In Which The Problem of Enthusiasm Returns

December 29, 2009 at 6:23 am | Posted in My Fascinating Mood, Philosophical Problems | 1 Comment

While I’ve been on vacation, I’ve been treating myself badly in the guise of treating myself well. For my entire vacation so far, I’ve slept far more than I need to (sometimes 12 hours a night), written but not blogged, and, for hours at a time, stared out into space and made desultory (though amusing) conversation with my parents.

I have placed all of this under the rubric of Being Nice to Myself. As a result, my shoulders ache from inactivity, a rill of guilt erupts at the thought of this space, I haven’t eaten enough, and I feel groggy much of the time. Certainly a perverse element of my character doesn’t object to feeling this way, but it’s hardly in my best interest.

It can’t help that I flog myself mercilessly when I’m not on vacation. Seven days a week I’m at myself to accomplish more, establish better habits, and stop procrastinating about loathsome tasks. (Side note about procrastination: A couple of weeks ago I made a procrastination list and dutifully plowed through several items. To my dismay I discovered that I’d been putting them off because they were truly horrible. Rather than feel productive and relieved after finishing them, I grinched around angrily, or guiltily, or otherwise brimful of negative emotions. I’m still wrestling with this issue: I procrastinate about certain things for a reason.)

Does this mean that I’m a model of productivity in my domestic and public life? Far from it. One task in particular leaps to mind. I think about it on average six times a day, and yet I’ve heroically resisted doing it for at least nine months, perhaps longer. Clearly self-flagellation isn’t the answer. History and hard-won experience suggest that it seldom is. My accomplishments, which impress me if no one else, have come about because I regularly apply the tricks and shifts that I know work.

Now that I have the opportunity to slack off entirely, instead of being filled with renewed enthusiasm, I find my spirits settling ever lower, like muck in a Florida retention pond. I bitterly resist even the simplest action — making a cup of tea comes to mind — and devote my considerable ingenuity to cobbling up reasons not to start on any of the amusing little tasks that I’ve brought up the mountain. I’m secretly relieved that the snow and ice make hiking impractical. I turn down all offers to drive me down the mountain or into the village. None of my books seems quite right; when I examine them, trying to decide which one to start, my gaze riccochets from volume to volume, and each one evokes its own special reluctance.

Naturally, once I actually start reading I enjoy it so much that I slurp up the chosen book in less than 24 hours. Then, not having learned even this simple lesson, I go back to regarding the remaining half-dozen or so with suspicion. This launches a minor existential crisis, which sounds a bit like this: “Where has all of my enthusiasm gone? Why do even the simplest tasks take so much effort? Why do I procrastinate about things that I’m sure to enjoy? What the hell is wrong with me?” I routinely pose that last question several times a day, much as if it actually had an answer.

This problem is hardly mine alone. I remember as an undergraduate reading a section in Kierkegaard where he mourns his young self, which approached every new task with preternatural eagerness. My 20-year-old self nodded a sad, wise nod. I later re-read this when studying for my qualifying exams, and, of course, felt that the problem had only worsened as I descended into the senesence of my mid-twenties. I know rationally that I was racked by doubt, guilt, and terror during those daily eight-hour bouts of reading, but I still compare myself unfavorably to the machine of industry I was. (No matter that I drove my then-boyfriend utterly mad by stopping every 10 pages to apply a coat of nail polish or a facial mask. Of course, he was the sort of dude who kept a German edition of Hegel’s Encyclopedia in the bathroom, which demonstrates either unholy rectitude or severe gastrointestinal distress.)

So what the hell is wrong with me? Or, rather, what can I do? Well, obviously I need to get my butt in gear if I hope to taste enjoyment before I return to work on January 4. So, let the self-flagellation and trickery begin, along with the attendent resentment and nostalgia for an imagined earlier self. When I discover a better answer, I’ll let you know.

(Note: I had to herd myself to the keyboard to write this entry, and naturally I enjoyed doing so, and am experiencing a pleasurable sense of accomplishment. Hm.)

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  1. You wrote some time ago about forming new good habits by making a commitment to do the thing you want to be a habit for one month in the hopes of it becoming something that is easy to do…or that it actually becomes a habit. I’ve decided to draw every day for at least twenty minutes in the hopes that my drawing will improve and that the frequent drawing will lead to my painting more watercolor paintings of higher quality. I’m letting people know of this commitment so that I’ll have some support in following through with my promise to myself.

    Of course, I thought of lots of other ways I could have improved myself, but this one won out for now.


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