#84: On good behavior
And its opposite
Today I’m launching a series I’m calling Brief Endorsements, in which I endorse something in under 1,000 words. I know that’s comically not-brief, but I can’t seem to write a single Sunday newsletter that’s not extremely long and dense, and I’d like, every once in a while, for you to be able to consume it in under 5 minutes. Is that so much to ask? (Asking myself, who turns every spare thought into an existential inquiry and/or crisis.)
Before I start, a quick announcement. Maybe Baby officially has a phone number! It’s 802-404-BABY (that is: 802-404-2229). Huge. For now I’m mainly using it for the monthly advice podcast I host with my friend Danny—a counterpart to my written Q&A column that goes out the last Sunday of the month. If you’d like to ask us a question or tell us something, give the number a call and leave a message. We may air and discuss it on February 1st! (As always you can also submit a written question here. Both that link and the number are in the footer of every newsletter.)
A brief endorsement: Short-term habits
At the end of last summer I started tracking my own movements in a journal. In the mornings I’d write down what I planned to do that day, and at night I’d write down what I’d done. This practice was impassive and dispassionate—only slightly less dead-eyed than a to-do list or a time card. Emotional excavation was prohibited. I didn’t even check to see if, by the end of the day, I’d done what I’d planned. The goal was only to pull myself out of my head and into the position of observing the tangible contents of my life: getting a coffee, reading a book, going to the post office, doing yoga, cleaning the kitchen. From the inside of my depressive slump, I simply needed proof that things were happening. That I was capable of imagining things for myself and also doing them.
I did this for exactly the amount of time that it brought me comfort, which was about one month. When I started feeling better and the journaling started feeling like a chore, I stopped. There was a brief period where I wondered if I should keep at it by force. Sometimes I would revisit the journal for a day and then forget about it again. But ultimately I decided that the record-keeping was a practice best kept in abeyance, to be picked up only when my mood required it. A short-term habit. This is not a very popular idea. Common wisdom says that an unsustainable routine is a fool’s errand, relegated to the cursed realm of the crash diet. Instead we ought to focus on consistency and longevity. But sometimes that feels out of step with human nature, which ebbs and flows, requiring different things at different times, and what then?
Last year, after I wrote about inconsistency as a rule to live by, a reader named Pedro asked if I’d ever heard of a British occultist and ceremonial magician by the name of Dion Fortune. “Dion Fortune once wrote that rhythm is the principle of life, not stability,” Pedro wrote. “I don't know if you are into occultism, but The Mystical Qabalah is truly a great book.” I am not into occultism sadly, but out of curiosity I googled Fortune and, like the former Tumblr girl I am, fell in love with a quote of hers despite lacking a broader understanding of her work. It’s from The Mystical Qabalah:
“The great weakness of Christianity lies in the fact that it ignores rhythm. It balances God with Devil instead of Vishnu with Siva. Its dualisms are antagonistic instead of equilibrating… The Christian concept being static, not dynamic, it does not see that because a thing is good, its opposite is not necessarily evil.”
(I cannot further vouch for Fortune so if her other writings are bonkers please don’t hold me accountable.)
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that modern self-improvement discourse bifurcates behaviors along similar, i.e. moralizing, lines: You’re either doing well or slipping up. Staying the course or falling off the wagon. Being “well,” eating “clean”—there’s a very puritanical undercurrent to it. Even the more compassionate approaches can hint at this good-bad binary: Forgive yourself for failing; you can’t do everything all the time; lapses happen. But these notions are still preoccupied with one-dimensional movement, however slow. And I wonder if by assuming growth is always the goal, we become too fixated on measuring our progress (or berating our lack of it), when we could be assessing our rhythm. Our ability to not just accept but embrace the animating tension of our shifting wants, needs, and abilities.
Sometimes we only need to do something for a while. Journal for a while. Meal plan for a while. Practice an art form for a while, then put it aside for something else, like going on walks. It’s perfectly natural to try things out, see how they feel, and revisit them later when the conditions of our lives call for them. Why not regard our habits and ways of being the same way we regard our other cyclical needs, like sleep, food, activity, and rest? Just as sleep and wakefulness are opposed but equally vital, the opposite of a good habit doesn’t have to be a bad one. It can just be something different, for a different aim, or a different you. In the context of self-improvement, we often use “growth” and “evolution” synonymously, but they’re not the same. Evolution isn’t about achieving our final form, but adapting to our circumstances, ad infinitum.
Reframing my vicissitudes in these terms has shifted my self-regard. A hyper-productive day is not the result of discipline or of “being good” but of giving myself enough rest. When I noticed the other day that I hadn’t been writing on as strict of a schedule as last year, I appreciated the fact that, instead, I was in better touch with my friends and family. These trade-offs give my life texture. Many of the things I love are necessarily oppositional: effort and ease, breadth and depth, fall and spring. It’s not actually possible to pursue them at the same time. There is no one aim, or one habit, to fix everything. Nothing is fixed, and that’s the point.
My favorite piece I read this week was “The Joys (and Challenges) of Sex After 70,” an amazingly in-depth and touching feature by Maggie Jones for The NYTimes Magazine. This week’s 15 things also featured a special pillow, DIY bangs, and a peanut butter tip. The commenter Rec of the Week was bowls, from soup bowls to pasta bowls to almost-plates (which I learned are sometimes called “plowls”). I’ve been in search of the ideal combination and got so many good suggestions.
On the podcast this week I’ll be discussing all the topics I wanted to include in this newsletter but didn’t have space for: the “that girl” trend, the importance of flop eras, self-image under capitalism, the role of expectations, etc.
Thanks so much for reading. I hope you have a nice week!