Friday, August 13, 2010

A Dammed Life

As I read Faith's article, Get Out of the Holding Pattern, it occurred to me that, even though we tend to focus on how difficult it is to break patterns and get unstuck, it takes a even greater effort to stay stuck.

In many ways, our lives move like water flowing down a river bed. From time to time, the water collects in natural pools where the river bed is suddenly deeper or wider than what preceded or follows it. However, as water continues to flow into the pool, we rise with it eventually spilling over into the riverbed below. We naturally move on without any effort.

To get stuck requires engineering and major construction, i.e., you gotta build a dam.

Think about it for a minute. What if every time you got stuck it'd be due to your actively taking great measures to maintain your stuckness? What if getting unstuck were not about working hard to do so, but instead, simply about letting go, about stopping construction or maintenance of the dam? What would that look like?

Dead-End Stuck
For example, consider being "stuck" in a dead-end job. From one perspective, you could leave any job in an instant. You could simply close out the cash register or lay down your hammer or log off your computer, and walk out the door. And yet, it would never occur to most of us to do so. If it did, you would immediately dismiss the option as ridiculous, impossible. You can't just leave!

But of course, you can just leave. You just wouldn't leave. Your reasons might be tied to a sense of obligation (to your boss, to your customers, to your peers) or to fear (not finding another job, losing your house, damaging your reputation). You might make your reasons so big that the idea of just walking out the door seems impossible. But it's not. In fact, compared to all the effort you put in each day just to get yourself to work, to maintain some semblance of initiative and enthusiasm, and to recover when you finally get home, walking out the door would be the easiest thing in the world.

But instead, you stay and build dams. Dams of money. Dams of recognition. Dams of obligation.

Other Dams
Sometimes we build dams of expectation that cause us to get stuck in disappointment.
  • You arrive for our long-awaited week in the sun only to see a weather forcaste predicting seven days of rain.

  • You eagerly anticipate your annual review and the big raise you're going to receive only to hear that the company has frozen salary increases.

  • After days preparation, the morning of the big holiday celebration an eight-hour neighborhood power outage completely unravels your plans.
In moments like these, we often go into dam building mode, wringing our hands, should-having ourselves and others, and clinging to what would have been, when instead, we could simply relax and see where the river would take us.

Purposeful Stuckness
Now to be sure, there are often good reasons to stay where you are. Keeping a house is a pretty reasonable motivator for keeping a job. However, when you view yourself as stuck, rather than viewing yourself as actively working a job so you can keep your house, you undermine your ability to creatively view your alternatives and to enjoy what you have. Being stuck in a job draws your attention to all the things you hate about it. Working hard to maintain a home focuses you on ways to make more money with less time so that you can better enjoy your home.

When you focus on things that are wrong, your activities involve minor adjustments that make the terrible things tolerable. When you focus on what you want to achieve, your activities become strategic, big. Of course, this assumes that you're not stuck in your house, in which case, then it's time to figure out why you want the house.

The Sticky Thing
In the end, whatever you're stuck in isn't really what's sticking to you. It's a symptom, not a cause. The stickiness runs deeper. Its source of adhesion is something more fundamental: your self-confidence, your judgments about people who..., your desire for recognition, your desire for control, your sense of justice. These are the raw materials of dam building.

So, next time you feel stuck, draw your attention away from the various unpleasant items floating around you in the pool, dive down below and see what's damming up the river. When you actually identify the composition of the dam, you'll be amazed at how easily it dissolves. All you have to do is let go.

Happy Friday!

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