Why we still fail and fail and fail. And what to do about it
As my friend JC likes to point out, and he’s right, my judgement about men sucks. It doesn’t help that my history with them is awful, but I also really liked men, and like so many of us, I sincerely wanted love in my life. And I love to talk about setting boundaries, which I’m getting better at, except that sometimes gets fudged, too.
However, if all were well, I’d be shy of an awful lot of self-effacing humor, and who wants THAT?
That said, and recognizing that quarantine has been isolating and hard, we can sincerely want a great many things. The problem is with the word “sincere.”
Bear with me here. There’s a point, and my hope is that the journey will allow you to see where you might be self-sabotaging. While this story was inspired by a last-ditch attempt at having a little love in my life, that particular man’s difficult journey speaks to a universal truth about how hard it is to get real work done. To achieve what we say we want.
After many breakups and some awful behavior over the last twelve years, this guy really sincerely wants to be a better man. Sound familiar? His sincerity, and it’s genuine, has always and forever led me to give it another go. An incident about two weeks ago was a fine reminder that sincerity just isn’t enough.
Let’s talk, shall we?
You may sincerely wanna lose that quarantine weight.
You may sincerely wanna back off that increased alcohol consumption.
You may sincerely wanna be a better writer, husband, girlfriend.
You may sincerely wanna write that book, climb Kilimanjaro, start that animal rescue service.
You sincerely wanna be a better ally to our BIPOC friends.
I could go on. You and I have likely set a great many goals about which we were, and may still be, terribly sincere.
That’s effectively meaningless. Here’s why.
For those of you who know SMART goal setting, this might sound familiar. I used to teach them, but I used two words for S. Specific and Serious. Because lots of folks sincerely wanna quit smoking, or have love, or improve a skill, or get that job, or do that dream thing. Sincerely. Oh, ever so sincerely.
We can write great goals, even highly specific ones, to the model. You can even put a time on it, that old adage about how “a goal is a dream with a deadline on it.” Yak. Yak. Yak. But still they don’t happen.
Boy have I done that a lot this life. I’ve sincered myself for years, and much of what I sincerely wanted to do never got done. Simply being sincere was a setup for failure.
While research argues, with solid reasoning, that writing down our goals has a way of helping them happen, that alone doesn’t do it. Ask anyone who, back when quarantine began last year, how sincerely they were gonna use this time to finally get in shape.
Yeah? How did that work out for you?
This isn’t a beat down. Because for so many of us the perfect storm of fear, stress, money worries, very real losses and the terror of possibly losing our lives to an invisible enemy worked against us. That doesn’t make us schlubs. It makes us human. However, now that spring has us out and about, and I can hear so many folks almost screaming THIS YEAR I’M GONNA, let’s please discuss what it’s going to take for you to celebrate what you got did this time next year.
When you get serious, things get done. As I like to do when discussing this kind of thing, I’m going to address how I’ve used this in my life if for no other reason than to underscore that these aren’t things I randomly pulled out of my butt. This is what I put into practice. This also answers that forever question about how I “get” to do what I do this life.
Here are some of my Big Rocks:
I quit a five-pack-a-day smoking habit at 19. Cold turkey.
Dropped 85 lbs forever at 34.
Wrote a book at 58 and another at 59, in swift order.
Quit a forty-year eating disorder at 58, cold turkey.
Trained for and launched an adventure travel career at 60.
Summitted two huge mountains at 60 and 65.
Sold and moved to my dream place, into a dream home (for me), at 67.
Some of them took a lot longer than I might have liked, but the point is, I got them done.
To be fair, I failed plenty along the way. That’s part of the journey.
Serious people do not give up.
“Sincere" folks tap dance. Like my ex.
I start and stop a great many things, as it is my forever compulsion to be attracted to shiny objects.
Now look. If you Google these terms as I just did, you might read that “serious” is seen as humorless. Like this:
As adjectives the difference between sincere and serious:
is that sincere is sincere while serious is without humor or expression of happiness; grave in manner or disposition; earnest; thoughtful; solemn.
I categorically disagree in this regard: for me, the word serious, as it applies to establishing goals and outcomes, means that with every ounce of me, I mean to make this happen. Has nothing to do with being humorless; quite the opposite. The journey brings me joy even as I fall on my ass regularly.
To that, if I may, this is what I did with my quarantine “vacay.”
This weekend, my phone displayed some photos from this time last year. They were of this property, the massive firs, exploding rhodies and azalea bushes. An empty, but inviting gazebo. I fell in love with this property, but at that point it was still a pipe dream. It was the culmination of some three years of searching for properties from Great Falls, Montana to Santa Fe, from Boise to Puget Sound. Years of searching, researching, inquiries, ad infinitum. And waffling about selling, as much as I loved my beautiful home and comfy nest of friends and familiarity.
Right now I am in that house, fully moved in, the gazebo home to a great stone Buddha, the yard and surrounds cleared of weeds and thorn bushes. I let go of fifty years in Colorado, perceived safety. It wasn’t without a lot of pain, toil, trouble, sidesteps, challenges, heartache, losses and heartbreak. But I am bloody well here. Yesterday as I opened the brand new umbrella on my deck, a group of people came by on the walking path and complimented me on my back yard.
MY yard. My beautiful yard with blooms and bushes and Japanese maples and roses and statues and open ground ready for a clover planting. MY beautiful green forest, my piece of heaven full of birds and birdbaths and deer and turkey and dappled sunshine and breezes. MY yard.
Where last year I stood utterly overwhelmed by the massive blackberry thickets, the storm of invasive wax-leaf geranium, the challenge of moving all my stuff here and into the house, a five page to-do list of huge projects from installing a wood floor to a gym to setting the house up. Alone. Step by step, brick by brick.
I was serious. Serious got me here. Serious can get you where you want to go, too, if you understand the difference. This is what the ex doesn’t understand about emotional work. It’s the same thing, but in some ways, ever so much harder.
That we are often distracted or are drawn onto side roads doesn’t make us foolish or stupid. It means we have lively minds and are curious about a great many things. Lots of things feel intriguing until they aren’t. That doesn’t make them a waste of time. Often it means we explore a thread until it leads us to a place were we don’t want to go, or we don’t fit, or just, blah. Those explorations are lovely off-road trips into life’s wilds, part of our overall education. If we lack all clarity, we can spend our entire lives this way. Lots of folks do.
The ex contacted me last fall, and I was willing to talk. Hell, I was lonely. Said ex is very sincere about how he’s different and things have changed (you can hear me vomit in the background). We’ve talked for these last eight months. He remains several states away. Two weeks ago Mr. Sincere sideswiped me ugly the same way he always has. It was simply a matter of time. It’s who he is at his core, and therein lies the problem.
Like a great many well-meaning folks who have a mean streak, he sincerely wants to be better; at 52 he recognizes that things need to change. If he doesn’t want to end up solo, that is.
He is serious about work, hockey, and getting laid without the hard work of relationship-building and mutual respect. He has two out of those three, and the third, he will likely have to pay for unless something fundamental changes.
I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit to a certain smugness about being the one who dumped HIM this time around. There’s that. You know that part of you that wants the mean ex back for no reason other than you want to drop-kick his butt out the door? Guilty as charged. However, my feelings have run deeply for thirteen years. I heard his sincerity. And I saw the lack of seriousness.
We will always and forever default to what is familiar and easy unless we are willing to be uncomfortable. Discomfort is the handmaiden of true growth. As long as you avoid discomfort, you won’t achieve much.
The arc to get from sincere to serious in any aspect of our lives, most particularly when you and I are addressing issues of the heart, what was laid in stone in us as very young girls- men, too, but I can’t speak for men- is part of our emotional DNA. The longing we feel for love, for safety, is powerful. Maybe we want to forgive our abusers, for in doing so I suspect we believe we forgive ourselves for allowing ourselves to be abused. That’s a deeply complex subject for another article.
Doesn’t work that way. Most of us will not change, no matter how sincere. Any more than all those folks who told me back in 1987, with the utmost sincerity, that they were gonna go to Australia like I had, for four years no less, ever did. Every single one of them barely left their home towns.
Sincerity doesn’t necessarily translate into get ‘er did.
While I am using my ex as an example, this notion applies to all of us across the board. First, if you are serious about getting your degree, funny how you find a way to do it. If you are serious about getting in shape, funny how you find a way to do it (I didn’t say lose weight, I said get in shape, which for me means to get fit). If you’re serious about becoming a doctor, funny how we find a way forward. If you’re serious about becoming a better writer, you will invest in your education, editing help, discipline and research. You just will.
You won’t cheat by looking for shortcuts because the deepest part of your integrity knows that true greatness is earned. What that looks like for you is very different from what it looks like for me. Being serious means doing the real work of doing it takes for you to realize your goal.
If you’re a fan of Sean Kernan, you’ll see some of the same threads in his work. He is willing to do the work to get from A to Z, and the journey can sometimes suck. Damned near guaranteed, it will. That’s why folks quit.
Like my ex, we all do asshole time. That’s part of learning how not to do asshole time, but sincerely wishing you weren’t an asshole doesn’t wipe your butt clean. If we want to be better people, better partners, it takes a lot of work.
We are all still subject to shitty behavior which we don’t see, deny and excuse. That is how we perpetuate inaction, mediocrity and the alarmingly commonplace, casual hurt of others. Today casual hurt seems to now include the casual killing of just about anyone, anywhere, that’s how averse we are to personal growth, but that’s another story.
I had a dream to do international adventure travel. Okay, well…
That’s what I do. I do NOT have a fat bank account, a puerile accusation I get regularly from lazy people. I do NOT make a lot of money. I DID build the skills I could trade for experiences, and find creative ways to fund myself. None of that was easy. Still isn’t. But I was serious.
Lotta sincere people never stood at the top of Kilimanjaro. Lotta sincere people never wrote that book, started that business, patented that incredible idea. Lotta sincere people never quit drinking or beating their spouses. Lotta sincere people would like to stop abusing children.
Sincere people have reasons and excuses. Many do have blame and anger that they take out on others, as though others were the reason they don’t have results. I have to think where the death toll comes from; the need to kill off other people in revenge for watching their own dreams die off.
Lotta mine did, too, like love, for example. Nobody has to die for that. I don’t mind putting a stilletto mark in my ex’s right butt cheek for his role in it but he’s already dying inside. I’m not the author of that.
Nobody can do our work for us.
Sincerity doesn’t translate to action until you make a commitment. An oath, first and foremost to yourself. But to that, please:
There are things that are not meant for us in this life, and in those instances, no matter how seriously we want a thing, if it is not the right path for us, the potholes will be too deep, and the Universe will not get behind us. Our path lies elsewhere.
That’s where that ridiculous book The Secret gets it so wrong. Just because you want something badly is meaningless. We still have the do the work. And besides, if your next door neighbor badly wants access to your twelve-year-old little girl, there’s a great deal to be said for some folks not manifesting what they hanker for.
When it comes to changing, shifting and remolding who we are, or finding ways to negotiate with those damaged bits of ourselves which can at times (for me a LOT of times) drive us off the road into the ditch, it is a millimeter by millimeter journey. That’s what it took with my eating disorders. Forty years. But I did it.
Every day I read about or hear about people who finally finished a PhD. Who got the promotion. Who got up the gumption to pop the question. Of course it’s hard. Otherwise where would be the deep satisfaction, the pride?
This is what it means when I say to “do the work.” My romantic and love life continues to be a mess, but not like it was. I used to smoke, too. I used to be heavy, too. I used to spend untold thousands on clothing I never wore, too. Lot of things I used to do that I got serious about and don’t do any more. I’m serious about rewriting my love life, too. Which started with loving myself enough to relocate to this magnificent house, in this perfect-for-me state.
The great Mary Oliver had an horrific childhood, as some of us do, particularly as girls in a world where women are little more that repositories for penises and playtoys for boys. She retreated, as I did, into the soft sweet woods and the deep books that were available to her. Which is just one reason why, at 68, I have retreated to my own woods and books which I have made available to me. Here is what she wrote:
I saw what skill was needed, and persistence — how one must bend one’s spine, like a hoop, over the page — the long labor. I saw the difference between doing nothing, or doing a little, and the redemptive act of true effort. Reading, then writing, then desiring to write well, shaped in me that most joyful of circumstances — a passion for work.
And, powerfully, this:
You must not ever stop being whimsical. And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life.
If you and I are blown in any direction, sometimes we can’t tack back on course, if there ever was one. We cannot, if we wish to live a life of purpose, expect others to do our work, any more than I can do my ex’s work for him. He must do it, and face all the internal monsters and naysayers that live within, as we all must do, if we wish to live a passionate existence.
This time around with the ex, I loved myself enough to quietly close the door on him. I listen to the birds this morning, the mournful wail of the train. A year ago today, I was staying in the top floor of the Eugene Hostel in Whitaker, that train barely a few blocks away. Now I live in a small forest, embraced by Nature in all directions.
The cool air rises from the sprinklers misting the rhododendrons in my garden, birds flock to my feeders and birdbaths, and I am starting to plan my next Big Adventures.
You will do what you are serious about. If you are serious about avoiding discomfort, you won’t reap results. If you are serious about limiting risk, you won’t “get” to do anything that I am doing, like the adventure travel.
Average folks are quite sincere.
People who get results are serious.
Again, the great Mary Oliver:
what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?