into ’standing still’. What you do now costs energy too. It may not seem like that, but only because you know that you don’t have to think about it much.

Here’s a challenge. Next Monday morning, write in your diary: ‘I like my life just the way it is’. Then, as the days roll on, write down every time someone mentions an opportunity to change your job/ the fact that the company might be closing down/ the training the boss wants you to go on, and list the excuses, the manipulations, the negotiations you have to do to avoid all that and ’stay as you are’. And that’s just your job. Do the same with family and relationships. Try the same with where you live, your health and hobbies. Your beliefs. Then, at the end of the week add that all up and try to admit: it takes time, energy and commitment to ’stand still’. Would it really be more effort to do things a bit differently – and start moving?