mostly edited, structured pieces of writing (in the process of migrating from Medium)

what it takes to be sustaining

enduring slowness in exchange for enrichment

Some fruits take a long time to bear, but longsightedness is not something that is encouraged, taught or practiced in today’s age. Everything arrives in an instant, and we’re conditioned to expect that speed in everything we do. We don’t give people time, and we don’t give ourselves time. The result? A world that is on the edge of collapse.

I am only as human as the next person, and I get sucked into this desire for instant gratification like everyone else. I want quick results for everything: my projects, my health, my becoming. In my head I should be the person I imagine myself to be now, disregarding my own personal history, the wounds I have to work to heal, the broken person I am precisely because the system and the culture sped up my growth so much I am like a robot with all the parts seemingly in place but they hardly work well together. It is like buying a cheap computer with great specs but it falls apart whenever it is put under duress.

I kept setting myself up for failure the first few years I experimented with my health. If I tried something to improve my health and it didn’t work after 30 days, I would declare it a failure. I didn’t care about how my body felt. In fact, even as my body gave me signs and signals I wouldn’t be capable of understanding them, because I am only conditioned to know something is wrong when I fall spectacularly apart. Tired? I am just not trying hard enough, I have to push myself further.

The body doesn’t like extremes. If we keep pushing its limits the body will adapt, but it always comes at a cost. Sometimes it takes a long time for the cost to show up, but it is always there, accumulating.

This is a hard lesson for me to learn, and I am still learning it. I am so used to punishing myself, to feel like something is only working if I suffered for it. When it feels easy it is probably not real. I subconsciously apply this mentality to everything in my life, including relationships. I sneer at the easy things and then blame myself when things fail because I keep picking the difficult ones.

When I started cycling I thought it felt like cheating. I didn’t even seriously consider it as an exercise because it just felt so easy. I thought I should go back to running because I thought the hardship was necessary if I want to become stronger.

It is probably true. If I had ran and lifted weights instead of cycling I would probably become stronger, faster. But I didn’t consider my body’s state. Every body has a different stress threshold – how well it can deal with cortisol spikes. This threshold can be improved, but for easily stressed bodies like mine, this improvement has to be gradual or else I am simply driving it into stress again and again.

I learned that because I kept making myself cycle for longer and longer distances in order to “improve”, and I kept falling sick all over again. Same story, different circumstances.

I think to be able to stoke a fire until it is slowly, steadily burning instead of burning out too fast, is a life skill. To resist the urge to fan the fire faster. To know that it would be better for the fire to last in the long run.

A lot of things that are worthwhile doing takes time. Time is a difficult concept to bear these days. We are running out of time. But the irony is that the more we rush, the quicker it is to our collapse. We’re just externalising our symptoms onto the planet, the planet takes everything we cannot bear ourselves.

The other day I wrote about taking the longview on building a knowledge base and also to become a person. This is something I intellectually know and believe in, but it is difficult to practice in reality. A lot of the work in the beginning and the middle is labourious and time-consuming. The pay off seems like so distant in the future it is difficult to believe there is even one.

I guess it is very much like planting trees:

art by @launshae

When we plant seeds and water them it seems like nothing happens for a long time. We have no idea which of those seeds would sprout. When they do and if they survive, it takes years before they become trees, and perhaps not all of them would bear fruit, if any.

If we survive too and wait long enough, these different seeds may become building blocks for different things that enrich and nourish us. They were separate and unrelated at first but if planted right and at the right environment they could become a self-sustaining ecosystem that will repeatedly and abundantly bear outcomes that may surprise our imagination.

But if we keep chopping down the trees or stop nurturing the seedlings before they are ready, we’ll just believe they don’t work. Of course, there is also the discernment to know when to stop when it is truly not working out. I personally believe something that is worthwhile building for the long run is something that drips a little joy even in the labourious process. Some people just enjoy gardening even if it is in the hot sun and it involves a lot of physical labour. Joy is a subtle navigation tool, I think. It is a signal that what we are working for is clicking with us internally, with our internal value system.

I think I was wrong to associate hardship with growth. Growth can be hard, but there is a difference between enduring hardship willingly and simmering in misery. Something that is enlivening and expansive shouldn’t feel narrow and constrictive. Growth can also feel effortless and easy – like many complexities in life, it has multiple dimensions.

I learnt that what works well for me is usually something that is sustaining in the long run. Not just sustainable by itself, but with its existence it sustains me too. Quick results do not matter if they cause regression, slow results are not as gratifying but they tend to endure and accumulate.

Well-built scaffolding, whether it is for a knowledge system, a program, a society, or for ourselves – is probably a lot more expensive in terms of time and resources. But it lasts, and more importantly, it enriches us instead of weighing us down.

The world is severely weighed down at this point in time: like technical debt in software engineering, we are paying scaffolding debt. I think we forget that we ourselves are seeds and trees, that we are the building blocks of our societies. What we’re experiencing now is what we’ve planted before. If we want enduring change, we have to develop the capacity to not only plant seeds, plan and build the scaffolding for the seeds to be nurtured and grow, but also to endure slowness in exchange for enrichment.

Sometimes building is the easy part.

Related posts

To address climate change we have to shift our core psychology: an outline

To save the world we have to save ourselves

0 responses