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Sunday, November 1, 2015

What Do You Want? (or) Willpower: Pump It, Aim It, Squeeze It!

What Do You Want?

Willpower: Pump It, Aim It, Squeeze It!

One of my great realizations in life has been that it is important to know what you want.

I spent a lot of my early years adrift, taking things as they came, clueless to my own desires.

Oh, occasionally I would give my life a nudge in a direction which seemed desirable…

But for the most part, I just took the cards I was dealt and let them fall as they may.

There are some good things about such… feckless… living; it is pretty carefree and low stress.

But as I have matured, it has become increasingly clear to me that it is important to take a more active role in shaping one’s affairs. I realize that this must be obvious to many, but for me it is something of a hard-won life-lesson. It is, essentially, a value. I have come to value more determined living.

When I say determined, I mean deliberate: deliberate use of resources and faculties toward a desired outcome. Now that’s a dry sentence. Albeit concise. Funny, how as terminology tightens up around an idea, the textbook effect kicks in and the writing begins to gloss over.

A splash of water is called for here, I feel.

Consider, if you will, water as a metaphor. Left to its own devices, water will find the lowest level, will eddy and settle and stagnate. But give it a push, or point it down a steep trough, or – even better – compress it, and water becomes a very powerful force indeed.

So it is with the exercise of the will in the course of one’s affairs. Will is what I want to talk about, ultimately. Willpower.

Untended, like water, one’s affairs will stray to the low places, slow, and tend toward dissipation, dissolution; motion and change will cease. But with the exercise of the will, this stagnation is counteracted. There is a reason we call it willpower. It is powerful!

Sometimes of course, will kicks in pretty much automatically. When we grow hungry, the will to eat kicks right in. Yet sometimes getting will working in us can be a chore. Especially when we become complacent. The value - the necessity, even – of overcoming complacency and general lack of willpower is my theme here. Got to get that water, that willpower, working. Pump it, aim it, squeeze it!

As I’ve said, this is likely mere affirmation of the obvious for most. But this type of thinking does not come naturally to me, personally. And there are good reasons for that.

I grew up with the understanding that I have always had many advantages, privileges and luxuries which others have to make do without. These advantages stem mainly from facts beyond my control, such as where I happened to be born, how I happen to look… having had a relatively intact, competent, supportive family in which resources were available for my education… this sort of thing.

Increasing awareness of these advantages worked on me in an interesting way as I developed. I felt, from the first, that the proper attitude for me was one of mindfulness of my good fortune and gratefulness for my lot in life. “What have I to complain about?” I always thought. Who am I to be desirous of better or more, when I have so much already, so much that has been simply handed to me? Who am I to want?

I’m sure you can see how the sentiment behind these questions works against the exercise of the will, against the application of willpower… how thoughts like these work instead towards complacency.

My complacency has long been augmented by the fact that things have come pretty easily for me. The hurdles I have encountered in school, in the workplaces where I have found myself, these hurdles have not been much of a stretch for me, so to speak.

Ease of accomplishment in school and on the job, awareness of advantages like being able easily to pick up and hold a job… these factors naturally fostered what I believe to be an innate temperament and sensibility, my being a generally mellow, easily-satisfied kind of guy, not very competitive or materialistic, content with a fairly basic, low-frill lifestyle and set of circumstances.

I do not deceive myself that this effect is unique to me or unusual. To the contrary, what I’m describing is essentially being in the majority. In the thick of the twenty-first century American herd.

What may set me apart to some extent from the mainstream is a certain oversensitivity or hyperawareness. Of advantage. A dear and very intelligent and perceptive friend of mine has accused me of being crippled by this. “You are crippled by white guilt!” she has yelled at me in dismay. “You are ashamed of who you are! Even though you did not choose it!” My friend yells at me a great deal.

Yes, lurking between these lines are some loaded, volatile terms like ‘first-world’ and ‘class privilege’, ‘white privilege’ and ‘white guilt’ – quite popular terms, really, which wake you right up, but I don’t feel we need these sensationalist terms. I feel that, like curses, they tend to function against… specificity.

Suffice it to say that I do not consider myself to be crippled by guilt. I am not ashamed of who I am. If I am somewhat hyper-attuned, a bit over-aware of the advantages I have always enjoyed, well… poor me! Right? I tend to think of it more as mere awareness… consciousness… of myself relative to others, and of my place in the grander scheme of things. I think of it as knowing myself better, painful though self-knowledge can sometimes be. There are plentiful and various worse forms of pain.

The painful truth is that what emerges from the admixture of nature and nurture I have been describing here is your classic underachiever – an individual with very little drive or motivation to apply the will.

A slacker. A coaster. You know the type. Maybe you are the type, to whatever extent. Wouldn’t surprise me a bit. Plenty of us in the herd, and I believe that cuts right through all those dotted lines on the map, those contended borders of nation, class and race, gender, etc. There are complacent underachievers everywhere. Are you pretty much content with what you’ve got? Whatever that is? Do you suspect that it is a bit ridiculous to want… more? Or a bit futile, perhaps?

I’m back where I began. Back at the essential values, the essential received truths, which I am still learning: It’s important to want. And to know what you want.

Divining what you want in life is of course an early step on the way to getting it, and it could go without saying that getting what you want is usually pretty great. I say an early step rather than the first step because I suspect that the first step for a lot of us is giving ourselves permission to want.

Yeah, getting what you want. Pretty great. But I’m not here to deliver a how-to on getting what you want. My point is more just that wanting in and of itself is important. And figuring out what you want. And taking deliberate steps towards it. Whether you’ll ever get there or not. This is how we combat stagnation. This is motion. This is change. And change, well… change is as good as a rest. Change is good.

I’m gratified to report that I’ve come a long way with wanting. I know that it’s okay to want, for starters. I’ve found a few things to want, as well. Take writing, for example. (Because everybody likes writing about writing, right?) Writing is a bit like hunger, I think. At least sometimes. It comes on like a compulsion, like a biological imperative, and it has built-in desires: the desire to express effectively what one is trying to say, the desire to say something (anything!) in the first place, and of course the desire to be read – to complete the transmission – to know that what one has said has been heard and (in a perfect world) understood, the desire to have an impact on someone (anyone!) and on the world.

I have been writing lately, and I have been taking steps toward fulfilling some writerly desires.

I hope you have, too.

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