Personal Stagnation

The word sounds like some kind ruminant mammal government overthrow but the reality of  stagnation is much more insidious than a government coup.

I most often associate stagnation with getting stuck in a routine unawares, though stagnation can also result when one is paralyzed by fear.  At least with the latter, you can name and conquer the beast.  In theory at least.  Sometimes it is hard to name the fear as the source of stagnation since it may present as excuses involving money, time, access, helplessness or approval instead.

I have spoken to many students, friends and colleagues who over the years have been unable to make a decision about their lives or careers because of the fear of making a change or taking a risk.  Often this involves a measure of self-doubt or fear about their ability to be successful in their new venture.

I have faced a similar decision when deciding to take a job seeking tenure in a research university.  I remember agonizing over whether to take the job for a couple of days – in reality it was probably much longer – but I eventually realized that I want to make major life decisions based on desire, not fear.  Otherwise, I felt I would always live my life with the regret of “What if?”

I believe this is a common theme for couples in a bad marriage.  I’ve written previously about my failed marriage and my reluctance to walk away when I knew it was not working out.  A healthy dose of fear is useful to make sure each person commits 100% to making the marriage successful before giving up.  But if you’ve done that and you know it’s never going to change despite all efforts, is fear keeping you from taking the leap?   If you’re afraid of being alone, maybe this is an opportunity to rediscover and reinvigorate your relationship with yourself.   I might also add that if you’re terrified of being alone, then maybe your dependence on your mate has been contributing your marital problems.  When I eventually realized I would rather be alone than in the relationship, and that we had already done everything we could think of to try to make it work, I knew it was time to move on.

Stagnation also seems to commonly result from inattention.  In my life, I have experienced stagnation because I was overwhelmed, depressed, or too comfortable.  The problem with being overwhelmed and depressed, besides having those uncomfortable feelings, is that it is difficult to shift gears and take a pro-active and positive perspective about your life under those circumstances.  You’re too busy, you’re too tired, you have too much going on to stop and re-evaluate your perspective or priorities, you’re unable to feel optimistic.  Part of me regrets that I had to hit rock bottom before I would really re-assess my life to make some important changes, but according to Joseph Campbell, expert in comparative mythology,

“Privation and suffering alone open the mind to all that is hidden from others.”

Feeling bad is a wonderful incentive for insight and change.  It is your cue to re-evaluate.

“Where you stumble and fall, there you will find gold.” – Joseph Campbell

The other source of stagnation is being too comfortable.  My job is comfortable, my relationship is comfortable, my life is comfortable, why change?  This might be the most insidious source of stagnation.  Fear, discomfort and depression can motivate change, but comfort rarely does.

I guess one could argue that if I’m comfortable and successful, why change anything?  I guess if your goal in life is to be merely comfortable, than maybe you should stop there.   My reason for change during comfort has to do with my belief about living and life.  I’m no gardener, but I know that when my plants stop growing, when I fail to see new green shoots, then the plant is unhealthy and has a date with the compost bin.  So am I.  When I stop growing and learning is when I should consider retirement, resign myself to the figurative couch of life, my main comfort being the remote control for my remaining days.

I’m not saying that I should sell everything and move to Tibet if my life is good and easy.  Rather, I feel the need to keep growing on some axis – whether intellectual, physical, emotional, spiritual or otherwise.  One of our truly illustrious alumni told our students recently on a return visit, “Do something every day that makes you uncomfortable.”  In other words, push yourself out of your comfort zone on a daily basis.  There, you will find growth, insight, and self-knowledge.

You may surprise yourself with your hidden abilities.  I recall taking antacids literally every day for three months prior to my first research seminar when I was a first year graduate student.  Terrified would hardly begin to describe how I felt.  But I found after that day that I have a love of public speaking and teaching, and if I had caved to my fear and avoided the exercise, I would never have discovered this as a passion.

“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” – Joseph Campbell

Where can you push into unknown territory?  Go where you are most afraid and discover your treasure.

“You enter the forest
at the darkest point,
where there is no path.

Where there is a way or path,
it is someone else’s path.

You are not on your own path.

If you follow someone else’s way,
you are not going to realize
your potential.”  – Joseph Campbell

Couch potato

Couch potato

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3 thoughts on “Personal Stagnation

  1. Excellent advice in here (and that photo alone drew me into the post – hilarious!). It’s so easy to become stagnant but, as you said, when we fight that urge, great things happen. For some reason I find this to be easier to do when the weather perks up (and living in Maine, this is no small feat)! Thankfully today is sunny is 60s – no need to stagnate. Here’s to going forward regardless of circumstances and fears!

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