I’m of two minds about sharing my intentions for the New Year: does sharing hold me accountable? or suck out the big magic? I’m a Gemini, which pretty much means I’m always confused. (By the way, I am reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. It’s an amazing book, even if you hated Eat, Pray, Love.)
I will say that my list involves a lot of Ws. Write more Words, Walk in the Woods, stop Waiting, dive into the Water. Waste less time.
The last is the kicker. What am I doing that keeps me from doing what I most want to do? And what has stopped me from diving into the water? What messages have I been sending myself about my abilities, or lack of? Maybe it’s just easier to say “no,” and to let the days slide by, than to say “yes.” There is no risk in “no.” Except to die without living. And that’s a pretty big risk, when you think about it.
And the day came when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.
My tarot spread for the new year, using my friend Joanna Powell Colbert’s beautiful Gaian deck, was amazingly close to what I was already thinking I was ready for this year: moving forward, taking risks. Interestingly there were several water cards. I’m still working out what that might mean, but I do want to devise a rain-catching system to water my garden!
Although I did the tarot spread in 2015, I was not very specific in my intentions. And it wasn’t a very good year, in retrospect. Doubts about this life I have chosen; and whether or not I can sustain it; and what I am doing with my life; and if the best of life is gone, long gone. But it taught me something: If I go into a year with no intentions about how I would like it to look, the year will probably end with nothing much I feel good about. This year I’m not leaving my life to chance.
Atul Gawande (Being Mortal) writes of learning, finally, as a doctor to ask terminally ill patients their goals for whatever time they have left, and letting that guide him in helping them decide on treatment, rather than just throwing information about options at them and saying, “pick one.” He shares research that studied the amount of pain people are willing to endure that led to a phenomenon known as the Peak-End rule. It seems to me it holds insight for everyone.
Participants reported their level of pain, over the duration of a procedure, as an average of just two moments—the single worst moment and the very end. People seem to have two different selves—an experiencing self who endures every moment equally, and a remembering self who gives almost all the weight of judgment afterward to these two single points in time. The remembering self seems to stick to the Peak-End rule even when the ending is an anomaly.
It’s true when the experience is mostly pleasurable until a disappointment at the end (think brilliant basketball game, lost in the last minute), and when it’s mostly excruciating except for the last moment (think childbirth). We say, “the game was horrible,” and childbirth was “not so bad.” The experiencing self had hours of pleasure, or pain; but the remembering self recalls no pleasure, or pain, at all. Gawande says,
A memory that neglects duration will not serve our preference for long pleasure and short pains. When our time is limited and we are uncertain about how best to serve our priorities, we are forced to deal with the fact that both the experiencing self and the remembering self matter. We do not want to endure long pain and short pleasure. Yet certain pleasures can make enduring suffering worthwhile. Doctors must learn to ask patients what their goals are and what cost they are willing to endure to reach them.
Over dinner, I sometimes ask my mother what she was grateful for over the course of the day. She has a difficult time answering, always rushing to what disappointed her, which frustrates me. Reading Gawande, I wonder if, when we ask ourselves what we are grateful for, we must also name that which is hard. The peak-end rule will not allow us to ignore it—and can we really live into gratitude (last week’s post) if we don’t acknowledge both the remembering self and the experiencing self? They both live within us.
We are, of course, all going to die, and we know not the moment. Should we wait until we are terminally ill, or old-old, before we ask ourselves what our goals for our life are? what brings us joy? what we are willing to risk to achieve the life we want? At the beginning of this new year, those are the questions I am asking myself. And I will ask Mama what she would most like for her remaining days, and figure out a way to help her achieve it. I hope it isn’t to clean out her closet.
Dearest Fear: Creativity and I are about to go on a road trip together. I understand you will be joining us, as you always do. I acknowledge that you believe you have an important job to do in my life, and that you take your job seriously. Apparently your job is to induce complete panic whenever I’m about to do any thing interesting—and may I say, you are superb at your job. So by all means, keep doing your job, if you feel you must. But I will also be doing my job on this road trip, which is to work hard and stay focused. And Creativity will be doing its job, which is to remain stimulating and inspiring. There’s plenty of room in this vehicle for both of us, so make yourself at home, but understand this: Creativity and I are the only ones who will be making any decisions along the way…and above all else, my dear old familiar friend, you are absolutely forbidden to drive.
—Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic