Every year, BITS Pilani organizes a cultural festival (Oasis!) and a conference… Apogee.
My first year of undergrad, I volunteered for the Computer Science department during Apogee, and created some kinda crossword puzzle generator and solver. I was immensely proud of the project and my 2 person rag-tag army consisting of derelicts like me. As in, none of us really liked the majors we had signed up for (mine was Pharmacy?!), and spent every minute of our waking life taking elective courses in Computer Science.
So for Apogee projects, you had a student panel of judges and a professor panel of judges, and they assigned you scores based on utility and creativity. And there was some kinda award/prize for best project.
There was one particular student judge who scared the heck out of all of us. He was tall and lanky and dour as Abraham Lincoln. He went around asking what each student’s project did for the poor of India. Da fuq?
Some of the kids had done cool projects on fractals, and morphing and this guy was doing some kinda Gandhian thought experiment? [Gandhi, during India’s freedom struggle, had exhorted people to think about their actions – how does your action affect your country? If your action uplifts your fellowmen, go ahead and do it, it’s the right karma.]
When my turn came and I finished my demo, he asked me the same dreaded question.
What does your project do for the poorest man in India?
Shamefaced, I had to admit that despite its slick Windows 95 look (remember those days?!) my crossword project did not solve anything for the poorest man or woman in India. The guy left with a sneer on his face.
Needless to say, most of the project awards that year went to Pharmacy and Biology departments, for their world-disease eradicating potential.
Dour Student Judge
I don’t remember the guy at all, just his face… I can look him up in the BITSAA yearbook. But his impact shows up in my life, every now and then.
As in, I have some dreams. I sort of know how to get from Point A to Point B. And then, some days, Dour Student Judge takes over. I start looking at things from a big picture perspective, and suddenly it’s like there’s no point to what I’m doing. My thoughts become a jumble of death, and evolution, and how everything that has any meaning and symbolism in this present universe may one day mean nothing in the context of a different matrix or value system.
Looked at from world hunger and poverty perspectives, my dreams make no sense. I start wondering.. does the world really, really need another effing app? If my app does nothing to solve world hunger, poverty, or the feeling of disconnect people have, is it truly anything to write home about?
NOTHING IS GOOD ENOUGH.
I could write just as easily about the opposite effect. When just to get out of bed and put a foot in front of the other can seem monumental. When it seems as if every step you take is just an infinitesimal grain of sand on the vast ocean side of life.
I AM A NOBODY. I AM WORTH EXACTLY NOTHING.
Jealous of Myself
These types of paralyses happen to me a lot. My life can be going along swimmingly, and there’ll be a little nugget of doubt that will roll downhill down the neuronal pathways, picking up speed, and the flotsam and jetsam of fears, till it explodes into one large snowball of doubt, paralysis, stasis, and failure.
I AM A NOBODY. I AM WORTH EXACTLY NOTHING.
When I was a kid, and didn’t have words to describe this feeling, I called this getting “jealous of myself.” As in, I was so jealous of my own life that I doubted myself and sabotaged it in any way I could.
And yet… as much as paralysis is debilitating… getting out of it is even more fucking gratifying.
So this post isn’t about how paralyzed I am and how sucky my life is. It’s more about how I hacked my thinking.
I went through the last quarter of 2014 thinking it was the worst period of my life, not knowing that life would find ways to break me mentally.
I was sick for an extended period of time, and losing and regaining vision as a result of an auto-immune disease triggered by this other condition I had.
If it rained outside, my vision got blurry. If I got tired, my vision got blurry. At my worst, I had a vision field about the size of a dime. I had racing thoughts and it constantly felt as if I was falling off my bed, even if I was lying down.
Life off-kilter. Before he figured out the correlations between my various conditions, my doctor thought I had MS.
I was on steroids, and gaining weight at an alarming rate. I probably looked like Pillsbury man, except I couldn’t see myself in the mirror.
Then one day, I was well enough to see. When I got on the scale, I was shocked that I was 160+ lbs on a 5ft 2in body. Not good.
NOT FUCKING GOOD AT ALL.
I leaned into the mirror, forcing myself to smile. And even in the blurry haze, all I remember from that day are my fat protruding cheeks. And my thought.. I look like a frickin’ chipmunk from Alvin and the Chipmunks.
Multiple boo-hoo-woe-is-me sessions and fat ugly tears ensued.
And then I met Lola
One December afternoon, I was beyond bored and miserable. I had to do something. Anything.
I looked around my bed at the things in the room.
Phone. I could write if I increased font size to 60.
Mirror. Nah.. don’t go there. I’ll feel miserable.
Dresser. My underwear drawer needs sorting. Meh, it’ll wait.
Elliptical. Mac. Swift programming?
That was the day it dawned on me that I have a tricked out elliptical in my bedroom for a reason. I almost forgot I owned it because I hated getting on it. I much preferred going for long walks to the Marina.. Except it had snowed outside. And with my poor vision, I couldn’t be trusted to go on walks by myself.
I could be blind and I could still get on the elliptical, couldn’t I? I would do 30 minutes on the elliptical.
No way… 15?
15? Hmm. Okay, do 15.
That was all I had to spend on it. 30 minutes was ideal, but 15 was all I had to commit to. If I did 15 minutes, I could kvetch, moan, eat tubs of ice cream – whatever I wanted.
I didn’t need to strain. I didn’t need to do crazy speeds. 15 minutes. That’s all.
Me: What if I get dizzy?
Other me: Get off.
Me: What if I can’t see?
Other me: What if you’re just making excuses?
I got on it, and started walking.
By minute 2, I had picked up enough speed to get huffy and puffy. By minute six, I had to hold on to the rails to continue walking because my vision had gone blurry.
Keep going, Other Me yelled in my ear. 15 bloody minutes. Minute 15, you can give up and go lie on your bed in a fat, crying puddle.
And so I went on.. constantly squinting at the clock.
9 minutes. 10.
At the 15th minute, I took a small break, and then I said, I’ll keep walking for 5 more minutes just to cool down.
Fair enough. Kept walking.
Other me: See, that wasn’t so bad, was it? Wanna do 2 more?
And before I knew it, I’d done 27 or 28 minutes.
Other me: You’re almost there. Don’t you want to take it all the way to 30?
Me: LOLA, you’re a FUCKING BITCH. I HATE YOU. I’ll do 30 just to get you off my back.
And so.. thanks to my alter-ego Lola, I finished my 30 minutes.
In fact I did 35, just to prove to Lola that I was a bigger, stubborner bitch than she was.
Since then.. I’ve had many, many moments of fear and doubt and worthlessness. But I think I’ve found my hacks. And I have Lola.
So, dear reader, without further ado:
How to hack your heart in 3 easy steps
1) Set a teeny, tiny goal and accomplish it. Too tired to write? Spend two minutes on your phone writing a couple of sentences. Most times the two minutes become five, five become ten… and I’ve managed a full hour of writing.
2) Set your escape clauses in your contract with yourself. Tell yourself it’s ok to quit after X tries, or Y minutes. There must be some psychological reason, but I think just knowing you have an escape clause makes you not want to quit. Also I find that I almost always exceed my escape limits. In fact, in almost two years of using this hack, I’ve used my escape clause exactly twice.
3) Create your Lola.
Lola. I’m sure I could’ve chosen a more intellectually satisfying moniker than Lola.. But Lola is good enough.
She’s my alter ego, my inner goddess, my BFF-mom-stern-teacher all rolled into one. She’s a fabulous conversationalist, one hell of a sharp dresser, and a charmer when she’s in the mood for charm. Many times she tells me I’m being a whiny, ungrateful bitch. Often she whispers her sensible words of wisdom and calms me down.
At night, she’s in charge of programming. She sends me pretty vivid dreams most nights. Recently she gave me a scene-by-scene dream of sitcom situations. Beyotch or whatever, you gotta love her.
It doesn’t have to be Lola, it could be Lionel. Or Lupe. Doesn’t matter. Find the kindest, most nurturing part of yourself, and friend it.
And so.. like today.. whenever I beset by fears, I talk to myself.. My inner Lola.
Two more minutes. One more baby step. You can do it. You WILL do it.
She shows me how to hack my doubting fearful heart.
[And to answer my Latter Day Gandhi classmate… You don’t go through life sitting in a room just ‘cos you’re gonna die one day. It’s meaningless to wonder at the stench of a corpse flower in the context of world hunger or poverty. These contexts are often absurd. Even a simple crossie can provide a family hours of immense pleasure just by showing up in the daily newspaper.
Sometimes we don’t need to overthink things. They just are. Let them be.]