A few weeks ago, as California entered its third week of social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I took stock of my routine and my behaviors. I asked myself (and any readers here on Medium), “Is this who I really am?” I detailed my behavior from the previous week and set some goals for the coming one.
In the weeks since, I’ve revisited that post again and again, to compare my actual behaviors against my goals. It’s made me think about the nature of aspirations, and the despair that can come when your reality doesn’t match.
In the first week after publishing that post, I fell short on every goal except one: I meditated every day that week. That addition to my daily routine feels genuinely life-changing — no matter what else happens in my day, the 12–15 minutes I spend in savasana is glorious and regenerative. But I let the others slip.
Work was stressful that week and my sleep was poor. Sleep is the most important thing to me; everything else in my life is affected by the quality of my sleep. That was especially true that week, as I failed to wake up in time to exercise or to prepare mentally for work. I then had to throw myself into work without completing my personal mise-en-place, and I failed to take care of my body throughout the day.
I eventually found a way to accept all of this, but it took some time. (In fact, my initial title for this essay was “When Do Aspirations Become Futile?” It was a much more negative essay than the one I’m finally writing.) I had set four goals, but maybe it was unrealistic to expect to achieve four things immediately.
Maybe self-improvement needs to be iterative. Maybe change needs to come a little at a time. My aspirations are grand, expansive, and I tend to want all of the things all at once. But maybe I should be okay with making one small change at a time.
Easier said than done, but it can be done.
In therapy this past week, my counselor tried to help me frame the discord I often experience when my aspirations and my reality don’t align. She framed these as two distinct modes, and suggested the challenge is identifying how I’m able to get myself out of despair mode and back into the aspirational one. If I can figure that out, I can begin to reconcile the two.
I’d like to take that one step further and call them separate selves. The challenge, then, becomes reconciling my aspirational self with the despairing one. Not suppressing my despair entirely, but recognizing it, acknowledging it, even being grateful for it.
The aspirational self is positive by definition. It posits that the future holds better things. It sees me as a successful novelist, my life full of early mornings, strong writing, good music, and long runs. I spend afternoons reading with my cat — reading being an important side project for the novelist, and also one of my great passions — and work with runners who have their own, athletic aspirations. Perhaps I have a partner. Certainly I have friends. I am self-assured, loving and kind; I go to dinner parties that feel like Big Night.
The despairing self is as negative as the aspirational one is positive. It is reactive, oppositional. It sees my aspirational self and says, “That’s dumb.” What’s worse is that the despairing self is sneaky: What I perceive in my despair is framed as reality, the only reality. There is no alternative, there is no way out. Instead of any of the above, I’m a corporate drone, with long hours and tedious work that saps the brain and forces me to choose which of my many dreams to spend my minimal free time on. (Or instead, to relax — a necessary activity that I’m genuinely bad at.) I sleep poorly and I struggle to wake up, and not only will I never get the routine that I want, but my poor sleep will inevitably lead to cognitive decline, to dementia. Not only has my life so far been wasted, but the remainder will be, too. I am alone and I am lonely.
This is just an extreme version of the regular tension between expectations and reality, between the ideal state and the present one, that many people experience. The effects of this tension can be stressful. I see it as linked, inextricably, with my mental health.
Resolving that tension is paramount.
In the weeks since writing that post, I’ve gotten close to achieving the other goals I laid out. The accruing successes began of course with the daily meditation, and continued onto the pages of my journal, which I now write in almost daily. (Exactly as I had planned to do.) I do that in the morning now, and use it as a time to set my goals for the day, particularly around taking care of my body. That helps me achieve another goal, the one related to exercise.
The only one I’ve fallen short of is the goal of spending my time researching my passion, running. Instead of doing any coach’s education courses, I’ve dived headlong into a novel, a book-length idea I’ve had rattling around my head for six months. I wish I had more time to learn about running and how to coach runners, but I feel good about how I’m spending my free time instead. While I’m not following through on that goal exactly, I’ve accepted how it evolved into something that brings me joy and purpose.
Joy and purpose: That’s what the aspirational self provides. The despairing self inhibits these; it brings only despair. But because it is rooted in the present — it is a reflection of now — it has value. For me, viewing my aspirations as things that can be achieved iteratively, rather than wishing for them all at once, is helping me view the present as something that I can build upon. Instead of lamenting it and despairing about it, I hope to continue to set smaller goals of self-improvement, so that I can watch myself grow into someone more closely aligned with my values and my grander aspirations.
I’m very early into this work, but I see this as a path toward reconciling the two selves. It’s a way to reduce that tension, and by reducing that tension, to lessen the despair that comes with looking at life’s present state.