Only You Can Save Yourself

2012 September 19

You have to save yourself. Not Jesus, not Buddha, not Dr. Oz, not a new job or your next relationship. You can get help – get therapy, get a dietician, get an education – but you’re still the one who has to sign on the dotted line. It’s both liberating and terrifying to contemplate. I can rescue myself and if I don’t, I’ll sink to the bottom of the Atlantic faster than the Titanic.

And it comes down to choice.

There is a difference between choosing not to do something and being genuinely unable to manage it. Is my body physically capable of running a marathon? Yes. Have I chosen to commit the time and effort required to train it to perform this task competently? No.  It’s not that I can’t run one, I just don’t choose to do what it takes to run one. Most of the things we believe we can’t do and we tell ourselves we can’t do fall into this same category. There are very, very few examples of achievements or undertaking that are just impossible for us, end of story. I can’t fly. We can’t cure cancer. You can’t grow three inches taller as an adult.

We always have choices; it’s just that some of the choices are difficult or time-consuming or unpalatable or labor-intensive, so we’d rather pretend they don’t exist. We do a quick mental cost-benefit analysis, decide we’re not willing to spend what is required and deem whatever it is beyond the scope of our abilities to tackle and then we sleep easier at night. Harsh, but true. I genuinely worried that removing that safeguard of being able to say I simply couldn’t manage X from my own thinking would lead to a tidal wave of guilt. If I could do all the things and I wasn’t doing all the things, clearly I was slacking.

That hasn’t happened. Instead, in recent weeks, I’ve started shifting my mindset away from looking a life as a capricious and overwhelming storm and me as a rag doll it tosses around. I’ve been realizing that I’ve been giving away my power and my agency by telling myself a story in which I have no choices and all of my actions are reactive and instinctual rather than deliberate and thoughtful. I have to do X. I wish I had the strength for Y, but I just don’t. Contrast that with I could be doing A, B or C, but for the present, X meets my immediate needs. This doesn’t mean it is a long-term commitment; I can reassess its value whenever I want and/or change course. How much more empowering is it to say, “My immediate needs are shelter, food and student loan payments. My job provides me with the capacity to meet these needs, therefore I choose to commit my time to working at it” than it is to say, “I hate my job, but I can’t find anything else. The economy sucks and I’m just stuck here.”

In both cases, you’re working at a job that is less than ideal, but in the first example, you’re asserting your agency and acknowledging this is a choice you make in order to derive certain benefits and in the second, you’re denying your agency and casting yourself as a victim of circumstances who needs outside intervention to succeed. Guess which version of you sleeps better every Sunday night?

Waiting around for rescue is demoralizing and anxiety-inducing. You feel as if your happiness is at the mercy of the universe’s benevolence and a dose of blind luck and you have no way of predicting when or even if you’ll ever be graced with either. The best you can do is squint at the horizon and hope to see the Coast Guard. And that’s why it’s just as maddening as it is relieving when you snap out of it one day and realize that this whole damn time you’ve been sitting on the pile of boards that you could jury-rig together to make a raft to float yourself off this sad desert island for good. Sure, you might have to use a coconut as an improvised hammer, but you have the carpentry skills to make it work.  We all do. You have to save yourself. No one else will do it for you. Start building.

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