Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
When he was eighteen, Giovanni’s father offered him $1000 to quit smoking. The kid refused. “I didn’t want to quit,” he says with a shrug.
My own parents never ponied up cash to entice me to kick the habit. Maybe if I had grown some cojones and smoked in the open, they might have given bribery a whirl. I have no doubt I would have rejected their offer. It was not until I was in my twenties and weary from the merry-go-round of quitting and starting that I finally found whatever storehouse of desire I needed to be ready to stop.
A pregnancy scare accelerated my readiness. The moment I had even a crumb of suspicion I might be carrying a child, I quit. This was before any confirmation the crumb was an it or even if I would keep said it should it come to fruition. The details were irrelevant. My sense of responsibility for giving that little being its best chance trumped all my self-deluded chatter about dependence and ill-gotten pleasure. I stubbed out the smokes, flat and hard, and tossed the pack.
A week or so later, my body sent a clear signal that the phantom child was never more than a slip of the clockworks. I could have launched an America’s Cup contender with the force of my exhalation. As I made haste to the corner store and stood outside lighting up that next cigarette, I considered the object in my yellowed grip. Sure, I was no longer – in fact, never had been – carrying a child. Did that change anything? If not that life, what of this one? What was I to do with the pesky problem of the beloved being in my care, still me?
The sudden arrival of a sense of duty for the small, mighty force living in my skin was most inconvenient. Also, I had been able to forego the smokes without a moment’s hesitation. That pesky fact was a hungry dog that kept following me home.
I puffed away feebly and with an increasing sense of dissonance for a few weeks until I realized I could not stomach the dithering. Was I a smoker or not? A choice had to be made. I could either return to the fiction that nicotine is both more valuable and more powerful than I am, or I could give it up.
The terrible truth was that I loved life more than that cigarette. The mind games came to an end. For too long, I had been singing that stale refrain, “Oh, I would love to reach a point where I could just enjoy a cigarette at a party from time to time.” Forget it. One becomes ten, and I am back at a pack a day. Even if I could just light up here or there, the gratification would not be worth the price. I knew as plain as day that I did not want anything to hold that kind of sway over my mind and body. Lasting pleasure is never so easy. Vices are gingerbread houses. They get you every time.
The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.
– Alice Walker
So, that was it. When I crushed out that last American Sprit fourteen years ago, I said, “I will never smoke another cigarette again as long as I live.” It was a commitment between me and my very own juicy, living self. I have never once faltered. Why would I? It has been so much simpler than I ever imagined it would be. This, I have come to understand, is how such things work. When the path ahead becomes clear, confusion falls away. The only hard part is in willing oneself to lurch up out of paralysis and begin walking.
What do we grasp? Since dispensing with cigarettes and television, what I notice is that the conceptions I lug around are a greater drain than any single behavior. I see myself as only just so brave, only just so capable, only just so energetic. Or worse, that I deserve special treatment and that the normal rules do not apply to me. I fool myself into thinking these ways have laid claim to me, even imprisoned me, when I am the one with my arms threaded through the bars. The reward is $1000. The reward is $100,000. The reward is a treasure chest inlaid with golden beetles and inhabited by a family of genies. I refuse to open my grip. The reward is my own full and electrified power, and still I hesitate. What can possibly be the compulsion? What hold does this thing I keep pressed between my stained fingers have over me, even after the satisfaction has burnt away, even when the Everything is right there for the taking?
I picture Aron Ralston again, sawing away when it became clear his attachment to his own arm was killing him. He cut off a part of his own body. He did this unimaginable thing, just for piddly ol’ life. No one offered him a dime.
Of course, kicking a habit only gets you so far. Sustained practice writes the epic story. Letting go is just a clearing of the clutter and an opening of the blank page. The joyous discipline that follows makes it possible to ink into being the scholar, painter, athlete, nurse.
Life is very short and what we have to do must be done in the now.
– Audre Lorde
We all know it, though. Deep down, I know it, and you do, too. Nothing is more precious than the next glorious incarnation waiting on the other side of the abyss.
No one among us is innocent. No one has more than a brief, long-forgotten visit to the garden before crashing into the first of many nauseating, bottom-dropping-out transitions. Every time through, you learn your power. You become fuller, and your vision sharpens. Like a stone cut and cut again into impossible brilliance, the in-between chisels you into an ever more distinctively patterned version of yourself.
It beckons. That other self over there, it calls. Drop that banged up old satchel. There is nothing in there you need. Set it down, and leap!
Giovanni was onto something at eighteen. Rewards mean nothing if you do not want what comes next. Once you arrive at the lip of the cliff, rewards still mean nothing. Only the wanting matters. Only the courage to want will lift your foot and send you over that edge.