In 2010 and 2011, 2 of the coldest years in New York City history, I lived in a house with no heat. When I got home at night I put layers on. My around-the-house uniform included long johns, fleece pants, double wool socks, a t-shirt, fleece pullover, heavy wool sweater, parka, a scarf or two and a hunter’s cap. I slept in the same outfit under a sheet, a fleece blanket, a light cotton blanket I never bothered removing from the summer and four thick, down comforters.
In an incident I chronicled in this blog, my pipes froze, forcing me to perform midnight, 30-degree, water-cascading-from-the-ceiling household triage. Shortly thereafter, my landlord (a very loose designation) shut the pipes off. It had become so cold that the water in the toilet froze, forcing me to concoct creative waste removal operations. Because there was no drinking water, I walked around with jugs to fill when I had access to running water.
I lived this way partly because I was convinced that I was being spiritually tested. I was proving that I could find peace and meaning in the face of really uncomfortable circumstances. And I achieved that. I developed a physical and spiritual toughness, cultivating an ability to cope–and occasionally thrive–in harsh conditions.
But it was uncomfortable. Without so much as a fireplace, I was living in conditions that a neanderthal would probably find intolerable.
So why did I do it?
There was the spiritual thing, which had more than a trace of truth to it. Though the spiritual test conveniently coincided with diminishing savings and nearly nonexistent income.
The other reason is this: People can put up with some pretty lousy shit if they believe their behavior only impacts them. I can be miserable when I believe I’m the only one who’s subjected to it. I can live in a freezing home if I’m the only one who has to bundle up. I can let my personal hygiene fall off in tragic ways if I’m the only one smelling it.
What changed–the reason I type without gloves on a January night–was that my life became about more than myself. I got a girlfriend, girlfriend became wife, wife will one day be a mother. The guy who was okay porting collected rainwater from the roof to flush the toilet had little or nothing to do with being a great boyfriend, husband or father. It’s not that one is wrong and the other right–they’re just two different people.
In an ideal world, my motivation would be purely intrinsic, the voice of God would speak through me, divining me an intuitive wisdom that shows me the way of strength and goodness. Every so often, that’s how it goes.
More often, my motivators are extrinsic–something I cherish outside myself compels me to step into a bigger role. I want A, but A is not possible as long as I’m being B.
Let me clarify one point: I’m not promoting betraying oneself. The changes I’m referring to are aligned with who we are (our intrinsic motivation). The guy who got a job, a heated apartment and wanted to take care of others is more aligned with who I am than my previous incarnation as Nanook of Brooklyn Heights.
With these thoughts in mind, consider:
- Name an extrinsic motivator in your life. Preferably this is something you want to have or have but are not feeling fulfilled by (e.g. relationship, job, goal).
- What way of ‘being’ is preventing you from having this situation work? For me, I was being lazy and proud. Lazy about creating income and too proud to admit that I didn’t enjoy hanging around a sub-zero living room.
- What impact are you pretending doesn’t exist by holding onto this way of being? For example, saying you don’t care about something or want something when you really do.
- What way of ‘being’ could make the situation work? In my case, I had to grow up–or ‘be’ responsible.
- Take one action today inside of this way of being.