by Jennifer Paros
“Perhaps I am stronger than I think.”
When I was eight years old, I decided I did not like dodge ball. It alarmed me. And truly, it wasn’t just dodge ball—it was, at that time, anything in which a ball was airborne and coming at me. Apparently, having no perception of myself as one who can catch, dodge, or work with an oncoming object, the whole idea made me nervous.
And so I went to my mother and requested that she write me a note asking that I be excused from all gym games that involved balls. Yes, I did that. Looking back I am more than uneasy with having done this, but I was only eight and it was the first solution with which I came up. At that time, avoidance and giving up seemed like the quickest path to relief.
Now, why my mother agreed is another story – but she went ahead and wrote that note. And I went ahead and delivered it to my gym teacher, thinking freedom from fear was just moments away, that my liberation from discomfort was in the bag. He took the note, read it, and told me I could sit off to the side and watch. And that is what I did.
I sat on the sidelines on a plastic chair, droopy and bored during what seemed like the longest gym class of my life. It’s true that Iwas relieved from the anxiety of having a ball coming at me—initially. But soon, I was newly burdened with the perspective that the game didn’t look all that vicious once observed from a distance. The violence and terror of it seemed to have been drained out and I was left uncertain as to why I wasn’t playing, feeling more than a little self-conscious about my new, self-imposed handicap.
So, one discomfort was traded for another. However, the discomfort of giving up was ultimately far more problematic than the discomfort of playing a game involving balls. Because in this case, I was really giving up on myself; and the sting of that choice is always great because it is the denial of an inner pull towards growth. We’re being given an opportunity to get stronger and we’re ignoring it due to fear.
Recently, as a result of uneasily facing another rewrite on my story, I asked myself if I’d like to give up. Because if I’m wrestling with a story I really don’t want to write, giving up on it could simply mean letting go and allowing myself to write something I do want (not covertly giving up on myself). But that wasn’t the case; I did not want to give up on the story. Yet somehow I was still unhappy and my desire for relief from the stress was keeping me from returning to writing.
So I started reflecting on times I have consciously chosen not to give up and what they had in common. And they were each characterized by resolve. But the resolve was not so much about determining to get something done, as it was about letting go of some problematic idea. And from there, with an altered perspective, in each case I found myself naturally freed to focus on and do the thing I wanted, unburdened.
The other night, I was lying in bed worrying, getting increasingly upset. On the brink of some heavy sobbing, I suddenly became quite lucid and perceived what would happen if I persisted in thinking the way I was and realized just how hard it would be on me. And at that moment I chose to do the compassionate thing, the intelligent thing, and not torture myself any more, to not make myself cry.And then I managed to witness what seemed like a remarkable thing: comfort and ease right there for me, waiting all the time. I didn’t have to give up to find relief, I only had to resolve to give up on the thoughts I was thinking that were potentially hurtful to me.
“The worst thing that can happen to you is a thought.”
Whether our worry is centered on oncoming balls or oncoming situations, the investment in painful thoughts is ultimately what we’re trying to avoid, not the experiences themselves. Giving up can seem like relief, but exercising the power to purposefully give up thoughts that are actually the cause of the distress is liberating and has the potential to bring us back to ourselves, put us back in the game, and get us writing once again.
Jennifer Paros is a writer, illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House (Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle.