[I’ll be sharing posts with you on specific topics — nutrition, exercise, drilldowns into particular health conditions — but I’ll also be posting about deeper insight work: the stuff that we’re often unaware of that gets in the way of improving our health. It’s a toss up as to which is more important, knowing the nuts and bolts of how to fix a problem, or recognizing that there’s a deeper problem in the first place. Today’s article is one of the latter kinds of articles, and I hope you find it helpful — PBK]
In terms of the stuff you have to deal with, there’s this (hands opening on either side of your head, like telling a friend, “Boom: mind blown”), and there’s that (arms out straight, up overhead then down to your sides, like a sun salutation in yoga, like “Mushroom cloud be this big”).
Our personal comfort zone is the former. There’s a variability to our day-to-day lives — some days are easy, some days are hard — and the size of the swing from the high to the low is generally manageable. Once in a great while something unexpected can happen. But by and large, the magnitude of the daily curveballs is familiar and about yea big (palms down, palms up, conceptually the size of a volleyball).
When you’re describing an arc with your arms like a dancer in a Bob Fosse production, there’s something entirely different going on, something an order of magnitude more complicated. That something else is usually other people. Your spouse, or your children or parents, your in-laws, your coworkers or superiors…did your neighbors make the list? Everyone working with you at your company, or all your clients/customers? Your fellow countrymen?
As the field gets wider, the variables multiply and the uncertainty factor of all the possible outcomes multiplies enormously. What started as your own personal furball of a comfort zone expands to a huge bag of yowling, spitting cats.
I know how to deal with mental fatigue tempting me to break my diet. I’m not sure what to make of U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis Switzerland, the European Union, and the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Handful of variables vs. enough variables to choke a supercomputer.
Infinity is still infinite
Only, that’s not how we actually deal with the world.
There are tons of uncertainties in the bigger sphere encompassing other people. But there are an infinite number of variables in our own little volleyball-sized furball, too. I saw this firsthand in just one small corner of my professional world: talking to patients about nutrition and exercise.
Diets? There’s Paleo, Keto, South Beach, Zone, AIP, Whole 30, Vegan, Pescatarian, Lacto-ovo vegetarian, and let’s not forget Intermittent Fasting, which is technically distinct from Time Restricted Feeding.
Working out? Just talking strength training — setting aside cardio, strength endurance, flexibility, mobility, and skills training (GPP vs SPP) for the moment — there’s Olympic lifting, powerlifting, CrossFit lifting, lifting for size and shape, lifting for compact strength, isometrics without weight, weights with chains, weights with bands, bands alone, TSC, kettlebells, clubbells…
Consider your recreational activity of choice, even just a favorite literary genre. How many books did you love to read, from how many of your favorite writers? How many other books did these favorites lead to from similar writers in the genre? Do you like cars, cameras, or other gadgets? How deep does your geekdom go, to what edition of which model from which year, that’s no longer made but represents the arguable pinnacle of that item? Don’t even get me started on Star Wars collectibles.
How endlessly crazy can one single relative make you? You can probably go on forever, right?
In mathematics, there’s the infinity of all the counting numbers, from 1 to 2 to 3…out to basic infinity. There’s another infinity, that’s all those numbers plus the halves in between, from 1 to 1.5 to 2 to 2.5…that infinity is twice as big as the first infinity. There’s an even bigger infinity, including all the itty bitty fractions and decimal points between the whole numbers…you get the idea. They’re all different in size, but they’re all infinitely large.
Your personal furball is basic infinity in size. It seems perfectly manageable from a distance, but up close there are variables everywhere you look. The more you look, the deeper you can always go, and the more endless the list becomes of things to deal with.
Outside spheres are definitely bigger than your furball. Bigger infinities, with forces outside of your control and influence, no question.
One might be inclined to keep to your own personal Tesseract, which is more than enough to keep you pulling your hair out for a lifetime. That is what large sections of our society do: back hastily away from all the other huge bags of snarling, yowling cats to tend to their own personal furballs of infinity. Because those other larger brands of infinity are just too uncertain, too big to deal with.
But all infinities are kind of…infinite.
And we deal with ∞ in our own lives, every single day.
Half the battle is knowing it’s already been done
More like 90% of the battle, actually.
Foreign policy vis-à-vis Switzerland, the EU, and the AstraZeneca vaccine? There are foreign policy and public health wonks who deal with matters like these, every day, in every developed country.
The innumerable variations in exercise training? I know a guy, he’s done every strength training regimen under the sun, and is a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt approaching 70, he knows a thing or two about training others, and while he’s uniquely gifted, he’s not the only experienced trainer out there.
Ditto on the endless nutritional options — there are nutritionists and health coaches who specialize in clarifying them and helping you adopt them.
There are even folks out there who’ve dealt with relatives who would make your OMG family member look like Mother Goose.
Everywhere you look, there is an infinite amount of potential complexity: personal life, professional life, inner private life, and at any scale of interaction with the rest of the world you care to define. And there are people who successfully navigate those infinitely complex waters, daily and for a living.
Including yourself. How you respond to a family member’s greeting is affected by the time of day, how much sleep you got last night, your blood sugar, what’s preoccupying you financially, your relation to their relatives…what you choose to eat depends – again — on your blood sugar, your level of stress and worry, how close to the end of the day you are, what you had to eat for your last meal, and so on. Yet you probably didn’t sputter like a broken robot when your brother said “Hi!” and you didn’t freeze when choosing a meal.
We dance with infinity every waking moment of the day and we generally don’t make a hash of existence.
So in case you didn’t realize it, the difference between your personal furball and the world-encompassing bag of cats is your own choice of labels.
They’re different, yes. Putting up with a difficult relative is different from public health policy in the EU. But things outside your ken are not inherently too much or too big for you to handle. They’re different, but you can learn your way past different. You’re used to thinking that the scale is the limiting factor, but you scale to infinity at need.
Why is this important for your own healthcare, your own wellness?
Because when you stop, you stop because of an authority. Someone draws a line, and you look at that line and tell yourself, Well I can’t go there. Most often, regarding wellness decisions, the authority telling you to stop is you: I can’t lose this weight, I can’t stop having the same arguments, I can’t find the energy to exercise I’m so tired and my brain is toast, and there’s just no way on God’s green earth I can give up rice, baguettes, and noodles. Your brain defines a limit, Here be dragons, and inside that limit things are barely manageable, and outside is all Swiss diplomacy. Too much to handle.
But it’s not
It’s not too much to handle. It’s not too infinitely much; it may have infinite numbers of layers, but as I’ve pointed out, you deal with infinity every day.
You can choose to make it happen, learn how to fill the knowledge gaps, and set a process into motionthat advances your cause, step by step.
As the novelist and writing instructor Steven Pressfield points out, the more worthy and important the goal, the more likely we are to Resist our own best efforts to create improvement. The most important things we can do for ourselves will as a general rule seem preposterous at first glance. That doesn’t mean they’re impossible. It is the hindbrain trying its utmost to stay in the “safe” comfort zone, even if doing things the same way you’ve done them has led to you gaining 60 lbs. since college, taking 5 or more prescription medications, and developing chronic health problems that will put you into an early grave.
The comfort zone is a construct of your lizard brain. It’s kept your ancestors in your gene pool for many, many, many millenia, but while it tells you Don’t you DARE go near that rustling bush (hungry tigers!), it screams at you just as loudly to play it safe, which in modern life means playing along with corporate rather than natural forces and is a prescription for, well, the state of health in America as we know it.
Changing course for the better will not look pretty. It will look impractical and a waste once again of your personal time and resources. Your lizard brain may not be able to argue the wisdom of losing weight, of cleaning up your diet and getting active, and of socially supporting yourself and your fellow human beings, but it will loudly undercut your personal self-worth and ability to succeed at those things. It’s too much to take on, you’ve tried and failed too many times, you’re just damaged goods — these are your lizard brain saying Stay in the familiar safe zone and survive.
It’s not safe and you won’t long survive there.
Get comfy with the seemingly insurmountable barriers to your health and wellness. You’re a better climber than you know.