Self Improvement for Rebels

reese witherspoon freeway

I’ve always been a bit of a rebel. Even when I was still “good,” like in high school before I discovered sex / drugs / rockin out, I was always questioning the validity of rules and kind of being a pain in the ass.

So when I took happiness heavy-hitter Gretchen Rubin’s online quiz about how I react to internal and external expectations, it wasn’t too surprising to see my results. Want to guess?

  • Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations
  • Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense
  • Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike
  • Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves

The quiz pegged me as a Rebel (though I think there’s a good bit of Questioner in there, too), and like the Ask/Guess distinction I read and wrote about a little while ago, many mysteries revealed themselves to me when I considered these ideas … Like

  • Why I can’t seem to develop and stick to any kind of rigid schedule, no matter who imposes it
  • Why rah-rah-type self-improvement stuff doesn’t seem to work for me
  • Why I have always gotten so angry about gender-based assumptions and expectations
  • Why rules have always read more like “guidelines” to me
  • Why my Upholder/Questioner husband is much better at setting routines and deadlines for himself than I am, and why we sometimes differ on which rules we deem OK to break

Examining a person’s default response to expectations is an interesting way to understand their motivations and level of pain-in-the-assness, one I hadn’t really considered before I read Gretchen’s work on this.

To me, it also begs the question of where people are oriented in time. Do rebels rebel simply because they have a hard time connecting to the future? It’s well-documented that the ability to control yourself today for a benefit in the future is strongly correlated with success in life. What many people don’t know is that it’s also strongly shaped by your childhood surroundings.

In the classic marshmallow study where kids who were told they could have one marshmallow now or two marshmallows in 15 minutes, the 15 minutes kids are the ones who learned to trust that the world would indeed follow through on its promises. But the now kids learned that anything concrete now is better than an amorphous promise for the future. We develop a bias toward the present moment, and we become rebels, or at least rebellious.

I’m definitely one of these present-moment people, and I’ve known many others in an up-close and personal way. It can be either a beautiful way to live or a very effective method of throwing your life away, depending on how you play it.

So, even as I appreciate the lovely side of my in-the-now-ness, I do also see the value in future-oriented habits, and I have developed some and I want to develop more. It’s just that “yeah willpower woo!” doesn’t seem to work for me as a strategy. Here are some that do work.

1) Improve the structure of your life to support the choices you want to make.

Here’s what I do: I don’t keep large amounts of ice cream in the house. I unsubscribed from my Sephora emails. I leave my yoga mat out and available all the time. The idea here is that I am trying to make it physically easier to make the choices I want to make, and more difficult to stray from the path. Build barriers to things you don’t want to do, and remove impediments from things you do want to do.

2) Link healthy habits to present-moment feelings that are pleasurable.

Rubin talks about this in her video about rebels, and she suggests that we connect the habits we want to develop with freedom and present-moment pleasure.

This absolutely works for me. I get myself to do yoga by focusing on how good it feels to stretch and hug my muscles around my bones and watch myself getting stronger. I take walks because I want to see the surface of the reservoir sparkling in the sun, or because I want to listen to a podcast and get a cup of coffee. The pleasure of it is what gets me.

3) Link healthy habits to your freedom to do what you want even when The Man doesn’t want you to.

OK, we all know that there’s no particular man named The Man who conspires to keep us down. How we got to this point in history is a far, far more complicated story. But there’s no denying that defying The Man is a compelling reason for a rebel to do basically anything. And it is hilarious and fun and allows me to channel my natural Fuck Off disposition in useful ways.

For instance … when my brain starts in on the self-hating body loop, sometimes I identify it as the Voice of Patriarchy, smirking like Dick Cheney while it tries to bring me down the fat shame spiral.

And then the Wonder Woman part of me bursts in like, Duuuude, fuck offffff. You run enough of the world out there, I’ll be damned if you’ll run my fucking head, too. Die in a fire! This instant!

wonderwoman

And then he bursts into flames and I laugh and the shame spiral thoughts are definitely shut down.

Now, it’s not like I’m, like, picturing slitting Patriarchy’s throat and playing around in the blood (usually). It doesn’t have to get that real (usually). It’s more like a way to remember The Cause of Women’s Freedom To Love and Respect Their Own Damn Bodies, and to rally the love I have for that cause into a private moment where I find myself in need strength and perspective.

And it works for all kinds of habits I want to improve.

Want to stop buying so much makeup? Fuck off, Sephora! Your shiny consumerist trap ensnares me not!

Got to shut my brain up so I can get my eight hours? Suck it, continuous stream of thoughts about work when I go to bed! The Man doesn’t get to intrude on my fucking sleep!

Need to let go of some unnecessary internet drama? Blow me, dude who doesn’t believe sexism and racism are real! You don’t even exist!

Is it stupid? Oh god yes. But when I have a cognitive dissonance between who I want to be and who I’m actually being, this kind of silly mental shit helps me stick to the right side of the street. Maybe it will help you, too.

In conclusion, if you are a rebel, or if you have rebel tendencies that you are able to keep in check enough to at least stay out of prison and keep a job, then

(1) I empathize, and

(2) I hope this is helpful, and

(3) Let’s party.

The Best Time I Basically Believed In A Fictional Religion

watching-the-sky

Have you ever been reading a sci-fi book, and one of the characters creates a new religion, and it’s so close to what you think about life/the universe/our place in it that you are basically ready to sign up for this fictional religion by the time you’re done reading the book?

No? Just me?

It is an odd sensation, to see your worldview precisely spelled out in the pages of a novel about a dystopian near-future, but that’s exactly what happened to me when I read Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler. (I can’t get enough of her — read my thoughts on Kindred here.)

In the Parable books, our protagonist is Lauren Olamina, a teenage girl who has seen some major shit and creates a new religion called Earthseed in response … though she would say she discovered rather than created it.

Earthseed’s major tenet is this: Change is the most powerful force in the universe, and we are both subjects of and participants in it.

All that you touch

You Change.

All that you Change

Changes you.

The only lasting truth

Is Change.

God Is Change.

In the Earthseed worldview, God is not a person or a person-type entity who cares about your thoughts or whether your favorite football team is winning this season. God is nothing but Change itself, inevitable and impersonal and beautiful and devastating.

It’s a clear-eyed and some might say cold perspective, but to me, it’s perfect, because first off, it seems more accurate than believing there is an entity in the sky listening to my thoughts and/or caring about my football team.

Secondly, it underscores the fact that we do not need and in fact must not rely upon divine intervention to make a better world for ourselves and for each other.

God is not our supernatural mother or father. God is Change, and its job isn’t to take care of us. That task falls squarely on our own shoulders. We need to take care of each other.

God is Change,

And in the end,

God prevails.

But meanwhile…

Kindness eases Change.

Love quiets fear.

And a sweet and powerful

Positive obsession

Blunts pain,

Diverts rage,

And engages each of us

In the greatest,

The most intense

Of our chosen struggles

That positive obsession she mentions is the destiny of Earthseed as she sees it — to spread itself throughout the universe, to take root among the stars. This mission, this large and audacious project is meant to give humanity a goal, yes, but it’s also designed to get humans to organize our thoughts about each other at a higher level. To see each other not as rivals, but as family. To be Earthseed, before we are men or women or rich or poor or American or Korean or South African or anything else.

The Destiny of Earthseed

Is to take root among the stars.

It is to live and to thrive

On new earths.

It is to become new beings

And to consider new questions.

It is to leap into the heavens

Again and again.

It is to explore the vastness

Of heaven.

It is to explore the vastness

Of ourselves.

To my delight, Butler goes all the way with this — Olamina writes her verses and shares them with others running from the fires of the future. With her verses and with her own personal strength, she gathers a community around her to practice Earthseed. They welcome newcomers, focus on education, and make carefully considered but bold moves to shape chaos to their benefit. They become a formidable and capable group of people, practiced in the art of adapting to new situations quickly, learning as much as possible, and putting themselves in the strongest position they can.

In one particularly painful part of the second book, we get a chance to see how Earthseed functions when the shit hits the fan and the community falls on the hardest times imaginable. Even when everything falls apart, their beliefs galvanize them. They remain focused on surviving, on learning, on keeping their eyes open for opportunities to influence what happens, instead of just being the ones it happens to.

Any Change may bear seeds of benefit.

Seek them out.

Any Change may bear seeds of harm.

Beware.

God is infinitely malleable.

God is Change.

The ending of the book is extremely satisfying to me, but I know from reading interviews with Butler that there were meant to be lots of Parable books. We were meant to follow Earthseed as it spread around the universe, as it shaped and was shaped by many other worlds, but Butler died before she cracked the nut of how to tell the rest of those stories. Such a shame … maybe someone will pick it up and run with it in the future.

When I say I’m ready to sign up for Earthseed, I guess my tongue is in my cheek a little … probably because I’m the only one who would be signed up, and I’m not like Olamina. I’m not ready to devote my life to spreading the ideas of Earthseed.

But to me? Everything Butler/Olamina came up with is fucking sound. And I get a deep charge when I think about change in this way — inevitable, unstoppable, but malleable, too. It makes me remember that to dig my heels in against change is a fruitless effort. It reminds me that I can work with it instead, I can shape it, I can play an active part in creating what happens around me. As Olamina puts it,

We do not worship God.

We perceive and attend God.

We learn from God.

With forethought and work,

We shape God.

In the end, we yield to God.

We adapt and endure,

For we are Earthseed

And God is Change.

To me, this seems just about right, even if we don’t get the G-word involved in it. Change is happening all the time, all around us, and even when we feel like we are its victims, in truth we are always, always participants as well. Best to recognize that and run with it.

photo by Gianluca Mastrascusa // cc