I’ve had a metaphor in my head for a couple of years, but haven’t found a way to share it until today. I’d intended to use it at Get Rich Slowly but never got around to it. Let’s use it here instead.
Last weekend, Kim and I took the dog into the hills outside Corvallis to go mushroom hunting. (Well, the dog barked at things. We hunted for mushrooms.) We were walking back the car down a steep trail and I was kind of lollygagging and staring off into the trees when bump! I stubbed my toe against a stone and stumbled.
When I was younger, a stumble like this would have meant a fall. I would have instinctively panicked, and that panic would have caused me to overcorrect or to stiffen, and I would have ended up on the ground. This certainly would have happened when I was a kid, but I think it would also have happened into young adulthood.
Wu Wei: The Art of Effortless Action
Now, at age 54, I rarely fall when I stumble. I can’t remember the last time I did so. I’ve mastered the tao-like secret to staying upright: When something causes me to miss a step, I do nothing. I let my body continue moving forward at the same speed even though it feels like I’m falling. That’s it. That’s the entire secret to stumbling without falling, in my experience: Do nothing. (This really is tao-like. It’s wu wei, the art of effortless action.)
By doing nothing — by not trying to correct but instead continuing with my normal stride — I keep from throwing myself out of balance. I think the reason I used to fall so much after stumbling was my overcorrections. I was causing myself to fall.
Now it’s true that I don’t wholly do nothing when I stumble. I still have to get the foot that stumbled forward to catch the end of the stride, so that means lifting it over the obstacle quickly and planting it, but it’s no different than what I would have normally done if my toe hadn’t stubbed a stone, right? It’s just a sort of unintentional stutter step.
I suspect it’s very clear how I want to use this as a metaphor. (Or maybe this is complex enough to be an allegory? I don’t know.)
Often in life, we make mistakes. Mistakes are a part of being human.
Mistakes, in isolation, are rarely catastrophic. They’re usually very minor, in fact. What exacerbates a mistake is how we react to it. We’re better off not reacting at all.
Cataloging My Mistakes
As a human — and a particularly flawed specimen — I have a lot of experience with mistakes, and with overreacting to them. Here’s a catalog of ways I’ve made things worse in the past.
- “Well, I fucked up. Because I already fucked up, I might as well continue making this mistake.”
- “Oh shit! I fucked up! I feel so bad! I will assuage my guilt by making the same mistake — or a similar mistake — to comfort myself.”
- “This isn’t a mistake. It’s just a one-time thing. It’s only a problem if I make the mistake over and over again, if it becomes a habit.” And, of course, I proceed to make the mistake a habit.
- “Oh shit! I fucked up! I am such an awful, terrible person. I can’t believe how pathetic I am. Since I’m such a fuck-up, it doesn’t matter if I make more mistakes. That’s just who I am, I guess.”
- “This isn’t a mistake. Nope. It feels good. I like it. I know that popular opinion says it’s a mistake, and that there’s tons of scientific evidence that says it’s a mistake, but I am a Special Case. It is not a mistake for me in this instance.” (Spoiler: It’s almost always a mistake.)
When I react in these ways, I turn a mistake from a stumble into a fall. I am especially bad at catastrophizing, as my therapists and romantic partners will attest.
Here are some specific examples of turning stumbles into falls:
- “I didn’t mean to drink today. I shouldn’t have had that glass of wine. Well, since I already started drinking, I might as well have another glass.” (There’s a saying attributed apocryphally to F. Scott Fitzgerald that encapsulates this common problem: First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.)
- “Oh shit, I inadvertently offended somebody whose opinion matters to me. I feel so awful! To compensate, I will eat an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s Karamel Sutra. Maybe two.”
- “Crap. I’ve already wasted two hours playing Hearthstone today instead of doing yardwork. What an idiot. Since I’ve already wasted most of the day, I might as well continue playing. Maybe I can get my rating to 7000!”
- “Oops. That piece of chocolate wasn’t on my diet. Better not make that a habit.” Next night: “Oops. That piece of chocolate wasn’t on my diet. Better not make that a habit.” Next week: “Oops. That piece of chocolate wasn’t on my diet. Better not make that a habit.” Etcetera. Etcetera.
- “I can’t afford to buy this book, but I’m going to do so anyhow. And since I’m buying this one book, I’ll buy this one. And this one. And this one too.”
- “I can’t believe I forgot to do the work I promised to have done by today. I am such an idiot. I’m a loser. Why does anyone bother to ask me to do anything? I suck.”
Anyhow, you get the point. A stumble is only a stumble unless we choose to make it a fall.
Stumbling in September
I bring this up because the entire month of September was a metaphorical stumble for me. (Or an allegorical stumble?) After nearly nine months of concerted effort with my diet and fitness, after losing 25 pounds since 13 December 2022, after building a regular routine at the gym and establishing healthy eating patterns, in September I pretty much abandoned everything.
I ate poorly. I drank too much beer. I went to the gym only twice. I re-installed Hearthstone on my iPad and played many, many hours. (I’d uninstalled it in April and had gone without playing for months.) I stopped reading. I stopped watching films. In fact, you can see precisely when I went off the rails by looking at my Letterboxd profile.
I’m not kidding. See how I went from watching many movies a week to suddenly not watching them at all? That’s precisely when I stumbled with everything else.
Now, I’m not exactly sure why I stumbled. It doesn’t actually matter. What matters is that I don’t allow this to become a fall. And to do that, I need to do nothing. I don’t mean that I ought to keep drinking beer and eating crap and playing Hearthstone. No, I mean that I ought to resume the things I was doing before. I don’t need to panic that I’ve “wasted” a month. I don’t need to overcorrect by adopting extreme measures. No, I just need to subtly shift my habits back to where they were, say, six weeks ago.
(Sidenote: Actually, maybe I do know why I stumbled. After a long period without using pot, I started ingesting it again when I got home from my trip in late June. “I’m doing fine,” I told myself. “I can gradually re-introduce it.” Well, I think this stumble is a result. Since stopping my marijuana use last week, I’ve already begun to feel more motivated and be more productive.)
Because I knew I’d stumbled, I’ve avoided looking at metrics for the past couple of weeks. As a nerd, I keep a daily spreadsheet of my fitness stats: weight, body fat, blood pressure, and so on. I was scared to look at the numbers.
This morning, I looked at the numbers. Turns out, they’re not so bad.
Yes, I messed up. The numbers aren’t as good as they were a few weeks ago. But they’re not terrible either. Here are my numbers for the past two months:
This is a clear stumble. Everything is up, especially my blood pressure. But none of this is catastrophic unless I choose to make it so. And it’s good for me to remind myself where I started last December:
Choosing Not to Fall
Last night, I struggled to sleep. The stupid dog had something to do with it: grumbling and burrowing her hot doggy body close to mine. Ugh. While I was not sleeping, I was beating myself up about my recent poor choices. I told myself that when I woke up, I’d seek comfort by making a big breakfast: sausage, pancakes, syrup, more pancakes, more syrup. But you know what? I’m not going to do that.
I’m sipping my coffee now. I’m not hungry, so I’ll wait to eat. (When I’m being healthy, I don’t eat until 11:00.) And when I do eat, it’ll be lots of protein and a complex carb. No sausage, pancakes, pancakes, syrup, and syrup.
I have stumbled, but I will not fall.