Monday, February 23, 2015

The tipping point

When people do great things, the first thing we want to know is where it all started. When did the spark hit them that would set off the rest of their lives? What shape did it take? Was it sheer luck that had them discovered by a casting agent at a gas station? Or was it something else? An idea that came to them in a dream?

There's this notion that great discoveries, motivation and inspiration are things that appear like a lightning strike, and from then on never stop delivering the goods we need to keep going. Eureka! An apple falls on your head. These are the stories that speak to our imagination.

It's even worse where the arts are concerned. The romanticism regarding artists and their muse has of course been pertained by artists themselves, but if any of them were to be totally honest they would probably tell you a very different story. Few of them were lying face down in a gutter with a needle sticking out of their arm as they were visited by the mystical force of inspiration. It may have been a mystical force alright, but not of the type that makes you a prolific artist. It's a bit typical for drug culture to get their mystical forces mixed up like that.

Motivation is a similar sort of thing that is supposed to just happen. "When did it click for you?" we ask, "When did you realize that you didn't want to live like this anymore?" The stories have taught us that there is supposed to be this tipping point, some experience or insight that flips a switch, and all hardship from then on will neatly fit into a musical montage. We use these narratives to make sense of our lives, but no matter how we try to wrangle it, life doesn't adhere to story structure.

Dan Harmon's famous story circle.
Contrary to popular opinion, not applicable to life.
When I was in middle school, every summer I dreamed of being whisked away to some kind of military boot camp, where I would drag myself through mud and obstacle courses - scored by epic winning music of course - to return a victorious badass, never to be messed with again. I still have a weakness for the kind of movies where an unlikely hero overcomes all odds by buckling down hard and going through a music video's worth of change. Being a teen in the system, I'd gotten used to being completely uprooted and every six months or so getting a new chance to reinvent myself.
There were times in my adult life where I went through the same process: change your apartment, change your friends, change your obsessions. But this was always brought on by some kind of crisis, and I never once came out a badass. If anything it kept me from learning to initiate change on my own. It's hard to let go of safety when you've never really felt safe.

But deliberate change is a fickle beast. If it happens, it never looks like a musical montage. It's messy. It's tedious. And it never happens in a straight line. And if the thing you want changed is an addiction, your musical montage will mainly consist of footage of you not doing something.
This is not the kind of stuff that makes for juicy narrative. It's more like watching plants grow, if the plants had days where they sabotaged all of their progress by chain smoking and pondering how much they don't look like Zooey Deschanel. There is no montage and there is no tipping point, because the times we fall are countless and the choices we make every day are impossible to oversee. The stuff of lasting change is usually buried somewhere amid this chaos, too small to notice. You have to kind of keep believing that it's there.

There are waves. Waves so big they might wash you away sometimes. And sometimes, a steady series of smaller waves can carry you out to a place where you can't see the shore anymore, and you don't know how you'll ever find your way back. But you have to let go of the ledge now and then, just to see where they will take you.

Then there is the kind of change that is about accepting that, one way or another, this is how it is always going to be. Some wounds don't heal. Some illnesses are permanent, and some character flaws are just too ingrained in your personality. Just as much as you can't step into the same river twice, the more things change, the more they stay the same. We can learn to roll with the punches though, and surf the waves as they come, trying not to get drowned by them. We can learn how to manage ourselves. We can learn to know ourselves enough to understand when we need to tough it out a bit more, and when what we really need is a break. We can learn what the absolute smallest step is we can take today, in this moment, and then take it. We can learn to see the progress we have already made.

This is the kind of change that is about seeing what is. It is much more elusive than the various regiments we subject ourselves to everyday. It doesn't come with a bite-sized formula we can regurgitate on buzzfeed. It's about being able to witness our own growth.

If we learn this, there may be times when we get to look back on our own story and be reminded of that great HST quote. That with the right kind of eyes, you can almost see the high water mark — that place where the wave finally broke, and rolled back.


  1. Sometimes inspiration for a creation really does come in a flash of lightning, and sometimes there really is a definable turning point in your efforts (for example, where you get discovered by the patron who sets you up for life), but the focus on that erases all the work involved in turning that inspiration into something others can enjoy or the work before/after being discovered. I don't believe anyone who plays it off as entirely easy and magical.

    Also, accepting that I was always going to be certain ways (because they can't be changed, not because I'm lazy and/or would rather read scifi than deal with reality...cos there are some of those things too...) was kind of incredible. Suddenly, at the very least, my experience of those didn't carry shame that I hadn't conquered them

    I hope you reach shore soon. Either way, I will try to be your swimming buddy. Or maybe the dolphin who swims in to save you from sharks when things are really ugly. Oh! Or maybe I can send a helicopter to pick you up and fly you to safety! Y'know, once I become magical and somehow get my own self together :p

  2. You're the best swimming buddy I could ask for, darling :)

  3. Watch out, sharks! RAWR!

  4. Is that sound supposed to be the dolphin or the shark? :^p

  5. I am a very fierce dolphin. You can tell because I wear a leather jacket (that's right, I'm so fierce I went on land to slaughter a cow) and have a tattoo on my dorsal fin. And you know how much tattoos on cartilage hurt??? The sharks don't stand a chance, swimming buddy.

  6. Once again, I am awed by how articulate you are on topics where I wouldn't even know where to start. The point about the fact that this is how it's always going to be is especially excellent - I've been wrestling with that for ages, and it's just now coming into focus.

    The thing about inspiration is also true. It tends to come in the absolutely shittiest moments, and then bother and bother until it gets made into something. There's nothing romantic about that.

  7. Thank you for the kind words, my dear. :)
    Obviously these are things I'm wrestling with myself, trying to organize my thoughts by writing about them. Nothing makes me happier than to know others take something from that as well.