Mental/Emotional Blocks: Stress, Fear, the Undead, etc.

Make it through the mess that is the first half of this post and there’ll be a reward in the second half, I promise: pearls of wisdom from a survivor of the zombie apocalypse (ahem, me).

Here we go. For those of you who were born yesterday, allow me to start with a fun fact: I’m an expert at stressing myself out. I’m a professional, in fact. I work myself into fits by thinking about things obsessively, worrying about aspects of the future that aren’t really that pressing (even when they become the present), and failing miserably to find time and mental space for relaxation. Admittedly, this is unhealthy and neither necessary nor productive, which is unfortunate considering how good I am at it.

Over the past few months, this anxiety has been nearly crippling, and for the first time in my life it has actually done more harm than good; it’s been hard to channel the stress and pressure into productivity as I do in my usual routine. Normally, if the stress ends up making me do my work, I don’t conceptualize it as a problem. Now, the stress is preventing me from working, so I have started to beat myself up and make it worse—now, the stress is a problem. But that doesn’t actually make sense, does it?

It should be that I try to do something about unnecessary and unhealthy levels of stress regardless of whether I can logic them away by saying, oh, well at least I got my tasks done. It shouldn’t be the case that our culture or my own brain values the outcome or the product of my work to such an extent that the process by which it was achieved is basically irrelevant or of no concern. This is because it’s in those processes that our daily realities are experienced; life is lived from moment to moment, not from product to product or outcome to outcome.

Time and again my shortcomings prove to me how immature I am and probably always will be; no matter how many times I tell myself the simple facts of life—especially that it’s about the journey, not the destination (cheesy, I know, but we both know it’s true)—or recognize myself treating my friends with much better love, care, and compassion than I do my own self, I can’t seem to get any of it through my own thick head.

It’s conventional wisdom that failure brings us closer to full self-knowledge: of our limits, our emotional resilience, our mental fortitude. This post is going to be about failure, although I don’t think I’ve failed at anything, really. Maybe I have. I suppose at the present don’t feel like a failure, but I don’t feel like a success. I feel like I’ve made some important choices and that I’m going through a transition in my life, and I have an inkling that I’m going to be stronger when I come out on the other side. I feel like I do a lot of harmful things to myself in my own head, and perhaps I’m starting to go through the (painful) process of stopping some of these negative behaviors; perhaps I’m starting to change, perhaps I need to take a few steps backward to go forward.

But we’re never not broken; I’m not fooling myself that something called “progress” is going to lead to an outcome (of perfect health, a “new” self, spiritual and intellectual perfection or perfection of any kind…), because I’m not a product I need to produce. Maybe it’s cheesy again, but I think it’s better to conceptualize myself as a project and try to enjoy “working” on it for its own sake, not for the sake of the outcome or some future self that can never be.

I think my primary failure in life so far has been focusing too heavily on outcomes, products, scores, results, and the indulgent pleasure of holding out for that climactic moment of outward success and external validation.

It seems cheesy (again) to me, too, to consider the work I’ve been doing over the past two years with healers in Indiana and East Java as part of a process of my own journey towards healing. But I need to ask myself why do I find it so cheesy? Perhaps because I’m supposed to be a serious academic and approach the work as objectively as possible. I’m not supposed to be emotional, overly sensitive, weepy, feminine, weak, wrong, hurt. I should be doing the research because it’s objectively interesting—the justification of my studies isn’t supposed to be well, I subconsciously need my own healing and won’t let myself have it, so I’m doing this project to get myself closer to what I need so that maybe one day I’ll wake up and realize what’s really going on. I’m not supposed to need healing of any kind at all (per my own standards; it’s others who need that).

I’ve spent so much time investing in the tangible outcomes of the work I do in my outer life rather than on my own inner life that any spiritual/emotional work that I may need to do or try to do is irrelevant; the focus of life has been outcomes and measurable successes, not inner peace, which can’t be put on display to be given external validation. So…why all this?

It seems I can’t accept my own praise for anything. It’s not good enough if it’s only me who thinks it’s good. And what does that say about how I value myself? How I value my own opinion and trust myself? Nothing good, that’s for sure.

So, admitting we’re flawed and wounded and need help isn’t easy. I’ve never been one to deny that I’m flawed, but I’ve made it my prerogative to admit stuff without really admitting anything. For example, yeah, I make myself stressed and work myself into fits of anxiety for no reason. I need to work on it. I’m doing X, Y, and Z to help—knitting more, paying attention to self-care and giving myself indulgences, making time to do things outdoors. But…it’s just part of the game!! Showing other people that I’m so self-aware, so good at taking care of myself, so in tune with what’s up with me and what I need to do to cope with it if not make it all better. This means I can avoid doing the real work I probably need to do. All I do now is work hard to convince myself that I’m working hard and to convince myself that validation outside of me is going to be enough.

I think I need to learn to be truthful and stop being so unforgiving with myself; just because I think that other people have it more together than me doesn’t mean I’m the failure I think I am. And hey, having it together isn’t a thing anyways, is it? It’s okay to not be okay. Again, conventional wisdom, right? But I don’t allow myself the luxury of letting these simple things be true for me and my own life. The standards I have for myself (which of course I can never reach, because there’s never actually nor will there ever be an end point) don’t allow it. Again, why?

There are a lot of things I want to keep thinking and writing about related to all of these issues, but I don’t think I have time to explore them here and now, so let me get on with the important stuff.

Have you ever heard of the computer game “Plants vs. Zombies”? I played for the first time with Miss V the other night. Well, last night, actually, after I almost had a stupid breakdown about people looking out for me and trying to prevent me from having my wallet stolen (I interpreted their admonitions as overly controlling and invasive rather than loving and caring) and lost all motivation to do my hip hop class, promptly sending myself into a stressed-out-grumpy-funk. I went to the coffee shop with V to calm down and asked her if we could play some computer games. I played Minesweeper, Hearts, Mahjong—all these old classic Windows games. It felt great. I just love Minesweeper. But V finally got bored (she’s a gamer and has more refined game tastes than yours truly) and suggested we play Plants vs. Zombies to liven things up. Apparently the game is a hip thing; she was surprised I hadn’t ever heard of it since all the American Peace Corps trainees she worked with had.

We started to play. The purpose of the game is to ward off the zombies that are trying to attack your house. You do this by planting killer plants throughout the front yard to defend your homestead from the onslaught. You can choose sunflowers that grow money in the form of sunbeams, green flowers that shoot deadly peas, potatoes that explode, cherries that also explode, mushrooms that poof out deadly spores, and blue flowers that spit iceballs to slow down the zombies via partial freezing. You have to collect sunpower to “buy” these plants, and each plant that you get needs to be placed strategically in the yard so that it most effectively contributes to the pea-iceball-deadly-spore-exploding-potato-cherry zombie defensive. As she demonstrated for me how the game worked, Miss V was very diligent in placing her plants in a lovely order. Her garden-cum-yard was highly aesthetically pleasing to her—“indah,” she said. “Beautiful.” It was my turn next.

Admittedly, it was my first time, and I got excited. I was zealous. The zombies kept coming, and I hurriedly bought as many plants as possible, putting them down any which way and hoping for the best, sticking them in the dirt as fast as I could so I could get more. Of course, slapping killer plants all over every inch of the yard is effective, and the zombies were annihilated. But my garden lacked an aesthetic element.

“You’ve been so stressed lately. You’re stressed out even playing this game. Why can’t you make it beautiful?” Miss V was not pleased at my performance. I played a couple more times, continuing stubbornly to do what I wanted: just make it effective enough to pass the level. Didn’t matter about the process or how the garden looked.

The funny thing is that planting things nicely and planting things crappily take the same amount of time and ultimately result in the same efficiency re: zombie destruction, especially in the earlier stages of the game. So why wouldn’t I just take the time to plant the garden nicely? Why couldn’t I enjoy the process of choosing where to put the plants, what patterns to create, and putting a little effort into the beauty of the yard?

All of a sudden I felt very embarrassed at my behavior. I felt really wrong and really immature—and not for the reasons one would expect to feel immature when playing a plants vs. zombies computer game.

Finally, I decided to plant the garden nicely. At first—and I think now that this was wrong—it was to get praise from Miss V for following her advice. I like to make her happy and show her that I listen to and trust her. After I started and got a few “Good jobs, that’s the way to do it, that looks nice,” from Miss V, I felt better. I thought, well, now she knows I can do it. I thought, hey, she’s an expert in the game, and it’s good of me to take her advice…even though it doesn’t make a difference.

After a couple of rounds, I started to get pleasure from organizing the garden with aesthetic value in mind. I wasn’t focused on the zombies anymore like I was before—I wasn’t really worried about them at all. I was focusing instead on the patterns in the plants, the balance and symmetry of various rows and columns, and the patterns in the flying iceballs, peas, and poofs of spores I could create on the screen by strategically placing the deadly plants. Oddly enough, it became a meditation.*

I had to reflect on the change in my own mental state after I started planting with beauty in mind: I was significantly more relaxed—inwardly and outwardly—as soon as I started paying more attention to how I was doing what I was doing (rather than why I was doing it, i.e. for zombie killin’). Planting frantically and grabbing whatever I could and sticking it wherever in the yard I saw the first free spot made me feel like the zombies were coming faster, though that definitely wasn’t true. The strategy I was choosing to use created more stress for myself and didn’t change the outcome in the slightest; we still won the round, but we didn’t have the satisfaction of a beautiful lawn or a leisurely landscaping process. We won the rounds even if I planted crappily, but we felt frantic during the process (I was freaking out about getting things in place, and Miss V was going nuts at my haphazardness and carelessness). It wasn’t as much of a win as when we achieved the same outcome using a more thoughtful process with a more enjoyable approach.

So, I didn’t fail at the zombie game. And not failing meant paying attention to the journey, not the destination.

Isn’t it always just stupid shit that illuminates essential truths about life? And yet I still can’t get it sometimes. But that’s okay.

I wanted this post to be about failures, and I don’t feel I’ve yet expressed all I want to express. I also wanted to talk more about fear. But there’s more time later; this post is long enough. For now, badminton practice. Conventional wisdom strikes again: make a hobby of something you suck at to gain humility and perspective.


*Maybe this is a stretch, but now as I write I’m reminded of zen gardening (karesansui).


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