A Cage Of One’s Own

Self-imposed prisons. I find myself thinking of them a lot as I make my way in the world, mostly noticing the constraints I place upon myself daily but also observing others’ prisons, the contours of which are different from my own but sources of suffering just the same. Always there exists the mystery: if I am aware I am doing this, living in these depressing, demoralizing, self-defeating ways, why can I not live otherwise?

I was struck recently by the words of Philip Roth, the 81-year-old prolific author of 31 books who retired from writing in 2010, ending a career that began in 1959. Roth granted an interview to Daniel Sandstrom, the cultural editor at the Swedish publication Svenska Dagbladet, for publication in Swedish translation in that newspaper and in its original English in the New York Times Book Review of March 16, 2014. Sandstrom was asking Roth about his “struggle with writing” over the years, to which the author replied:

“Everybody has a hard job. All real work is hard. My work happened also to be undoable. Morning after morning for 50 years, I faced the next page defenseless and unprepared. Writing for me was a feat of self-preservation. If I did not do it, I would die. So I did it. Obstinacy, not talent, saved my life. It was also my good luck that happiness didn’t matter to me and that I had no compassion for myself. Though why such a task should have fallen to me I have no idea. Maybe writing protected me against even worse menace.

Now? Now I am a bird sprung from a cage instead of (to reverse Kafka’s famous conundrum) a bird in search of a cage. The horror of being caged has lost its thrill. It is now truly a great relief, something close to a sublime experience, to have nothing more to worry about than death.”

At first it seems shocking: the thought that it can be a profound, almost meditative sensation to have nothing more to worry about in this lifetime than death. But upon deeper reflection, it seems absolutely true, at least to me. I know the cage of which Roth speaks—don’t we all, in some respect?—and to be free of that cage seems unspeakably liberating.

In truth, I have spent a large portion of my 45 years on this Earth alternately imprisoning myself and struggling to break free. Willingly, desperately keeping myself in the cage—for a feeling of safety, order, knowable constraint. I keep myself there until I almost am suffocating, my beak tired from pecking at its bars, at which point I just as desperately spring free, devour a taste of freedom and experience its savory richness, then rush back to the cage, shut the door, and throw away the key.

At times I have thrown the key not quite beyond my reach; far enough, not easily accessible, but still there if I stretch my wings and really make a go of it. In those cases, the same key still works. Other times I have thrown the key into a deep, dark river, where it sinks to the bottom, never to be found again in the muck of life. So I craft a new key, one with slightly different contours and indentations, though it works because I, too, have changed, and the details of the lock on my cage have changed as well. So there is a new key, a new fix, a new salve, albeit temporary.

One of my keys used to be wine, enjoyed under controlled conditions, not too frequently but with a fair amount of abandon when the time was right. If the moment was deemed acceptable, then four glasses of the richest red wine was standard protocol. I contented myself that it was OK, despite the fact that I’d go running back to the cage the next day, hungover, with a speed that surpassed my last retreat. So the return, the punishment, increased along with the enjoyment. Until I realized I was not, in fact, enjoying myself with that particular release, that particular key. A tough realization but one I believe I needed to make: that particular freedom was not really freedom at all.

So I turned to other freedoms, also when the moment was deemed acceptable. But as the years passed, I noticed that “time rightness” was a mutable concept and the goalposts moved constantly. Not only was it harder to find “acceptable” freedoms, freedoms that did not cause so much existential angst (as one prone to guilt, I hardly need one more thing to feel guilty about), but also it was harder to arrive at the moment when I felt I deserved even an acceptable treat, a day-pass from prison. My releases ceased being very extreme at all—take-out from a favorite restaurant, forgoing a proper dinner in favor of extra dessert, a day off from exercise (and not just any exercise, but excessive exercise). A lack of extremes can be a good thing if the items foregone are, in fact, harmful, but I began to sense that my abandonment of extremes was merely an additional way to punish myself. Somewhere deep inside, I knew I was moving further and further away from a locksmith who could craft the key to my soul, my deepest desires, my truest and best self, if such a thing exists. I sensed I was on a dangerous treadmill.

The most vexing part of self-punishment of any kind is the not knowing: why, precisely, am I doing this? What am I so afraid of that I choose this activity over another, perhaps more gratifying, enriching, compassionate (toward myself and others) activity? If I wasn’t doing this, what would I be doing instead? In Roth’s case, one could hardly argue that writing was a frivolous activity. He produced 31 novels, one a Pulitzer Prize winner (American Pastoral, 1997), and he is widely considered one of the preeminent authors of our time. But he may have experienced writing as a form of prison at times, an activity he could not step away from despite the constraints it necessarily placed upon his life. In his words, it was also “good luck that happiness didn’t matter to me and that I had no compassion for myself.” Whether he would state it as such, he surely is implying that writing did not always make him supremely happy, however he conceives of happiness, and that he felt no sense he deserved to be engaged in activities he might have found more rewarding, easier, less time consuming, or simply more fun.

Roth also suggests his writing kept him safe: “Maybe writing protected me against even worse menace.” In his deepest, most internal musings, what might Roth have imagined that worse menace to be? Alcohol? Drugs? Womanizing? Lethargy? Laziness? Gluttony? Which of the seven sins was he most afraid of? If it was fear that kept Roth writing for so long, producing literature that brought and continues to bring joy to the hearts of many, who are we to proclaim his fear such a bad thing? Does he truly believe his fear—if that is indeed how he views at least one of the forces that fueled his writing—kept him imprisoned, and that such fear was truly pernicious? Would he have lived his life differently were he given a second chance? He may say he could not have done otherwise—“If I did not do it, I would die.”—but is that his rationalization to justify not pursuing a different path, to balance the knowledge that he missed out on other, perhaps more rewarding experiences in life? Roth was married twice but never had children. Is he sorry to have never experienced the joys of a big family? To have never learned to cook like Julia Child or climb mountains like Sir Edmund Hillary? Does he regret devoting his life to a singular pursuit to the exclusion of many others? Is he purposely and in self-deprecating fashion not giving voice to the pride one imagines he must feel at having produced such a vast oeuvre of literature?

So many of us, vowing to make changes in our lives, are driven by the sense we are missing out on some existentially more fulfilling, meaningful way of being. If only we could give up X, or spend less time doing Y, we’d have so much more time to pursue Z, which would be the key to a feeling of true peace and contentment. But is that an accurate construct? And do we have a choice? The answer is easy when we look at self-destructive forms of addiction. It is easy to say that if [s]he gave up alcohol or drugs, for instance, [s]he might finally be able to unleash his/her true potential. But what about less dangerous habits?

I still struggle with a tendency to spend large chunks of time, i.e., a few hours most days, running. For the past few years, I have sensed this is more time than my heart wants to devote to this particular activity, yet I am finding it difficult to alter my routine and cut down on the amount of time I spend pounding the pavement. In many respects, I am pursuing this activity in a healthier fashion than I used to, in that I have learned to fuel my body more effectively for prolonged exercise and take rest days when I feel too tired to run. Nonetheless, I do not believe I have reached a state of balance with my running, such that I am content with the amount of time devoted to it, able to know how much is enough versus too much, and appropriately carefree when circumstances prohibit my daily dose. Don’t get me wrong, I am better than I used to be, but I also sense my journey toward balance has not yet reached its conclusion. Perhaps it never will.

Clearly my running is vastly different from Roth’s writing: I am not producing anything concrete or lasting through my runs. I come back from a 15-mile sojourn and cannot review my work and send it to an editor for review. My nieces, nephews, and step-grandkids won’t read my running log book and laugh at a turn of phrase or breathe with the recognition of a universal human experience. And yet, to play devil’s advocate, I generate numerous ideas during my runs, some of which serve as the basis for pieces I write, some that are the source of new experiences for my husband and me, some that spur me to contact friends or family members with a heartfelt sentiment I want to share. Depending on my mood, I may consider such ideas and subsequent actions as the positive fruits of my runs, and bask, if only temporarily, in the glory of the process.

My running is similar to Roth’s self-described experience of writing, in that I often feel if I did not run, I would die or, more accurately in my case, suffer tremendous anxiety. Like Roth, I also believe—and this is the stronger driver for me—that running protects me from an even greater menace, which I suppose I define as some combination of gluttony, lethargy, and depression. As I write this, I acknowledge I don’t truly harbor the notion that I would open the fridge and start eating its contents with abandon should I hang up my running shoes for good. Nor do I think I would cease to engage in some form of productive activity. I do believe my mood would decline, but perhaps I could find other healthy activities to take its place, either alternate forms of exercise or, god forbid, less running. I also believe I would have to construct some sort of new identity for myself: no longer primarily defined as “a runner,” I would necessarily start to define myself as someone or something else. Perhaps I would experience that someone/thing else as more—what is the right word?—likeable? In tune with the Universe?

Yet I am 45, and running and exercise are such a large part of me that I cannot currently conceive of a life that does not include them in some respect. The question becomes how, precisely, I incorporate running or another form of exercise into my life and whether the way I practice it causes me unnecessary suffering. Others might spend similar amounts of time exercising, but it might not feel quite like the burden it has become for me. Others might experience it differently, practice it in such a way that most of the time, exercise doesn’t feel like a burden at all but more of a joyful pursuit in which they feel lucky to be able to engage. That is the ideal, of course. Which suggests there is something about the way I practice running that is either unhealthy or inefficient; it is fueled, perhaps, by negative energy or from an unskillful perspective. Otherwise it would not feel burdensome, no? I wonder if the same was true for Roth, at least on some of the days he found himself at his desk yet again, anxiously trying to craft words to fill the pages of books his readers would treasure. Could there have been a way he could have practiced his writing such that it didn’t feel burdensome, so much like a cage from which he is delighted to be sprung now that he is 81 years old? Is such a concept even possible?

Perhaps much of what is worth doing necessarily feels difficult and burdensome most of the time, with only rare moments of metaphysical bliss resulting from the activity. Yet I often wonder whether (and sometimes believe) there is an ideal, Zen-like way of doing things such that they almost feel easy. Is anything less just a form of mental fog interfering with flow? But then I question whether this is a delusional view of the world that does not match reality.

When Roth refers to his current experience of NOT WRITING as being like a bird sprung from a cage, my brain alights at the recognition of that sensation, some form of which I feel on those days when I decide to NOT RUN. I may pursue some other form or exercise—hiking with my husband and dog or doing weights at the gym—but there is definitely a liberating aspect to not having the pressure of a run out there in my day. Frequently I notice the decision not to run evokes a predictable pattern of reduced anxiety for the first half of the day, a form of joy resulting from the absence of the cage. Sometimes this feeling persists throughout the entire day, but oftentimes the anxiety returns or a sort of depression sets in, a sense I have lost that day’s battle with no avenue to recapture the feeling of victory—or at least safety—until tomorrow.

I don’t imagine Roth feels this way now that he has stopped writing, though one never knows. Having written 31 novels, including a Pulitzer winner, he is more than entitled to feel like a bird sprung from a cage. Are there days he feels anxious or defeated as a result of his choice to abandon writing? Maybe. Or maybe it truly is as he describes, close to a sublime experience to have nothing more to worry about than death.

Nothing more to worry about than death. Hmmm. Is that a proxy for nothing more to accomplish than death? No pressure to perform, to produce, to prove to the world your worth? Perhaps that is it. If so, is Roth’s experience any different from that of people who, often in their later years, give voice to experiencing the joys of being rather than doing? In that case, is my running a perverse form of my need to achieve, to prove my worth, either to myself or the world or, more likely, both? If so, could I not gain this sense through other pursuits? Why have I adopted this particular activity? Because I can and many others cannot or choose not to? Is it something inherent in me? Is it necessarily wrong or misguided? If some part of it is misguided, does that mean all of it is misguided? Do I have to toss out the proverbial baby with the bathwater?

In my best moments, running in and of itself is close to the sublime experience of which Roth speaks. Other times, NOT running is more akin to that experience. It depends on the day and my frame of mind (as well as the state of my physical body, no doubt). It would be lovely if I could confine my running to those moments when it is gratifying and wonderful and spiritually enriching, but I have not yet found a way to do so. Perhaps it is not possible. But I sense there is a way for me to run that would not feel as burdensome as it currently does much of the time.

I suspect the key is being able to take it or leave it. To not care in just the right proportion, such that if I do not run on a given day, or run fewer miles or less skillfully than I intend, it will not rock my world. If a run happens, all the better, especially a good, energizing run; certainly I should strive for it to happen more days than not, but the Earth will not stop orbiting the Sun if I am unable to run one day or the next. I must not be too attached to the outcome.

I also have noticed with most tasks, I perform them best when not focusing too closely on the details, when I am able to do the work without getting hung up on the minutiae. Most of the time, attention to minutiae is inversely proportional to completion of the task at hand. I must learn to run without focusing on every step.

It also helps, in running as in life, to pursue it with a sense of gratitude—in my case, for the ability to run at all, for having two functional legs that can carry me down the street and over the horizon. And too, when I remember to run with a “beginner’s mind,” i.e., a mindset that does not expect me to be an Olympian or even a smooth, coordinated runner right out the front door: I am just an average, everyday plodder who wants to move her legs and be outside, nothing more. That is enough.

Maybe these are not keys to creating masterpieces or Pulitzer winners, but instead to experiencing the world and oneself as friendlier and more forgiving. Returning to Roth’s claim that, “It was also my good luck that happiness didn’t matter to me and that I had no compassion for myself,” perhaps those qualities made for a robust work ethic, but did they serve him well in other respects? Could he have written as skillfully or prolifically had he possessed more self-compassion? Would the world have been denied the fruits of Philip Roth absent his lack of self-regard?

I suppose my take-away is that I yearn for more frequent experiences of being sprung from the cage. With keys that do not feel like forms of unhealthy escape but instead friendly modes of self-compassion. I desire more frequent feelings of joy from being rather than doing, less frequent feelings of urgency to accomplish and achieve and prove and perform. No one is pushing me in those directions except me. I am the one cracking that whip. I possess the key.

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