Last month, my friend Kristin and I went cross-country skiing. We trekked up to a wooded park on the side of a bluff – a beautiful place, with a snowy trail crossed by deer tracks and the skittery trails of mice, lit by the gray-and-pink light of a winter afternoon. Winding in and out of pine groves and skirting the edges of a prairie, the trail also went down some hills. And around some curves. Accelerating helplessly downhill, straight for a tree, I panicked and crashed myself into a fluffy snowbank beside the trail, then hauled myself up, laughing, and repositioned the skis one by one in the tracks. At the next hill, I unclipped – and walked.
What makes us realize it’s time to learn how to stop? It’s time to leave that job, that lover, that spouse, that church, that friend. It’s time to call the credit counseling service, cancel the cable subscriptions, cut back on bar tabs and restaurant bills, turn away from the bottle or the cigarette. It’s time to release the habitual question of the single person – should I be, like, doing something to meet someone right now? – and realize that worrying about this can be like passive eating: if your life is already full and meaningful, traveling those worn tracks of scheming-out-of-singlehood can be like munching on that bowl of popcorn an hour and a half after dinner, or having that third drink when just two have sent you to the zone you like being in. Like a rat, you’re running a familiar maze, pressing a familiar reward button. You’re vaguely scratching the spot where an itch used to be, even if – when you look closely – you see the itch isn’t really there.
Looking closely – at what you actually feel – is where learning how to stop begins. Wait for the cue to move forward, yoga teachers say. Tune in to this instinct, this inward nudge saying this is right or this is an old habit / anxiety / thought pattern / parental inheritance speaking, not me. But sometimes, as in a Flannery O’Connor story, you just get smacked upside the head. Back in grad school, following my usual cigarette break in the sunny courtyard of Greenlaw Hall, I dashed inside to find the elevator broken – and three minutes to go till the start of my 18th-century literature seminar, all the way up on the fifth floor. Galloping up the stairs, I pushed open the door. But suddenly I couldn’t move. Slumped against the wall, I gasped, struggling to deepen my breath and calm my racing brain: I’m going to die. Right here outside the classroom. From inside the double doors of the seminar room came the comforting, slightly querelous burble of the professor’s voice, the rustle of my classmates unpacking notebooks and pens. I’m going to die right here. And it will be my own damn fault. That was 2003. I haven’t touched a cigarette since.
I got better at learning to stop in every other area of my life – from eating and health to relationships and teaching and career management – when I gave up credit cards. As Dave Ramsey says, brandishing hundred-dollar bills at his audience, “it hurts to send Uncle Ben away!” Credit cards take the mindfulness out of a purchase, because they take away the immediate consequence of the action. The shadowy thunderhead of guilt and anxiety that swells up in your head once the credit-card bill comes feels strangely divorced from the acts of spending that created it; the person who is paying the bill is not quite the same person who swiped that card at the register and carried away the new treat that somehow also, when purchased with that card, feels less real.
Enjoying my credit-card purchases always had a sad, anxious undertone: products purchased with false money by a false me. At the height of my credit-card delusion, I was a financial Victoria Frankenstein, trying to charge a whole new self into life from disembodied images of What Women / Scholars / Writers should be. I covered real needs, sure, but I also put a lot of wants in that category. Sexy shoes that were too painful to wear long enough for anyone to actually see me in them. New scholarly books I displayed on my shelves but never got around to reading. A forest of empty bottles on countertops and tables in my apartment the morning after a party: a hundred dollars worth of wine, gone. They don’t call it spirits for nothing. When you delude yourself about money – or anything, really – you walk in a perpetual Dantean forest of ghosts.
And ghosts are everywhere. We mortgage our actual futures by dreaming of, and spending toward, imaginary ones – “if I buy these types of clothes, this type of car, I will become this type of person.” Or we let the past control the future – “my parents wanted this for me, so I want it for myself.” But visions of a future should be driven by action and reflection, not by habitual spending or dreams that aren’t really yours. “You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment,” advised Henry David Thoreau. “Fools stand on their island opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land, there is no other life but this.”
If you’re fooling yourself about spending, relationships, health, or career paths – and I’ve so been there – the crash will come, unless you look reality in the face, and keep on looking. “How,” wondered the eighteenth-century English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, “can a rational being be ennobled by any thing that is not obtained by its own exertions? … In fact, it is a farce to call any being virtuous whose virtues do not result from the exercise of its own reason.” How, indeed. Keep looking carefully at what’s confronting you, inside and out – although, as George Orwell noted, “to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” But the instinct that will steer you right – and steer you out of debt – gets stronger, like any other muscle, with use. And when you need to stop, a safe place to land will be there, waiting.