A friend recently confided that her daughter, a high school freshman, had been slogging through her days like Willy Loman. With a mountain of homework and more with each passing day, she questioned the point of it all. She’d be prepared for college in three years but she had nothing within reach to look forward to. Everday life just sucked.
I recalled when my daughter Jane had felt daunted in this way. It had intensified during the year and a half of Covid house arrest. Up until then, the reward of a celebratory senior year had served as motivation. Instead, fun was cancelled until further notice. She then had to put one foot in front of the other in cement boots.
Channeling Tony Robbins, I delivered the only pep talk I had in me:
“Visualize exactly what you want for your future in the clearest possible detail. Imagine yourself doing exactly what you want, where you want, with whoever you want. Feel how amazing it is to be right there.”
In Jane’s case, all she wanted was to end her days as a shut-in and live like a real teenager. She pictured herself at a big fun college, taking in a football game, having a blast with a bunch of new friends.*
I passed the same advice on to my friend, but her daughter’s dilemma lingered in my mind. Her situation was different than my kid’s. The timing was off and, as we all know, timing is everything.
Her dilemma brought back how I felt about having written a book. I finished the draft and thought, it will be published, badda bing badda boom, I’m done. The dream played on the big screen in my mind: author Mary Karr introducing me, looking very bohemian in a black turtleneck, at the cozy bookstore, Three Lives & Company in Soho, a beaming crowd of readers, each with a red-jacketed copy of Scrappyin their hands.
The first draft was completed last August. It is currently in slow-going revisions. The work is emotional and hard, but rewarding and necessary for the story arc. There is no badda bing badda boom about it. My friend’s daughter and I have that in common—no gratification coming anytime soon.
As luck would have it, I happened to catch The Gathering Pod by Martha Beck*, a weekly Instagram/Facebook Live at 4:00 p.m. each Sunday that becomes a podcast. Last week’s topic, How To Keep On Keeping On addressed the difference between what Jane went through and what my friend’s daughter and I are currently experiencing. Jane was months away from realizing her goal, so motivating herself with that visual made sense. Staring down four long years of high school and writing a book required something else.
Martha’s advice went against not just my own instructions but against our entire cultural conditioning. Our whole lives we are prodded to gogogo! Reach for the stars! Martha says no. When the only thing worth living for is in a galaxy far, far away, the present moment looks bleak.
So how do you re-energize with no end in sight? She offers three ideas.
- Build the goal that speaks to you, then put it to the side of your consciousness. It’s hard to keep pace when your one goal is years away. Keep it in the periphery, but focus on what means something to you right now. For me, it’s these Friday Stories—they are a delight to write. It’s like my own personal high five every week. Yes, spend time working towards the far off target, but nourish yourself on the beauty that surrounds you, the art at your fingertips, nature outside your window. Whatever you love, be present with it.
- Leave some gas in the tank. Don’t work until you are depleted. It may sound funny but Martha literally says don’t try too hard. (Can you imagine?) For real though, some of us do go overboard. It reminded me of my daughter’s junior year of high school when she continually suffered from two major illnesses together (strep and mono, etc.). She worked until she had nothing left. It’s not about today’s accomplishments, it’s about every day persistence. Leave yourself some space to be a human.
- Put more reward than punishment in your life. It’s the same as training an animal. When you offer rewards, the animal learns and also loves you. With punishment, it won’t do either. Martha puts rewards in two categories: disconnecting from others and connecting with others. Introverts may gravitate to music, nature, drawing, and solitude to nourish themselves. Extroverts can watch dramas with lots of human emotions, read memoir, or enjoy a call or get together with a friend. However you refuel, do that.
My default is to be pretty stingy with the rewards. I could work all day with a break just for exercise and food. Disconnecting comes easily but connecting with others not so much—it requires a mutually convenient plan. I like to combine as many of the things I enjoy together to make the experience that much richer. My favorite is a long walk/run with a friend out in nature or inspired yoga under a tree with my precious yogis. I have set the intention to do more of what I love. The book will be done when it’s done.
When you find small ways of rewarding yourself and see the beauty in the present moment, no matter how far away your big goal may seem, you get the sense that it’s all going to be okay.
WRITING PROMPT: Do you have more reward than punishment in your life? What do your rewards look like? What are some ways you enjoy disconnecting from others? How do you like to connect with others? Tell me. I’m interested.
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*Ya. Martha Beck will be featured a lot over the next months so please excuse the already overused references. We love what we love!