I used to make lists of things to do for the day. I’d find them all over the place: crunched into dehydrated balls at the bottom of the dryer, in coat pockets from last season, and at the bottom of my purse with stray hair clips, pennies and the odd sugarless gum wrapper. I’d jot things down on scraps and stuff them down into my pockets and then forget to look at them. Later, if they weren’t annihilated in the laundry, I’d find the lists with shorthand on them standing in for some lighting bolt idea I had at the time, and I’d have no clue what the hell it meant. Little stray pieces of would-be genius littering corners of my life, physical refuse of what could have been and the loss of each idea that might have brought me a nice essay or a great client or a recipe to thrill people with. Detritus of what never was.
And the thing about these lists is that conveniently losing them or forgetting them let me see that I tend to carry bullet points around in my mind, pinballs of things I should be accomplishing or mastering. This luggage brings with it a sensation of dense dread like a Pig Pen cloud following me. I watch people bob and weave around my anxiety as if they’ll get sucked into the fray like a smoothie in a blender.
It is almost always so much worse than whatever the thing is we are dreading. Since here we are in April, let’s take taxes, for example. I can put off doing taxes as well as the next guy. Something about all those rules, all those numbers, all those facts that tell me things about my abilities, or lack, as a new businesswoman. I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to watch the little calculator at the top of Turbo Tax telling me that after all that toil, I still have to send the government MORE MONEY. I don’t want to face the hours of sitting. The resentment of spending time doing taxes while I could be LIVING MY LIFE.
And there’s the rub. Dread is about tricking ourselves into believing that we are not CURRENTLY living our lives. We think that if we put off doing our taxes (or breaking things off with our date, or going out for a run, or quitting smoking, or, or, or…) that we are staving off the discomfort of the bane of this event.
The reality is that putting it off keeps us in the dread itself, torturing us with our own worst fears about the impending unwanted event. It keeps us in the cycle of loathing a fiction of a thing that has NOT EVEN HAPPENED YET. In addition to the experience of that dread, it also does the work of withholding the possibility that the thing we are dreading might, in all actuality, turn out ok. Or might be an experience that we can bear or grow from or laugh at or tolerate. Or it might suck even more than we think it will but at least it only has to suck while it is actually happening rather than the hours of dread leading up to it PLUS its attending real-time suckage.
Dread is a thief. It robs of of our peace in the moment of the life we are actually living to rake us over the coals of a future that may be nothing like what we are living through in our imagination. That’s two problems at once. The present is given over, and the creative power we possess is being used to hurt ourselves.
So. What to do?
Take the object of this dread and break it down. Splinter it. Do your taxes for ten minutes. Set a timer. Maybe the first ten minutes isn’t so bad. Do another ten. Put them away. Now you have 20 minutes of taxes under your belt with the added victory bonus of having spent 20 minutes of doing your taxes and not having anything be uncomfortable yet. You are now armed with a triumph going into day two. And since taxes, in this example, are something we’ll do again and again (if you believe in that kind of thing, but feel free to substitute a dread you relate to) we are also rewriting the story of how they actually feel. Turns out, the first 20 minutes feel fine. Maybe the first hour does. Maybe then it gets horrible and it feels clearly worth it to hire someone to do it next time or to start 4 days earlier or WHATEVER.
This experience of eradicating dread isn’t about curing our lives of discomfort, but it is about alleviating pain and struggle we create for ourselves around fictions that we create to haunt ourselves. The world is going to serve up plenty of real struggle for us. We don’t have to help it. And so when the real discomfort comes, we can show up for it in our lives and experience it as an honest and actual kind of difficulty. And the other thing is, we might just be wrong. I spent my whole adult life dreading the eventual truth that I would have to live in a body I wasn’t that psyched about.
Turns out, I was wrong and I now have the great pleasure of making amends to my body each and every day for the rest of my life. Even on days like today when it really didn’t do what I wanted it to. Maybe especially on days like today.
It’s like Mr. Whitman says,
“There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now;
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.”
So be here now and not with dread.
And good luck on your taxes, everyone.