When Life Gets Difficult: A Reality Matrix
“Stop bullshitting people!”, – my friend said, disapprovingly.
“You always say how easy it is to ride around the world, but in reality, nothing is easy”, – she added. She was referring to an article I wrote a while back; in it, I shared my views on how you don’t need to prepare for a round-the-world motorcycle journey for six months, how motorcycle and gear choices do not need to be complicated, and how you can just figure things out as you go along.
“It’s just not true! You still have to deal with seasons and international borders, think about bike shipping, book tickets, find hotels… That’s a lot of work”, – my pal argued.
“But it’s really not that hard!”, – I wanted to reply… and stopped mid-sentence. Things that seemed easy and effortless to me sounded like complicated, tedious tasks to her, an vice versa (I’d go nuts being a working mom!). And neither of us was wrong.
As a kid, I would happily get up at six in the morning, take two buses, then hike for two miles just so I could have horseback riding lessons. After the training, I’d hike back, take another two buses, head home, change, and go to school. It didn’t seem like a big deal at all: I was obsessed with horses, and all the cold, early mornings, crowded buses and walking distances in the world wouldn’t have stopped me from getting to the yard.
On the other hand, I would be in absolute agony if my mother asked me to fold and put away my clothes. I would writhe and whine and complain, procrastinate to the last minute, feel terribly sorry for myself, and finally fold my clothes wearing a facial expression of a martyr headed for the guillotine.
I’ve grown up – somewhat – since; but there still are things that I do with joy and gusto, and those that I try to avoid like plague. Riding my motorcycle, traveling, writing, discovering places and peoples – these are the things I love, so doing them feels like a reward in itself. Doing my taxes, exercising, listening to self-important individuals or learning about carburetors just isn’t my thing, so whenever I find myself facing any one of those situations, I feel like I’ve been tasked with the impossible.
It’s the same with small things. A cup of latte, yay; food with parsley in it, go back to the depths of culinary hell where you came from. Writing an article about a peculiar indigenous tribe in the Americas? Awesome! Working as an administator? No thanks. Getting my bike stuck in the Amazon mud? Woohoo! Running on a treadmill in the gym? Shoot me now.
There’s no such thing as objective reality: while some things appear easy and fun to some, they may sound like a bore or a chore to others, and vice versa. In themselves, those things aren’t good or bad, easy or difficult, awesome or boring: it’s how we feel about them.
I wouldn’t last a day as an accountant, but I can negotiate my way out of a road block. Mathematics and engineering sound incredibly complicated to me, but I can learn a language in a month. Accounting isn’t better or worse than brokering deals, and maths isn’t inherently more or less difficult than linguistics. It’s how we feel about these things that’s important.
And often, it doesn’t matter if there are extra incentives involved: I’ll produce a story about Guatemalan women who are making a change for free, but will suffer and fight with myself, procrastinate and moan if I have to write about furniture – even if I’m offered $500 for it.
Sheer force doesn’t help much, either: in the end, I did write that fancy sofa article because I needed the $500. But instead of taking a couple of hours, it took me three days to finish it, and I hated every minute of it. Are three days of misery worth the $500? Hell no.
So what to do when life gets difficult? What can we do to make the complicated things easy? Since reality is as fluid as we want it to be, a change in attitude can do wonders.
I’m hot-headed, so my first reaction to everything is always dramatic. ”Quit!” would be my first suggestion to someone who has a soul-sucking job. “Just go!”, – I’d say to someone who’s considering a big trip but isn’t quite certain of it all yet.
But life happens, and so many of us can’t just quit the jobs or put relationships on hold or stop worrying or doubting just by sheer willpower. Incentives – be it money, chocolate cake or promotions – only help so much. So what’s left?
Love and inspiration! Sounds cliché, but if you can find a new purpose in what you’re doing, the doing suddenly becomes easier.
When I’m alone, I can’t be bothered to clean. Putting things away still feels like a cruel and unnecessary form of oppression to me – but I know that my partner loves tidiness, and because I love him, I’ll often clean the AirBnB or hotel room just to make him happy. And somehow, if I’m doing this for happiness purposes, not because I have to, it suddenly becomes an effortless task.
Similarly, I despised my painfully mundane job at a motorcycle dealership: filling finance forms and stock orders felt so dull and dreary I couldn’t wait for the weekend. But then, I convinced my bosses to start providing training for new riders, and they tasked me with preparing the materials and talking to schools. Now, I was going to help people – and I was ecstatic! Suddenly going to work became a thrill, and I’d happily volunteer overtime hours without being asked.
Finding new meaning or purpose in the same task isn’t always easy. And sometimes, quitting or making a tremendous change is the only solution. But learning to look at things in a different light can be just as big… and just as powerful.
“Duty and pleasure are a long story for me, and I’ve gradually reached an unusual and altogether personal conclusion. The only honest thing is pleasure – desire, joy – and nothing I’ve forced myself to do has ever given pleasure to the people round me”, Tove Jansson once said.
I’m with her. Whenever I do things because I’m inspired, or because I find joy in them, or I’m intrigued, the outcome is always something that excites me and others around me; something that unexpectedly sparks new ideas or leads to amazing opportunities.
On the other hand, if I force myself to do something, if I have to plead and bargain with myself, if I have to drag myself by the hair, the reward never really feels like a reward at all. It just feels like relief. Whew, this thing is finally behind me – like a visit to the dentist. It had to be done, but I’m glad it’s over.
About a year back, I felt I was at the end of my tether. I tried to stick to things I was supposed to do: make plans, define goals, stick to schedules and deadlines, track progress. As a freelancer, I knew of the importance of organization and discipline. But the thing is, neither of those things really worked for me. In the end, I spent more time getting frustrated with all the management of my time and work than actually working. I’d sabotage my own “to-do” lists and ignore reminders, until I got so miserable I couldn’t get anything done.
So I’ve tried a different approach. I wrote when and what I wanted to write. If inspiration struck, I wrote blog posts instead of paid articles. I asked my publishers to postpone the deadline of my book, so I could get into serious travel journalism and human rights issues. I started writing more about what I truly care about. And guess what? I’m more productive than ever! I have more commissions to write stories, more ideas, more energy and I get so much more done now. It turns out, I thrive in chaos. And it turns out, it’s okay to embrace it.
So often, people say bitterly, “but you can’t just do what you want! There’s bills to pay, and somebody has to build roads and answer phones”. Interestingly, that’s not quite the case. According to anthropologist David Graeber, we could all, in fact, have a 15-hour work week and live prosperously and happily.
Doing what you want isn’t selfish, childish, or arrogant. It’s the greatest gift you can give to yourself, your family, and everyone around you. When you are your true self, every day, in everything that you do, suddenly the world expands.
Suddenly, the possibilities are endless.
Words: Egle Gerulaityte