One question I have been asking myself, as I notice the pain in my upper back slowly beginning to subside: why is it that things have to become a crisis before they get my attention, and what will it take to interrupt this pattern? Most of the time, opportunity does not wait. The situation with my back has illuminated much about how I manage my life.
Feeling ashamed of poor habits does little to motivate change. At best, shame and fear can create a temporary spike in frantic activity. As soon as the immediate threat subsides, activity settles back down to its previous patterns: in the dead center of the comfort zone.
During certain eras of my life, something was different.
In 2001, when I reached my top weight of 285 pounds, something started to gradually shift that year. One thing led to another. I went back to school. I met a few friends with a positive disposition. I started writing, just a little bit. Little bit little, one gradual step at a time, the excess weight started to disappear until I had lost 40 pounds. But, I continued to drink, smoke and eat too much junk food.
In 2007, another shift occurred. During a personal development seminar, I saw the possibility of starting my own business, and it seemed realistic. I saw that all I needed to do was commit myself to moving forward and take the first step. Over the next year, I stopped smoking, lost another 40 pounds, left my full-time job and moved to Raleigh. I started having dates for the first time in years.
Eventually, the high cooled off and old patterns settled back in. Despite having done major surgery on my life, despite having uprooted and planted myself in a new location, despite radically altering every conceivable thing about my environment, I had failed to change some fundamental patterns in my thinking. The impact was not obvious, because I was right in the middle of it. I didn’t realize the damage it was doing when I complained, gossiped and put a negative slant on most conversations. In hindsight, I can see how it repelled friends, potential life partners and business allies.
Over the next few years, I continued the same cycle. I attracted amazing opportunity, only to sabotage it. Life would get really good, for a little while, and then things would fall apart. It repeated so many times that I accepted it as my unalterable reality. It seemed like the seasons. Opportunity comes, opportunity goes. Good friends come, then they leave. Love is beautiful, but it can’t last. That was life, or so I thought.
In the summer of 2013, I hit an emotional rock-bottom so severe that it prompted me to ask for help. With the assistance of a few close friends, I began to uncover some of the habits that I needed to change if I wanted to escape from my self-constructed prison. Over the course of the following year, I began to discover simple tools and tactics that allowed me to begin rebuilding a new foundation. A year later, I thought my work was finally done. Ha!
Sometimes, when patterns run deep beneath the surface, they are so automatic that you do them without thinking about them. Now, I am finally starting to see that my work has not even begun. As Winston Churchill once said, it’s not the end or even the beginning of the end. But, it just might be the end of the beginning.
The problem is complex and the solution is equally complex. But, I believe that it all can be boiled down to a single factor: language. Negativity begets negativity. If you say you can’t, life will not argue with you. The ambitious and high-energy people in your circle might try to help for a while, and then they’ll just leave. They’ll realize that they cannot override your free will, and that change must come from within. Meanwhile, you will attract negative people like iron filings to a magnet, and a downward spiral will ensue that is very hard to break once it has set in. Hard, but possible and necessary.
The tough part: positivity does not quickly beget positivity. Speaking of a desirable outcome often triggers anger, fear or resentment from people who have long since succumbed to the downward pull of negative thinking. When the habit of complaining is well-established, possibility disappears from your view. Goals and dreams appear to be nothing more than fleeting fantasies. Seeing other people succeed, or even try to succeed, produces a reaction of anger. “It’s not fair! I don’t get to have what I want. Why should THEY get to?” Speaking in the positive is the first step toward success. Therefore, if you speak in the positive, you are likely to make people jealous by doing so. In this light, it is understandable to revert back to negative speech. The vicious attack that conscious change can bring (and I mean VICIOUS) is simply too much for many to withstand.
Someone who lives in denial of their own potential will do anything to stop a fellow human from succeeding in their sight. It is too upsetting to watch. A sick person does not want to see the person in the next bed heal and leave them alone in the hospital. The prisoner does not want to see the next inmate go free. This counts double for other people have active dynamics that they share with you on a daily basis, such as water cooler gossip or eating junk food together. I remember when I quit smoking, I felt unwelcome in the outside gazebo. I was no longer part of “the club.” When you disrupt patterns of negativity for yourself, you create a ripple in the pond that affects everyone around you, and many will not be happy about it. It can be like taking candy away from a toddler. The backlash can be so strong that it may escalate to physical violence and even turn deadly. It can also create sudden flashes of anger at bizarre, seemingly random times. It may bring out new sides of people, for better or worse, that you have never seen before.
Shifting from the default “negative,” then, requires caution. One cannot simply go around telling everybody about dreams and ambitions. Some people are not ready to hear it. People’s resistance ranges in severity. Some may push against you, whereas others may be mildly skeptical. Some will offer active encouragement, and some will even step up and offer up resources to help. Sometimes, those most willing and able to help will say nothing and do nothing at first. Highly successful people recognize that trying to help is often unhelpful, even when it is well-meaning. They will simply watch with great interest, sometimes at a distance and often without making it obvious that they are watching at all. For instance, some people “lurk” on social media, reading and digesting posts often while rarely clicking “like,” commenting or sharing.
Negativity brings instant results. It can even deliver a “high” of sorts. Being loud and negative is an easy way to get attention, sympathy and even results. Ever worked for a boss who used threats and intimidation to get things done? Ever been in a relationship with someone who used shame or guilt as a manipulation tool to get their way? These things work, and they work very well. Why do you think so many people refuse to stop doing them? The squeaky wheel gets the grease. But it’s nothing but a cheap substitute for what is available on the less-trodden road. I cannot claim to have taken the high road. For most of my life, I’ve settled for the path of least resistance. But today, it is not too late. Right now, in this moment, I have an opportunity to push a little bit harder, to go a little farther. I have struggled in my own personal inner battle between light and darkness. Little by little, the light grows stronger as darkness recedes. The days and the seasons bring us “good times” and “bad times,” but eventually this pattern gives way to a new phenomenon. Eventually, we learn to embrace darkness and light as one. The shadow adds beauty to the canvas. Pain, sorrow and loss add richness to our experience.
It’s not about willpower. It is a matter of allowing oneself to be pulled upward by mysterious forces we do not understand, trusting what we cannot see. I wish I could explain how, but I don’t have the words. Perhaps, there is no “how” or thing that we need to “do.” Perhaps the first step is recognizing the inevitable truth that we each will become more than we thought we could ever be. An infant in the womb may not understand what is coming next, but it’s coming nonetheless.
Change is coming. You can embrace it, you can resist it or you can ignore it, but it’s coming as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow. My fellow travelers on the road of life, I expect we will soon begin to experience a strange and delightful new reality. May you experience it in a way that brings you joy, meaning and purpose.