Nightmare 1: You waste time. A lot of time.
Nightmare 2: You tell yourself it’s okay to make mistakes as long as you learn from them. You make mistakes. You don’t necessarily learn from them.
Nightmare 3: You stay up ridiculously late on Ancestry.com, even though you have not fully recovered from a two-day period of unexpected and unsettling fatigue.
Nightmare 4: Despite #3, you start the day with energy and motivation for some needed house cleaning. But then you spend your time on Ancestry.com and solitaire instead.
Nightmare 5: You have all the time in the world to do things you love—reading novels, walking in the woods, personal writing, family history research—and to catch up on projects you’ve been wanting to get done. You do a bit of those things, but spend a mind-numbing amount of time playing solitaire and perusing Facebook.
Nightmare 6: You have all this time because you quit your job with the goal of learning how to “just be.” Your sense of self depends too much on what you are able to get done, so you set the goal of doing only what you feel like. When a friend says he would flounder without structure in his days, you can only nod and try to explain the seeming paradox: you have deliberately created a situation in which you often feel that you are undermining yourself. Unsurprisingly, your friend is confused by this decision.
In the past five days, I have lived all of these nightmares. I call them that because they’re the opposite of what you expect from responsible, highly effective people, those with oodles of self-discipline and excellent habits that help them get where they want to be in life. Sometime in my 30s or 40s, I finally stopped having the forgot-my-gym-clothes-can’t-find-my-locker-don’t-know-the-combination-lost-my-class-schedule-can’t-find-the-classroom dreams that had followed me since junior high school. These are the new version.
They are also the daily embodiment of this challenge I have set for myself.
To all appearances, I have lived my adult life as one of those responsible, highly effective people. But I’ve never believed it. That’s not who I really am, I thought. It’s the phony me, the one I want to be. I may be fooling a lot of people, but I know that the real me is lazy, self-indulgent, self-defeating.
In my zeal to be that model citizen (… or just look like one), I forgot how to be myself. I forgot, in the words of the Mary Oliver poem that inspired this life experiment, how to “let the soft animal of [my] body love what it loves.”
I forgot because I’m afraid that my soft animal is incompatible with the responsible, highly effective person I want to be. I’m afraid that loving what I love, doing what I feel like doing, will produce unacceptable results. Afraid that I cannot be trusted—cannot trust myself—to be myself. I always strive for an A-plus because I fear that, without constance vigilance, my true self will come back stamped with a big red “Needs Improvement.”
And so, as I struggle with my ineffective habits and decisions in the past days and week, I remind myself over and over: this is the Mary Oliver Challenge. I’m living it. Part of the challenge is that it’s unpredictable. I’m giving up control.
“It’s hard for me to understand,” my friend said, “because I don’t see the arc.”
I remind myself that every day is different. Michadesh b’tuvo b’chol yom tamid ma’aseh breishit, we say in the morning liturgy: every day, God renews creation in goodness. The only thing I can predict with certainty about tomorrow or next month is that they won’t be exactly the same as today.
And I remind myself that, four weeks into this radical, open-ended experiment, I can’t see the arc. I want to believe that, newly freed from obligations, the pendulum of my energy and motivation have swung to one side and will eventually swing back. I want to believe that the lazy, self-indulgent sides of my soft animal are just part of me, not the whole thing. But I can’t be sure. That’s part of the challenge.
Trying to keep myself honest, I keep fighting the impulse to trace a getting-better-all-the-time arc. Can I claim progress because the ups and downs are a little easier to take in stride? Can I claim progress because I’m focusing a little less on the specifics of my mental to-do list, and a little more on the fears that continually generate the list?
I think so. But I can’t be sure. That’s the challenge.