“Bluto’s right. Psychotic, but absolutely right.” — Otter, rallying the frat.
Remember the scene in “Animal House” where Larry’s (nicknamed “Pinto”) date has passed out… and while he’s deciding what to do next, a little angel and a little devil appear on each shoulder, offering radically opposite advice?
That’s a funny scene… and yet the genesis of that image comes via thousands of years of intense intellectual thought about the duality of our nature.
The whole concept of good and evil… and how those dichotomies play out in the art-house theater of our soul… has obsessed us ever since our most remote ancestor had a greedy thought, and suddenly felt a twang of conscience over it.
That visual image of the devil and angel on each shoulder goes waaaaaay back, to the earliest cultures we know about. It’s a fundamental element of all religion, but also the foundation of all secular philosophical theory.
I’m thinking about all this high-minded shit, because I’m in the home stretch of my 21-Day Challenge. (For newbies, a few weeks ago I blogged on the concept that it takes 21 days to form new habits, and eliminate bad ones… and several folks joined me in tackling one habit over the next 3 weeks. We’re almost there.) (My personal challenge is to eliminate snack chips and crackers — I’m a carbo-freak, and all those Fritos and Saltines have jacked my cholesterol up to dizzy levels.) (Check the comments to see what others are attempting to face down.)
I’ve done this habit-change thing many times before, and I know the peculiar feeling that arrives when sweet victory is near. I know I’m “there”, because I almost slipped up last night (Michele had left a bag of tortilla chips on the counter, and they were whispering to me like evil little Sirens)… and I had a moment just like Larry.
On one shoulder was Weak-Ass John, dying to dive into that bag of chips and gorge. Oh, please, please, please, PLEASE! What harm could a few chips do, huh? Just one or two, c’mon, you wuss, you know you want it!
And on the other shoulder was Kick-Ass John, resolute and very adult about consequences and discipline and all that. Just move away slowly, dude. The craving will pass… and so what if it doesn’t? You took a vow to stay away from that shit, and you gain nothing by giving in…
Yeah, I’m a little schitzo like that. Conversations in my head that go on and on and on, arguing the finer points of righteousness versus indulgence.
Keeps things interesting, I’ll tell you what.
Anyway, early in my Challenge, I succumbed to Weak-Ass John’s dastardly desires, and ate a handful of carb-loaded crackers late one night. I was like a junkie who just scored. But I didn’t descend entirely into a carb orgy, like Weak-Ass was voting for… and I accepted my lapse, threw the rest of the offensive crackers away, and got back into resistance mode.
This time, last night, Weak-Ass literally got pounded by Kick-Ass John. The urge to gorge lit up my system like a flare, and the rationalizations for giving in swirled around my head like the most rational argument I’d ever heard. Of course it’s okay to eat chips. Carbs are good. Chips have gotta have some nutritional value, and there’s nothing else in the house that will quell these horrendous hunger pangs, and…
And it all melted away like vapor under a simple appearance by Kick-Ass. “Nope,” he said, snarling. “Not gonna give in. Not on my watch.”
Dude was scary.
And the craving left.
That’s how I know I’m in the home stretch. It hasn’t even been a full 21 days, and I’ve morphed into a guy who doesn’t eat chips. I left the bag on the counter, and just shined it on.
It’s a victory.
The last time I did this kind of challenge in a big way was decades ago, when I quit smoking (for the final time). The point of real change came when I stopped saying “I’m quitting smoking” to myself and others… and, instead, said “I don’t smoke.” And meant it.
There’s a difference. A guy who’s “quitting” (or, worse, “trying” to quit) is still in the act of “being” a smoker. He smokes, but he’s forcing himself to stop. It’s a battle.
Most people lose, too. That’s well known.
For me, that moment of Zen calm — when I realized I’d become a guy who didn’t smoke — was a watershed event. Trying to quit doing something is like “trying” to eat a sandwich — you’re either eating, or not. You’re either a guy with a mouthful of food, or you’re doing something else.
Cortez, the conquistador, knew this lesson well. He landed his mini-army on the Central American coast, and didn’t bother giving any big speeches about victory. He just burned the ships, so the only choice left for his men was to go forward and conquer, or die.
They weren’t fresh off the boat anymore, trying to get into the swing of being conquerors.
There weren’t any boats. Their identity was without mushy boundaries, very distinct and specific.
Whatever you think about the gruesome conquest of the Americas by Europe’s finest self-righteous butchers, the lesson is a good one. You kick ass, or you get kicked. (By your own weak-assed self, too. Humiliating.)
In my own case, the differences between the two John’s on my shoulders helps me understand a LOT about human nature and behavior.
Depending on who’s in charge, your world-view can go waaaaaay off-course.
Here’s how I map it out:
Weak-Ass is actually the stronger of the two, initially. He’s the default mode in the human system — untrained people will always go for the easy way out, the quick gratification, the instant satisfaction… and damn the consequences.
He thrives without obvious sustenance for the life of the host, too (kinda like cockroaches and weeds and viruses). And he cannot be killed — only wrestled into submission, where he will stay put only as long as you keep him nailed down.
He requires no invitation to take over any situation. He loves the absence of discipline.
Bottom line: He’s the worst sort of opportunist… waiting patiently until your defenses are down, and relentless about trying different and new ways of attacking your efforts to rise above zombie-behavior.
Kick-Ass, oddly, is almost a direct opposite. At peak power, he is a wonder to behold.
But he’s like a rare plant that requires constant nurturing and attention. He shrivels to nothing quickly and easily.
He will not do anything without a direct invitation. He needs constant monitering, and arrives almost as a blank slate requiring complete programming from scratch.
In short… he’s a hard dude to groom, and you can’t relax even after he’s wrested the controls away from Weak-Ass.
It’s no use wishing this situation were otherwise.
It is what it is.
And it’s the main plot in every good story you’ve ever heard. It’s the stuff of choices, opportunities lost, bad decisions, lucky breaks, chance encounters and all rollicking adventures.
This “always at risk of doing the wrong thing” element of being human isn’t something to rue. It’s just another tool in your belt as you strive to make better decisions, and recognize opportunity, and jump on lucky breaks, and embrace the never-ending adventure of a life well-lived.
Weak-Ass wants to slack off and zombie-out. Kick-Ass won’t get involved until you buck up and activate him.
So… how’s your 21-Day Challenge going?
I’m pulling for you. The good part is… if you lose, just gather yourself and get back after it.
That’s what your Kick-Ass self wants to do. That’s what he’s built for. But he can’t do it alone.
P.S. Wait — here’s another example.
Over a month ago, I began trying to get ahold of an old friend by phone. I’ve known this guy since kindergarten, and we’ve never been out of touch our entire lives… though we seldom talk more than once or twice a year.
This time, however, I had a reason to talk with him other than just to catch up. I had a pressing question that was right up his professional alley… and all I needed was five minutes on the phone with him.
So I left a message. Then another. And another. And then a new message with his secretary at work.
Weeks passed, and I knew he hadn’t died, because his secretary told me he was just “out” whenver I called.
I got pissed off. Started leaving forceful messages on his cell phone. Called a mutual friend, and whined that this could be the end of our friendship — if the dude couldn’t muster five minutes to call me back, then that was a deal-killer for the friendship in my book.
This was Weak-Ass John being out of control. Putting the worst possible spin on the situation, and ready to end a fifty-year friendship over a perceived slight.
Luckily, I finally tried email. And got a reply in less than an hour.
The dude had been in Khazakstan, for crying out loud, in December. Had a great time (no, he didn’t meet Borat), but picked up a bug, and was under doctor’s care while sprewing from every orifice. He was gonna live — it wasn’t anything too exotic for an intense program of fluids and rest and antibiotics to fix — but he hadn’t had the energy to check his phone messages for a month.
I felt like Mr. Dipshit. And I’d wasted how much energy being pissed off over the last few weeks?
In my email, in fact, Weak-Ass had written in a threat about ending the friendship. Kick-Ass, fortunately, deleted it before I sent the thing… I was giving it one last college try, in my mind. No need to be too pissy about it.
I’m not down on myself for this. It’s human nature to act like a freak half the time.
The trick is to learn to recognize it early, and have the tools to do better. Forgive yourself, but don’t let Weak-Ass slide. Lock the bastard back up, and pay a little focused attention to Kick-Ass, so he gets stronger.
It’s an ongoing battle. Devil versus angel.
What’s your take on all this? Any insight I missed?