Emerging from the Fog.

October 12th, 2009


(This is a long post, so if you’re not interested in getting an earful about the state of my mental landscape, by all means feel free to skip it.)

Please, never let me complain. I’m ridiculously fortunate. I have a beautiful, healthy family, both immediate and extended, and we all love each other and get along great. My own health is robust to the point of embarrassing. I live in a neat neighborhood in a great city and do fun work with amazing colleagues for a humane employer who treats us like actual human beings. Add to this super-duper friends, more interests and opportunities than I have time to pursue, good and rapidly improving fitness . . . honestly, it’s crazy.

None of this is to blow the trumpet for myself, because I don’t think I’ve earned any of it beyond, basically, working fairly steadily and not blundering too badly when it comes to things like building personal relationships. I belabor the point just to let you know that life is good and that I’m very, very grateful for that.

And yet . . .

Parts of my working life — very much through my own efforts, or lack of them — have veered far off-kilter. My day job is great, and in fact the beneficial growth of my responsibilities there has been a big factor in throwing off my balance in other areas.

That is, I’ve allowed it to become a big factor. In fact, for most of the past couple of years, I’ve wasted more energy wrestling with a general sense of overwhelm than I would have needed to simply do all the work on my plate in the first place. I’ve been caught up in a vicious cycle: underperformance leads to embarrassment which leads to aversion . . . which leads to further underperformance and so on.

In the interests of my own pride and your valuable time, I’ll spare you the gory details. That said, it may be instructive to point out a few of the things I’ve fallen down on, not for the purpose of self-flagellation, but so you’ll know better whence I’m coming:

  • You will recall that I’m about halfway through a Ph.D. in United States history at my alma mater. That’s exactly where I’ve been for three years now. Mind you, good things happened along the way. For instance, I gave some well-received conference papers and did some enlightening (to me) turns as a teaching assistant in my department. But I haven’t been a T.A. for over a year now, and in fact I haven’t been enrolled for the past two semesters. This wasn’t by design — it “just happened.”
  • Within the past couple of months I handed in a book-length writing project that was due, when initially contracted, . . . TWO years earlier.
  • Meanwhile, a second book-length research project has been hanging fire — and my collaborators for it wondering what the hell was going on with me — for all of this year.
  • Meanwhile-meanwhile, my enormous pile of draftwork for novels, histories, et cetera has remained enormous, and even grown a bit as I tossed new ideas onto the top of it.

It’s not writer’s block. Some of it may (quite seriously) be ADD. But mainly it’s a lack of focus, and in particular a lack of courage in breaking that vicious cycle.

Not everything has been working this way. For example, lately I’ve been bringing a high level of discipline to my gym workouts. There are so many things I like about being on a serious fitness regime: getting bigger and stronger, feeling the rush of endorphins, planning and recording workouts, talking fitness with my friends, et cetera. As for the “pain” part of “no pain, no gain” — it doesn’t really bother me. At least when I avoid injury, the pain of workouts is temporary, physical, and easy to handle.

Maybe the problem with all of my other breakdowns in discipline is that the pain of them hits much closer to the existential bone for me. In a sense, the burn of workouts doesn’t matter to me. I embrace it because I know it’s bringing me closer to my fitness goals, and there’s no emotional reason to avoid it because the pain isn’t associated in my mind with failure.

Contrast this to the pain I feel from falling behind on obligations that I willingly took on. As an extrovert, my relationships with people are highly important to me; I derive a lot of meaning from how I get along with people and what they think of me and my work. (Usually I manage to avoid going overboard with this: if someone’s hypercritical or a naysayer, I spot it a mile away and take steps to ignore them.) Because of this, I’m a natural “pleaser”: I want to get along with people by saying “Yes” to them. “Yes, I will work on your project,” “Yes, I can give you time for that,” “Yes, I am interested in that opportunity.” Add to that the pride I take in writing well, and you can imagine how it burns to know that I’ve written less than my best, or — worse by far — to know that I haven’t written much because of my lack of focus / short attention span / overwhelmingly long to-do list / ADD / whatever-it-is.

Please, don’t pity me in any of this, because that’s not what I’m asking for. Please, also, if you’re one of the folks I’ve inadvertently stiffed along the way because of my shortcomings, (a) accept my sincere apologies, and (b) understand just how much this state of affairs troubles my spirit every single day.

Or, rather, how much is has troubled me. Because I’m putting a stake in the ground today.

If you’ve been reading me for any amount of time, you know what a zealot I’ve been for keeping a clean inbox. (Example 1, Example 2.) To my shame, I admit that as of this moment I have . . . 1,678 unread e-mails in my Gmail inbox, stretching back across all of 2009.

Though I’ve pecked at it from time to time, I’ve mostly been avoiding eye contact with that inbox because I’ve known very well that it must contain polite, exasperated, or angry messages from people who had every right to assume that I would finish work for them much sooner, or at the very least keep them up to date on its progress.

It was my own aversive behavior that allowed my once-pristine inbox turn into the Augean stables, and I’m not looking forward to the labor cleaning them out. But it’s my work to do, and from here forward I resolve to do it without flinching. (If you’ve been waiting to hear from me, please bear with me just a little longer. I won’t get to everything in a day.)

Three big things motivate me in this:

  1. Not everyone will be happy with all of my work. That’s fine. But, at the very least, I would like for the people I work with to be able to respect me for work well done. And considering how highly I esteem the people I’ve put on hold for so long, it turns my stomach to think that I might leave things unresolved with them — especially since all of the projects that have been hanging fire still interest me.
  2. In every area of my life — fitness, finance, relationships, etc. — I’ve been working to operate with clarity and directness. My main purpose in this is to cast off a constant feeling of behindness or lack of fulfillment that has dogged me for years. It’s not that I go around with my head hanging down, but for a long time now I’ve felt a sort of emotional background radiation that has taken some of the savor out of even my most rewarding experiences. Without wanting to elaborate further, I can tell you that it’s no way to live.
  3. My major career goal remains the same: to write books. But if I stay as stuck as I have been, there’s no way I’ll ever be the book writer I want to be. Since I can’t bear the thought of that, I’m changing the way I act, even though I know it will hurt.

Please, friends, don’t worry about me. Honestly, I’m in high spirits as I write this post, and I’m looking forward to sending a link to it to the key people who’ve been waiting beyond the bounds of civil patience to hear from me. Actually, I’m “looking forward” to it in the same way you’d look forward to serious dental work — not for the experience itself, but so that you can achieve the best available repair and then move on in your life without dealing with nagging pain.

You’ll notice that I’ve turned off comments for this post. I think I’ve aired enough of my laundry on this topic without probing it further in public. For that matter, I don’t particularly want to rehash it in private, either, so please don’t feel that you need to console me by asking me if I want to talk it over with you. Writing this post — and then tackling the work — was all the catharsis I needed.

If you would like to say something encouraging — or, for that matter, lob in a well-deserved “It’s about time!” — I’d welcome that. Please feel free to do it via e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, smoke signal, or some other medium. (The telephone? Not so much.)

Thanks — now as ever — for your attention. All being well, I expect this to be the last I say on this topic, so that we can get back to more interesting (and, by all means, less navel-gazing) subjects.


(Photo by David Wallace, used under a BY-NC license.)

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