At the Opening of the Year: On Failure, Success, and Sustainable Change, Part 2
Yesterday, I wrote about my successes, both unqualified and qualified, in 2015.
Objectively speaking, some of my so-called “qualified successes” could also have been called “failures.” I’m okay with that. Though failing is often hard when you’re doing it, it’s rarely the end of the world, and you can usually learn something from it.
I should mention that it’s not always easy to do that — there are few cultural phenomena as spectacularly annoying as the phrase, “Turn that frown upside-down!”
Frankly, sometimes you need to frown for a while. Sometimes you can’t just “turn [it] upside down.” Sometimes you need to feel what you’re feeling, get mad at yourself, or sad or hurt or whatever you feel. Sometimes you need to sit down in the middle of the pathos of human existence and weep, or howl, or scream your fury down the throat of the universe.
After, or sometimes even while you’re still there, you snatch whatever lessons you can from the jaws of defeat and move forward. In the words of Chumbawumba, “[you’ve] got no job, but [you’re] an opera fan.”
Wait, that’s not it. It’s: “[You] get knocked down, but [you] get up again.*”
*Somehow, it seems terribly appropriate that I’m citing a song about being too drunk to walk to the bogs without falling on your face. Egads, what an analogy.
Anyway! Moving right along.
Motivation and sustainable change are among my major research interests — because, while we talk a good game, we really still don’t understand them too well, and they’re enormously important in things like public health and personal growth.
Take, for example, the HIV crisis.
Gay men who were already adults or young adults during the early 1980s responded to the advent of HIV and AIDS with action on both the personal level (altering sexual practices, adopting condom use) and the public-health level (advocating for research and for policy changes; creating campaigns to raise public awareness within the gay community and beyond).
Their efforts were spurred by an emerging crisis — a disease that, at the time, was a death sentence and which killed a lot of people. That kind of thing is one hell of a motivator.
Gay men in my immediate age cohort — early Millenials, old enough that some of our earliest formative memories concern the height of HIV/AIDS awareness efforts (roughly 1986 – 1996), but not yet born during the free-wheeling Disco era that immediately preceded the advent of HIV — maintained a lot of the personal-level practices initiated by the generation that dealt directly with the onset of HIV and AIDS.
We are old enough to remember when AIDS was a death sentence, or at least to be immediately impacted by people who did, even if it didn’t kill anyone we knew. That was a hell of a motivator. We were probably the single most uptight generation of gay men ever. Some of us (myself included) were and, in some cases, still are (hello, again!) positively Victorian about sex**. We sometimes roll our eyes about how Ever Gay Movie Ever Is Always About AIDS, but we can’t deny the impact of growing up in a time when effective treatments for HIV were, at first, very hard to come by.
**A couple of years ago, I would absolutely have argued with you if you’d told me that my tendency towards chastity had anything to do with HIV. That was never the point; it was simply something that spoke to me — or so I thought. Since then, I’ve evolved a kind of awareness of the ways in which the cultural moment into which I was born influenced my thinking. Our florid obsession with sexual purity was at least partly a reaction against the wild excesses of the Disco era; at least partly a reaction to the terror of AIDS. It would be silly to continue to believe that didn’t influence me. Sometimes I am depressingly typical of my generation, in fact. Oh, well. So much for The Totally Original Me.
Younger Millenials, meanwhile, don’t remember when AIDS killed you, and killed you horribly: to them, it’s treatable (albeit with powerful, expensive drugs that you have to take for the rest of your life). Actual florid AIDS is, to them, an aberration at best; more often, a sort of cultural memory, like Achilles, or like Jim Crow is to white people in the northeast.
It’s not surprising, then, that rates of HIV infection have risen among young gay men. Some of the practices the generations before mine implemented to try to reduce HIV infection rates seem less than inspiring (it is wildly politically incorrect for a gay guy to say this, but: condoms, ugh, amirite?), and HIV no longer really seems like such a big deal. It’s something you learn about distantly, clinically, in Health class (“Chlamydia is not a flower!”); no longer something you hear about on NPR as a second-grader in your Dad’s car***.
***This is, in fact, my earliest memory of AIDS. At the elementary school I attended in 2nd and 3rd grade, cafeteria attendants were called “lunch aides.” I remember sitting in Dad’s car and hearing the word “AIDS” on the radio and initially thinking that they were talking about lunch aides on NPR. Since that seemed weird, I started listening; by the end of that segment, I understood that AIDS != lunch aides, but for a while in the middle I was extremely confused.
The motivating factors that drove my peers and guys older than us to make the decisions we did are, in effect, no longer in operation.
It doesn’t matter that HIV can still kill you: that is no longer part of the immediate, lived experience of the vast majority of young gay men in the United States — and I humbly propose that it’s immediate, lived experience that begets long-term change.
Shifting gears (wait, the pun is coming), I think this is why cycling and ballet are such excellent arbiters of lifestyle change (you see what I did there? :V).
When you commit yourself to cycling or to ballet, you’re committing yourself to a constant source of pressure; a constant, powerful lived experience that makes you want to do things in new and different ways.
Often, efforts at lifestyle change are sparked by an immediate moment of discomfort (a word I’m using not to minimize the impact of people’s experiences, but because it encompasses a broad array of sensations) — but we can become inured to discomfort, and change can be frustratingly hard and slow. Positive experiences of actual change happening may take too long to arrive and, frankly, often seem too small in relation to the ridiculous amount of effort the process of change requires****.
****For what it’s worth, I don’t think health-supporting change has to be arduous at all, but that’s A Post For Another Time (like, tomorrow, maybe). Nia Shanks comments very effectively on this in her article about responses to John Cisna, a teacher who made some pretty significant health gains eating only McDonald’s for 6 months.
In short, for a lot of people, going to the gym everyday (or every other day) for the sake of implementing changes in their body can feel kind of pointless. The changes that are happening often begin on an invisible level, and not very many of us go get our triglycerides measured once a week or what have you.
Activities like cycling and ballet, meanwhile, begin as motivations in and of themselves — you want to learn to dance, or you discover that you love the feeling of careening down the road with the wind in your face (or maybe you just don’t want to have to drive everywhere).
You go to class, and you learn things. You get on the bike, and you can ride a little farther each day. These are changes that you can easily observe.
If you also enjoy what you’re doing, they’re the kinds of changes that keep you hooked.
Once you’ve been dancing or riding long enough, you begin to think about your body differently. You begin both to see it as a capable machine and also to think about what you can do to maximize its capabilities.
Outside of survival situations, I am never going to agree with the sentiment that “Food is just fuel.” It’s not. Humans have used food as more than just fuel as far back as we can trace that relationship. To claim that we “should” treat food as fuel and only fuel is like saying we should use our bodies only for practical purposes — no dancing, we can’t have that — or never use wood, stone, or clay to make sculptures.
That said, food is fuel, and most of us who become immersed in cycling or dance find that we gravitate towards thinking about how we’re fueling our bodies. We discover that some foods work better for us than others (they vary from person to person; FWIW, there probably is someone out there who dances best on a sustained diet of doughnuts and black coffee).
If we want to stay mentally sound, we’ll leave ourselves room to enjoy treats, of course — but we start to ask ourselves what kind of fuel makes our bodies run best, and how much we need (as the madness progresses and dance or cycling slowly takes over more and more of our lives, the answer is ultimately “More than we thought.”).
Likewise, we find ourselves motivated to do things like get better-quality sleep (because we are less effective and more prone to injury when we don’t, but also because we’re freaking tired). We begin to clear unnecessary distractions from our schedules. We carve out time because we are driven to dance or to ride. We learn the value of rest and recuperation.
We get up on cold, grey, dismal mornings and ride the bike or go to class because our motivation to do those things is more powerful than our motivation to stay in bed and skip the workout. We haul our butts out of bed and ride or dance because we love it.
That, my friends, is one hell of a motivator — and it’s a motivator that acts constantly, not just from time to time.
When we think, then, about how to drive personal change, we need to focus less on the moment of decision and focus more on the long-term picture: what really keeps the engines turning over?
What really drives people to do things that make them healthier or happier?
Sometimes, as with the HIV crisis, the answer is pain and fear — but only if it’s constant, unremitting, and immediate.
Sometimes — and it could be a lot more often, if we’d learn to harness it — the answer is passion … but that, too, must be constant, unremitting, and immediate.
I used to think I had a passion for sacred music because of how it spoke to my soul.
The truth is, I don’t.
I don’t get up every morning, switch on my organ, and practice hymns. I don’t get up every morning, chug some coffee, and head out to practice with whatever group sings the best classical sacred music in town. I don’t do choir right now because it’s too far away.
In short, I love sacred music, but it isn’t my passion. Even cycling, which I also love, turned out not to be my great passion. My great passion, whether I like it or not, whether it’s entirely practical or not, is ballet.
I do go to ballet class, which is even farther away than any of the good choral groups. I go even when I’m depressed, sleep-deprived, and angry at the world. I would move heaven and earth to go. At home, I stretch, I foam-roller, I do calisthenics, I practice what I can where I can. I cabriole down the corridor of the movie theater (true fact: apparently, nobody wants to stop a grown person from running in the hallway). Unless I’m too sick or nursing a major injury, I dance every day.
It’s not that I’m disciplined.
I’m probably the least “disciplined” person alive (but, you guys, I’m going to say this again and again: discipline is just motivation in disguise; from the outside, as a dancer, I’m sure I look profoundly disciplined).
I’m just driven. I’m crazy; I’m madly in love with an obscure and obtuse artform invented by a bored French king. I can take no credit for this; I have no horn to toot, here. It’s more like being possessed — but it works.
That is passion, and that is what moves us best.
I believe that every last one of us has something, somewhere inside, that moves us that way. It’s finding that passion that’s the hard part — well, that and finding the courage to do it, if it’s something a little unusual.
Those of us whose vocation involves helping people make changes in their lives so they can be healthier or happier should remember that and harness it. We should be trying to help people (many of whom have never had a chance to try the million things about which people can be passionate) find their passions — because those passions, ultimately, are going to be what drives change; what sustains people through a process that can feel arduous.
Passion gives people an abiding reason that is moving and meaningful — and I can think of no reason that we shouldn’t tap that resource in almost every case.
I have some ideas about how to do this. I guess that should be another post. This is quickly turning into a series, like a real blogger might write. EEK! RESPONSIBILITY! RUN AWAAAAAAAAY!