How often has that question occurred to you? And what did it mean when it did? Occasionally perhaps it appeared as “how long is this going to go on?” A variation could have been “how long do I have to endure this?” Although there are plenty of other meanings that might occur, that’s the one that I intend to focus on but perhaps not in the way you might expect.
For the most part, responses to this query tend to focus on external events. You might find yourself put upon by a particularly boorish companion and, because of the situation, you are forced to endure this person for what seems like an eternity. Or maybe you find yourself waiting for someone and, in the face of rising irritation, start to wonder “how long?” We have all had similar experiences. Maybe it was the time in the dentist’s chair that brought this wonderment to mind. Or perhaps it was the waiting for a phone call or the results of an decision. Every human experience is replete with such happenings.
In the midst of rising frustration we ask ourselves “why is this taking so long” or, perhaps “why is this happening to me”. In a fundamental way, we style ourselves as victims of circumstance. We feel out of control and wish that we were able to resolve this conundrum - this “why”. Our vision of release from such recurring circumstances most often involves the elimination of the need to ask “why”.
But there’s another, quite different, set of circumstances that brings the same conflict with insistent reality - although the reality is virtual. It doesn’t involve what the world does to us but what we do, and continue doing, to ourselves. In the external world these “whys” tend to come and go. Sooner or later events move on, the waiting is over and we move on with our lives. Then the frustrations fade in the memory and, until the next time, we feel free and in control.
The matter of internal conflicts is much more complicated. Since we are the actor which conspires against our own ability to live a fulfilling life free of such frustration as well as our own victim, the tragic dance can go on for years and sometimes even decades. Sometimes it never ceases. We become masters of what is called procrastination.
The thing about procrastination is that it’s self-ratifying. When you procrastinate about something, you generally also procrastinate about ceasing to procrastinate. To paraphrase one of Newton’s laws of motion, procrastination in motion tends to remain procrastination.
Now we all procrastinate. The human tendency towards inertia is one of the characteristics which allows us to exist in an organized world. Procrastination keeps change from overtaking our lives. It provides stability. But that’s the external world. My focus here is the corrosive effects of procrastination in the face of behaviors that are blocking the way forward to the life that should be led.
In my mentoring work, much effort is expended on helping clients understand the incredible costs involved in standing before a decision that needs to be made; unable to make that decision and move forward. What’s at stake is nothing short of your life. Failure means more years or decades of avoidance and loss. Yet over and over again I encounter individuals who have, knowing full well that their lives are not the ones that they should be leading, continued along a path that takes them further and further from that fulfillment.
You would think that the logic behind the need to change would be overwhelming. In an important sense it is. But in another sense it seems not to be compelling. It’s worth probing this dynamic in an effort to understand why you might stand before your destiny and never reach out to open the door that leads to it.
When you were younger you began to develop a vision of yourself. Increasingly, you came to see that vision as an accurate representation of whom you were and who you would become. If somebody should ask you “who are you”, you would respond by describing this vision. After years of development, it became increasingly difficult to maintain that there was an authentic you which not identical to that vision. You sacrificed opportunities, made compromises, pursued goals as they appeared achievable and generally walked the path that was more suited to this avatar you had created than to the authentic human being that was its creator.
In Buddhist thinking, the path to enlightenment begins with the realization that this virtual person which you have created in this virtual world is the primary reason that you are blocked from experiencing the authentic life which you could live. The key idea here is “grasping”. You hold tightly to this avatar because you are convinced that it represents who you are. You see this virtual person as the one stable point in a world of impermanence. In fact, as that authentic person as creator changes over time, the effort required to maintain the illusion that the avatar is reality increases. You can become increasingly distant from your own avatar.
In a world where youth and beauty is celebrated, your avatar might have those characteristics. But, as you age, the distance between the authentic you and that avatar increases. Beyond that, you may actually grow to understand that neither of these attributes are particularly important and, under some circumstances, come to see them as real liabilities.
You might have set out on a path which was strongly suggested by your parents. Perhaps you set out to become a doctor or lawyer. Maybe your parents thought you weren’t that smart or creative so you selected a life which did not require either. But now, you are discovering a creative side and are realizing that you’re smarter than you have given yourself credit for. There are literally hundreds of reasons why you might have chosen the path you’re on. None of the may be good reasons or relate well to the authentic person you are. But, at some point in your life, you start to suspect that you are headed off in the wrong direction.
It doesn’t matter how or why these suspicions begin to grow. It’s an unavoidable aspect of being human that they do. At some point in every person’s life (and at many points in some people’s lives) a crisis begins to build. You become concerned that you are not becoming who you should be. Sooner or later you face the question. “Why am I not living the life I should?” If you are lucky, that question changes into “How can I begin living the life I should be living?” At that point you stand before the door to your authentic future. But it remains closed to you until you reach out and open it. Some decide and, realizing the difficulty of finding a new way, reach out to those who have opened their doors. They begin their journey to their authentic life. Tragically, there are others who never try or actually turn away from the door and inhabit the virtual realm for as long as they are alive. Each of us faces these possibilities. Each of us must decide. So the question remains.
This is the very question before which you might procrastinate. Indeed most people do so for much longer than they would care to admit. The real question now becomes “how long are you going to stand before this door and not make an effort to open it?” How long?
Over the course of my mentoring work, this is the roughest ground to cover. Getting started takes the most energy. Breaking the inertia requires the heaviest lifting. Often it takes weeks and sometimes months just to get the hand to begin to rise towards the doorknob. Those early sessions are the stormiest. There often punctuated by sharp disagreements and strong denials. It took me years to figure out why this is the case but eventually I came to understand that what is triggered is a civil war and that a civil war is the nastiest of all wars.
You see, the early sessions start a battle which is completely internal. If you are going to move forward, you have to depose that virtual reality that has been for years your representation to the world of who you are. And that avatar has no interest in ceasing to exist. You hold onto it as the one solid reality in your world; the one immutable fact of who you are. But it is unreal and you are real. The conflict is unavoidable but, in order to move forward, you must overcome your “self”.
If you are to win this civil war and claimed the authentic life that you were meant to lead, this claim that the virtual is the real must be disposed of. You do that by taking the first step and that first step involves a pivot away from the virtual and towards the real. There remains only that recurring question. How long before you do?
© Dr Earl R Smith II
PJ, Mentoring Client,
Mentoring Client, CEO and Serial Entrepreneur,
Mentoring Client, Deloitte,
CEO of Croix Connect and Host of ABC Radio’s ‘Taking Care of Business’,
Partner, IT & Telecom, Defense Solutions,