“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.” – Lao Tzu
The human experience is vast and complex, with such a broad spectrum that it is hard to comprehend. Siblings, for instance, can live in the same house as kids and have the same parents and go to the same school and work in the same industry as adults and still have vastly different perspectives and recollections of those things. Some folks do indeed have an easier ride in this life than others, there’s no denying it. The degree of ease or difficulty with which you face life from the beginning colors your perspective in ways so deep it is sometimes impossible for others to understand, even if they are open to hearing your perspective, even if they witness it. Sometimes, our own experiences limit our ability to comprehend the experiences of others. As awesome as the human mind and body are, they are also self-limiting.
Because of this, I have learned that I must save myself when I need saving. There may be others who can understand, or who will help without needing to understand. But there are no guarantees that we won’t find ourselves alone, facing an uphill battle. In the end, we must decide if we are willing to fight, and we must fight alone. Even if we have the support of others, the fight is still ours. Other people can give us some tools or cheer us on, but nothing gets done that we don’t do ourselves.
Many metaphors for this exist, many movies have been made and books written with the theme of finding your way through life. Tragedy of some sort is usually the catalyst; an injury, a death, a loss, a crime committed against the protagonist. The movie “The Karate Kid” pops to mind immediately, with its focus on finding a way out of circumstances beyond one’s control through practice and discipline. More recently, I acquired a book by Jocko Willink, an ex-Navy SEAL and podcast host, entitled “Discipline Equals Freedom,” which is a 21st Century spin on this very approach, replete with the oh-so-familiar-to-this-vet encouragement to push, to help others on your path, to keep your eye on the goal. These and countless other books and movies encourage us to dig deep, to find a reason to go on within ourselves, and to do the best possible job at living as we can. But how do you do that when you feel defeated, when life has thrown you a curve ball, when you feel like you can’t go on?
You start small. One foot in front of the other. My back-to-basics strategy includes feeding myself, something that Jocko encourages folks to do in that new book by giving us a blueprint for what to eat and why. I may not agree with everything he advises because, of course, we all have individual circumstances that are relevant to our eating choices, especially medical conditions. He acknowledges as much. But his overall philosophy of eating a wide variety of clean, fresh, unprocessed food that you prepare for yourself is totally in keeping with my personal strategy. Beyond the fact that doing this will provide quality fuel for the machine that is your body and inevitably improve your overall health, my reasons for feeding myself in this way run much deeper.
My perspective is always improved by feeding myself something nutritious that I have taken the time to prepare. It isn’t even the idea of it being a gesture of self-love, although it certainly is. It’s much more basic than that. The act of doing something, of moving with purpose if only for a few minutes, releases endorphins, those good brain chemicals. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I’m in a place where exercise or having sex – other endorphin-releasing activities – are not options. I mean, sometimes getting out of bed is a problem when I’ve been through a rough patch.
So I start simple with just making myself something to eat, something that is whole, unprocessed food, like rice and vegetables. When I am in the bed, even microwaving some rice sounds like too much. But if, after a trip to the bathroom, I can divert myself to the kitchen and just put some water and rice in the rice cooker, I am more than halfway there. If all you have is frozen or canned veggies, fine. It’s a start. Toss them into the pan or rice cooker with the rice and water and your one-pot meal is almost ready. Salt and pepper liberally and you’ve done it – you’ve fed yourself.
Why is this important again? What’s the point? The point is that you have done something, you have taken a step. It’s not “wax-on-wax-off” for 6 months, but it could be. Maybe tomorrow you wash some lettuce to add to your rice bowl. When you take the leaves of Romaine or Red Lettuce or Iceberg – whatever you have – and you pull them from the head one at a time, and you run them under water to remove any soil, and you pat them dry with a clean kitchen towel or paper towels, and you chop or tear the leaves into bites, it is cathartic. It is hard as fuck to get started, to divert yourself from going back to bed, to open the door of the fridge and make a selection. But if you can just start moving, one step at a time, something magical happens. Our bodies take over. They know what to do. They seem only to need an invitation from our minds to get started. That’s all we have to do is start.
For me, I know that movement and good food are my baseline. If I am having an off day, or an off month, or – and I’ve been there – an off year, I have to start moving. I have to divert myself to the kitchen and I have to feed myself something nutritious. Then, with a full belly of something good and good for me, I can take another first step. Maybe not that day, maybe the next. This is how I slowly get myself living again. After that, I try to go outside, because the real magic happens in the light and air. My body loves the light and air and it always feels better with exposure to it, even when my mood has not yet improved. Even when I don’t want to, I will respond to the light and air. I will feel better.
It is discipline, as Jocko says. But it is not anyone else’s idea of what discipline looks like. I write the rules, and I can change them anytime I want or need. The one thing I can’t do, though, is stop moving. I can stop for a day or two, but when I allow myself to say stuck in place with no movement and no light and no air, I am choosing to live in hell. I have heard it said that there is no hell because hell is what we experience here on earth. I don’t know about any of that, as I am not a believer in heaven and hell. But if you are, or you think you might be, or you just need a mantra to drown out the negative recordings playing in your head, listen to these words from Winston Churchill that adorn my fridge because they fit with my experiences and offer me daily encouragement:
If you are going through hell, keep going.