I Don't Want to Do Anything
by Jennifer Paros
You really have to love yourself to get anything done in this world.
~ Lucille Ball
At the start of this school year, my fourteen- year-old son declared his desire to write a book and to use some of our homeschooling class time to work on it each day. So we set to it. But as he sat before the computer, he'd often slump, push his hands through his hair, and claim exhaustion. Then, despite my objections, encouragement, counsel, and insisting, he would close the laptop, having written little or nothing. One day at the start of our time together, he said, "I don't want to do anything."
What stood between him and his desire? It seemed the same nebulous, choking force I had witnessed in my own experience - the stunning thought that life would be easier and less stressful if I simply didn't participate in it. But this is a tired mind's false solution to an anxious mind's problem. The other false solution is to "make ourselves" do things.
When I was my son's age, I thought avoiding discomfort was my best chance at feeling okay. I tried to make myself comfortable by not doing things. Later, I tried the "make myself do it" approach. For a time, I herded my body and mind through the next challenges and whatever I thought I should do. Though there were certainly gains, there was also a lack of joy. It was a marching game that left me enervated.
Though we speak of "making ourselves" do things, the language is inaccurate. There are no separate selves - no "I" at the wheel honking the horn ready to leave, and another "I" refusing to get in the car. Rather, there are two forms of thought, producing two different, conflicting feelings. We don't have to talk ourselves into anything. It's not a wrestling match - no strong-arming, no threats, no shaming necessary. This is a game of recognition of and relationship to our own thinking.
Between my son truly wanting to write and his not writing lay a vast terrain of thought. And these thoughts were not conducive to creative work. We isolated many of them. He didn't want to make any mistakes. The book needed to be "polished." . What if others found fault in it and criticized?
Kindness, I've discovered, is everything in life.
~ Isaac Bashevis Singer
Attempting to make him do anything was clearly out and quitting wasn't going to be in service to his desire. I decided for us to back up from the writing without abandoning it. We went for a walk and looked again at his thinking. Most of his energy and attention was funneling into projection of other people's possible judgments and criticisms. Basically, he was afraid the audience wouldn't clap. And this thought was consuming his energy.
We talked about how he is his own first audience; he will always bear witness to his creation before anyone else. If he is harsh and critical, it's unlikely he'll feel at ease writing. He must be an audience with whom he feels comfortable trusting and sharing his work.
My son is starting to recognize a true desire thought: this writing thing - he wants to know what it is; he wants to experience it. It won't shake off. But the "I don't want to" thought - that comes and goes. It has a different quality; it's reactive. And though compelling when given full attention, reaction thoughts are never as powerful as creative ones. My son can consider who he is at core and what he really wants and allow his attention to go there. Then new thoughts will come and support his desires.
When we leave our attention focused on projections, we can end up fighting imaginary battles with future critics, anticipating an unkind world. We inhabit a mental space in which we have no control and no longer recognize the control we do have in the moment. We feel lost because we are lost in thought and there seems to be greater and greater distance between us and what we want.
These days, my son is writing easier and happier. The "I don't want to do anything" thought was recognized as a mental escape route from anticipated lack of kindness and reception. When we are that kindness, love, and acceptance, escape thoughts seem unnecessary. We don't have to run from where we are because where we are feels safe. Then doing what we truly want is no longer experienced as too hard or a risk, and our desire suddenly seems doable.
Jennifer Paros is a writer, illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House (Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle. Please visit her website at www.jenniferparos.com.