Finding the Art in Everything

05 July, 2010

G is for Getting Started

Nothing feels more impossible to me, most of the time, than getting started. Some people will start 100 things and never finish them. I much more often finish what I start, but perhaps it’s because I start less.

It doesn’t matter what I’m starting, whether it’s for pleasure or obligation, immediate necessity or prudent preparation. I often just can’t seem to do the things that would greatly improve my quality of life.

I just don’t know where to start. Or how to start.

Annie Dillard describes the dilemma well, especially when it comes to writing: “[One] must be sufficiently excited to rouse himself to the task at hand, and not so excited he cannot sit down to it…[But] how to set yourself spinning? Where is an edge—a dangerous edge—and where is the trail to the edge and the strength to climb it?”

I’m a master at what Madeleine L’Engle describes as “putting off the moment of plunging in”.

But it’s the “plunge” that’s the problem. The whole image of leaping from a high place into an ice-cold pool is horrifying to me. I marvel at people who embrace that trauma for trauma’s sake. No. I much prefer to wade in, taking the next step after I’ve adjusted to the last.

I went to this leadership camp in high school and several of the training challenges were physically demanding. I have always been literally the worst in any group at these, so I’m very shy when presented with them. I look for any way out. The trainer must have sensed that in me, because he insisted I go first. I didn’t fully understand the challenge and I had never seen anything like it before. So he put a safety harness on me (precautionary, I told myself, it is the YMCA after all) and told me to “start climbing that ladder.” It was a set of pegs leading to a platform at the top of a telephone pole. Everyone in the group was watching—all of the student leaders from my high school. Fine. How hard can this be? I didn’t know enough to protest. Another trainer was at the top to give me more instructions. I’m not scared of heights, so the next part didn’t sound so bad. The trainer attached another rope to my harness and told me I was going to “swing” to the next platform on the next telephone pole, and the rope would carry me. How bad can that be? There were ropes everywhere and I seemed to be attached to all of them.

I took a step off the platform with no concept of what came next: A forty- foot plummet. It turns out the ropes securing me were really, really, long. If I had seen anyone do this before me, there is no way in hell I would have made it to the top of the platform. The adrenaline was so powerful, I started bawling. I was never intended to make it to the second tower at all. I was just suspended in the air, swinging back and forth until I slowed enough to be lowered to the ground. (I never decided that was fun in the end, and I never felt accomplished for what I had done. The Y-camp lessons of risk and reward were lost on me there.) Step by step, wading in, I had fallen into the kind of trauma that drives my procrastination.

It’s the threat of trauma or sacrifice that often holds me back—a pathological resistance to discomfort.

But there’s no room for this resistance in the fullness of life.

We must ask: How can our comfort be more important than the task at hand? How can the tiny, temporary comfort be more important than achievement or victory?

This year, I’ve found a few practical things to mitigate my resistance:

1. I do a tiny bit each day. If I want a cleaner house, I have to clean one thing each day—clear one surface, wash one load, do one chore. Otherwise I’ll never do the big weekend clean.

2. I make a methodical approach. If I know I should go running (but even after nine months, I still hate it), I get dressed. I put my shoes on. I fill my water bottle. I find my headphones. I put the leash on George. (which is the point of no return, because once he sees the leash we’re going somewhere, whether I like it or not). I get out the door. I walk, then I pick up the pace, then I figure I can do that for 2 more minutes. Then another two minutes… and so it goes until I’ve finished my workout without realizing it.

3. I start without the conditions being perfect. In theory, I can start writing even if I don’t have the right pen or the right notebook. (This is the hardest for me to do.) Just because I am not cooking for myself with perfectly measured and consciously chosen ingredients, doesn’t mean I can’t make deliberate, healthy food choices. Just because I don’t have time for a shower after a workout, doesn’t mean I can’t do some strength-training to meet my goal of exercising every day.

4. I keep a daily momentum. If I don’t STOP doing something, then I don’t have to worry about starting—or worse, starting over again. (though daily-ness is also a weakness for me)

And if none of this seems to work, I follow Annie Dillard’s example:

“To crank myself up…I drank coffee in titrated doses. It was a tricky business, requiring the finely tuned judgment of an anesthesiologist. There was a tiny range in which coffee was effective. Short of which it was useless, and beyond which, fatal.”

They say “A thing begun is half done,” and I’m sure Dillard is on to something with what fuels her beginning.

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