Several years ago, I climbed a mountain.
It was a (relatively) small one, on Mount Desert Island in Maine. One of the ones in Acadia National Park.
If you’ve never been to Acadia, it’s a prime example of northern forest. Beautiful and quiet, interspersing a cathedral atmosphere with trees reaching towards a distant sun with sweeping views of rocky coastline. You can stand at the boundaries between earth and water and sky, imagining yourself battered by wind and waves like something out of Hemingway or Melville.
This was in another era of my life. In the time of a bad relationship, in the time of fewer tools for dealing with my broken brain. I had camped the night before for the first time in about 10 years and the tent had been battered by rain. I was exhausted. I was not okay. Nevertheless, I climbed. I was unused to serious hiking. I was creaky and slow and self-conscious about being so.
Nevertheless, I reached the top.
It was a deeply emotionally trying day for both me and the ex. The path was steep and I was in deep freak-out mode and it was too misty to see any views from the thousand-and-some foot elevation at the top.
And it wasn’t till later till after sleep and food and a return to my hemmed in urban life that I realized how absurd it was that I’d been feeling bad about having reached the top of a mountain more slowly than someone else.
* * *
When I was young I repeatedly read a book by Richard Bach (of Jonathan Livingston Seagull fame) called Illusions. It was full of a very seventies brand of philosophy which many still turn to – visualizing what you want as a way of instantiating it. More or less the same brand of philosophy that The Secret espouses, as I understand it. Doesn’t work, of course. Visualizing without planning and working does fuckall.
I absorbed it though, at far too tender an age.
There are lines I can still remember. Bach’s amended golden rule “Do unto others as you truly feel like doing unto others,” is one that has some value in some contexts. The pithier one, the one that stuck with me harder is “Argue for your limitations and sure enough, they’re yours.”
What toxic bullshit.
* * *
If you had told me at 10 or 15 or 20 or even 30 that accepting one’s limitations is one of the most freeing things that could ever happen I would have been deeply skeptical.
The fact is limitations are not the same as rules or circumstances. If there’s one most helpful thing I’ve learned from therapy and from all the self-examination and self-reconstruction that came with it, learning yourself and the way you work can free you up to bust through your circumstances and harmful boundaries.
It is much easier to change your environment to help you work better than it is to change yourself to suit the environment.
Accepting this can help you to function with maximum return on investment.
I don’t mean you don’t try new things or learn new things, but there are plenty of habits whose roots are so tangled with other things in your past or your brain chemistry that digging them up is absolutely not worth it and will probably be unsuccesful. There is no reason why you can’t change your living circumstances or your practices of daily self-maintenance instead of roto-tilling your brain.
This all goes double with physical limitations, I think. You can learn new skills, you can grow, but we all have physical limitations and they’re not the same as everyone else. All the positive thinking in the world is not going to help someone who can’t stand and take steps to go up a flight of stairs. Nor will all the positive thinking in the world make doing so hurt less for someone who experiences chronic pain.
We accept a lot of our limitations without thinking too hard about it. We wear coats in the wintertime. We have houses to keep the rain off. We have cars and planes instead of pushing ourselves to learn to run faster or to fly.
I currently work serving students with disabilities — we have this mindset as a culture that certain kinds of help count as not getting help. A lot of people look at an accomodation as an unfair advantage. They’re not seeing that learning is learning regardless of how it happens. A car is an accomodation for people who can’t run sixty miles an hour. A grocery cart is an accomodation for people who can’t carry fifty pounds of oddly-shaped items. A coat is an accomodation for people who can’t keep their body temperature up sufficiently when the temperature gets to a certain point.
As a culture, we’ve agreed that these kinds of help count as nonhelp. And anything beyond them counts as help. Or “extra” help.
We’re focusing on tasks rather than the goals.
To accept your limitations is to free yourself to focus on the goals instead of the tasks. Is the goal to remember your keys? Is it easier to berate yourself about remembering where you put them down or to install a special hook right inside the door and leave them there.
Is the goal to remember your meds? Is it easier to tell yourself to just remember and then remember that you took them or are there systems and helps you can put in place that will take that mental load away from you? (daily pill organizers, alarms on your phone, a sign on your fridge, etc.)
Is your goal to get up and get to work in the morning? What will make that easy on you? How can you make that happen without punishing yourself or squishing yourself into the same shape box you think everyone else is in?
These are the kinds of questions I ask myself. And when I figure out something that will make my life easier, I do it, regardless of how weird it’ll seem to other people (who even has to know) or how contrary it is to what I was taught growing up.
Focus on what you want to do — focus on goals and behaviors instead of tasks and external milestones. Stifle your inner Calvanist that says that how hard you work is more important than what you get done. It could get you farther than you think.
It’s an engineering problem. This is the load your materials can carry. How can you use them to build a strong bridge that will let people cross it? How can you use it to keep the rain off or make yourself safe? It’s what you have. You cannot trade it or buy something new. How can you use it effectively?
Give yourself credit for whatever mountains you’ve climbed, no matter how slowly. And give credit to other people even if their mountains or the way they reach their elevations aren’t the same as yours.