You had a plan, not a good plan, but it was a plan that most certainly existed. First, you’d wake up, groan and shamble into the kitchen in search of Colombia’s greatest export. Grinding it up and snorting it, you’d take your caffeine as Satan intended and would be strong enough to face the day. Guided by the Tulpa of Juan Valdez, you would then sit down and grind out 2,000 words on that manuscript you’ve convinced yourself will be the path to fame and fortune. After all, you heard once that’s how Stephen King did it. And that guy looked amped in the 80s.
Just one problem – getting up isn’t happening. You tried for a moment but stopped once you felt your soul trying to escape yoru body. Everything hurts in ways you didn’t think were possible. Every muscle aches, your head is pounding, your stomach is churning and you’re pretty sure something is going to explode if you disturb it any. You weren’t partying last night, you had too much procrastinating to do on the manuscript for that. There’s only one explanation… you’re dying.
Oh god, you were so young, you’d done everything right, and now you’re going to melt into a pile of goo in your bed and be remembered by no one. Some poor bastard is going to find you face down on the pillow, glued to it by whatever the hell it is coming out of your nose right now. And what do you have to show for it? What have you left to the world? Stephen King wrote 12 books by the age of 35, what have you done with your life?
Wait…what if he was doing the other Colombian export? Oh god, you’ve been so stupid, spitting up black phlegm for months over nothing. Every day you’ve been walking around like some jackass from the old west looking for a spittoon!
Wait, focus, you’re dying, damn it. You need to get that manuscript done right now and make sure that you leave something for the people! You’re going to force yourself to get up and get your work done no matter what.
But that raises another question: how are you going to do that?
The Monkey Trap
Short answer: you don’t, and you shouldn’t even try.
It’s something that’s been on my mind as of late. As anyone who follows the blog knows, I have some health issues which are chronic and caused primarily by my environment. Breathing problems and other issues caused by smog and a childhood exposed to bad fumes from an oil refinery have left me with some rough mornings of my own. And sometimes, I try to beat myself up and finish a task that I really shouldn’t be trying to finish. You aren’t in the best of shape, you’re not going to hit the same stride, and you’re probably going to come away with it a little displeased with the result (and yourself). I mean, you’re probably likely to find flaws in the work you did while well, and the person who did that work was considerably better off than you are right now.
But you know that, I know that, everyone knows that. The real question is why we feel like we should be fighting to do something that we really have no right to be doing. Some people have a convenient excuse of a deadline or being a workaholic. Others feel like the project they’re working on will help them take their mind off their aches and pains. They’re wrong, of course, because generally if you’re sick enough to need a distraction you’re equally sick enough to simply be distracted. It’s one of those things we beat our heads against repeatedly because somewhere, deep down, we’re programmed to keep moving even when we shouldn’t be.
You’ve seen it before, people trying to brush off injuries or illness like it’s nothing. We want to be stronger than this and our bodies are mocking us with their frailty. It’s worse if you take good care of yourself because you’ve invested so much time into this machine that has decided to implode on you. And, frankly, you sometimes feel like a failure for not being able to overcome the very forces of nature.
I’m fully supportive of finishing what you’ve started and encourage you to always try for it, but sometimes that just isn’t in the cards. Sometimes you need to make a tactical retreat before you come out the other end worse for wear and holding a train-wreck you decided to call art. It starts strong, some of the beats are pretty good, but there’s a section in the third page where you started to typo repeatedly before ending on the phrase “oh god, take me now”. You’re not even sure how that section didn’t get deleted right away but that’s probably thanks to your friends NyQuil and Benadryl making it impossible for you to read in the last 24 hours.
In folk tales, urban legends, and some amusing anecdotes, monkeys were said to be easily trapped by putting a banana or something similar into a jar with a narrow opening. The monkey, reaching into the jar, would grab the object and try to pull it out, only to find their closed hand and their prize couldn’t get back through the hole. The monkey, incapable of understanding the problem, would continue to struggle with trying to pull that hand out and never consider dropping the object they had in their hands. They could be free, able to find other bananas, but they just can’t bring themselves to let it go. It’s often believed that the story is either 100% true or alternatively a complete fabrication, but the truth is more somewhere in the middle. How do I know?
Because we’re the monkey.
Well, primates, specifically great apes, but the instinctual programming is still the same. We can see that in stories like chimps going to war, a pair of monkeys figuring out inequality in short order, and various other experiments that show us our nearest animal cousins aren’t far off from us. And it goes both ways. We, like the monkey in the story, hesitate to let go of something even if that happens to have us trapped. Some of us can never let go of that banana at all. Though anyone familiar with teenage boys would recognize this pretty easily.
But, if you’re sick now, or when you’re sick again, try to remember that. That insistence to chase the same project over and over while you’re not feeling well is just hurting the work. You can do other things instead, like complete a smaller task, do some edits, or even switch gears on your blog so you put in a new category about random thoughts you have on Mondays.
So long as you’re willing to come back to it later, it’s okay to let go and switch gears. The urge to keep throwing yourself at the wall even when you can’t handle it is a primitive part of you that needs to be put in check. And that’s true with any number of things like injury, grief, stress, and disappointment. If something is strong enough to require a distraction, it’s also strong enough to be one. And in the end that requires you to fight past the primal urges. It’s well within your power, most activities in the day require you to suppress at least one or two of those urges. After all, if we did everything that was in our instincts…
We’d be down on their level in no time.