Sunday, January 8, 2012

If only I had a timeturner

People into anything - yoga, ski jumping, competitive stamp collecting - will meet people from time to time who say something like, "Oh, I've always wanted to do that, but I don't have time." When this happens, I try to politely ignore the comment and move on, because I do believe that if you really wanted to do it, you'd find the time for it.

Now, I'm not going to take that to a ludicrous extreme. You may be undergoing chemotherapy, dealing with a 3-week-old infant, or in the middle of a stakeout. But for the average middle-class adult (i.e., you don't have to work 80 hours a week just to feed your family), there is slippage in your schedule. And if there isn't any this moment (say, during that stakeout), surely in the years up until now there was.

I don't mean you're sitting around twiddling your thumbs. Probably, to do it, you'd have to give up something else. Maybe overtime, maybe your kid's soccer game, maybe watching Family Guy. And you might say, "Seriously, you think I should be a worse parent? It's not worth it." OK, that's a fine decision, but what you're saying is that X rates below other things in your list of priorities. Nothing wrong with that, but it just goes to show that your "I really want to do X" isn't true. You reveal your priorities through your actions.

As an idle passing comment, it really isn't a big deal, though. If hyperbole was a capital offense, we'd all be dead. It's people who go around constantly telling people about how they really, really want to do X someday, but they don't have time now, nor are they working on a plan for how to make it happen in the future, that bother me. I'm sure you know That Guy.

Now, this is where, just as you think I'm being intolerant and superior, that I turn it around and reveal how capable of self-criticism I am. Isn't that an annoying writing technique?* It's like, "Geez, not only is she an impossible, perfectionist critic, she hates herself, too."

But the thing is, I've realized that I've been treating one of my goals in this way. I've been acting as if saying, "I want to do that," will magically git-r-dun. I don't mean, "I should really put 8 instead of 7 hours a week into honing my competitive stamp collecting skills." No, I mean, "Watching season 2 of Burn Notice while thinking, 'Yo, Turducken, you should probably be working on that other thing you haven't touched in two weeks,' is a colossal waste of time and reveals what your priorities are." It means that, apparently, I'd rather go to the grave as someone who watched the entire run of Burn Notice than be a world-class stamp collector.

I know there's plenty of research out there about how the brain and the body undermine the conscious self. This is the season of new year's resolutions, after all. Human beings are terrible at saving money, losing weight, getting in better shape, giving up addictions, or putting in the hours to become a concert-quality cellist. Willpower is pretty crappy. But I'm not a mind-body dualist. What your limbic system or your gonads want is what you want, as much as your conscious intentions are.

There's a quote, and I'm too lazy to Google who said it, that goes something like, "Do you want to be doing x, or do you want to have done x?" Which is basically what I need to ask myself, in about 500 words than I just used to get there.

*Still, it beats doing it in reverse - start out with the self-criticism and move on to saying, "But everybody does it." This just comes across as projection and excuses.