autopilot

This piece originally appeared on Bed Crumbs.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and hoping for a different result.”

My dad used to say that ad nauseum when I was growing up. From what I understand, he isn’t the only one who tormented his kids with such clichéd phrases. It’s like there’s some manual for parents that has, in big, bold letters, the instruction to repeat a series of phrases as frequently as possible for years; when your children max out their abilities to roll their eyes anymore, they will inexplicably find themselves spouting the same dialogue of their own free will.

Obviously, I’ve finally reached that point.

There’s this quote from Anais Nin’s diaries I keep thinking about lately, about how most of us are just sleeping through life:

“You live like this, sheltered, in a delicate world, and you believe you are living. Then you read a book… or you take a trip… and you discover that you are not living, that you are hibernating. […] It appears like an innocuous illness. Monotony, boredom, death. Millions live like this (or die like this) without knowing it. They work in offices. They drive a car. They picnic with their families. They raise children. And then some shock treatment takes place, a person, a book, a song, and it awakens them and saves them from death. Some never awaken.”

The two quotes never seemed to really connect in my brain until now, until I found myself asking the question: what do you do when someone you love is on autopilot? What do you do when they’ve checked out of their game a little early?

Well, there’s not much. You can try to help, you can try to remind them of their potential, but sometimes other voices are louder than your own. Sometimes they don’t even realize what they’re doing. Mostly, all you can really do is sit on the sideline and feel a little sad as you watch your friend sleepwalk, hoping that they wake up before it’s too late. It’s enough to make you want to bang your head against the wall.

I remember when I first learned how to drive with cruise control on. It freaked me out at first. It didn’t feel right, didn’t feel real, didn’t feel natural. I didn’t understand how I could do nothing and still move forward as if I were making some sort of effort. But it was easy. And I guess some people like easy.

But more I think about it, the less simple it becomes. Not everyone intends to coast through life; sometimes it just happens. I’ve never understood complacency, but at a certain point in your life, is that what becomes most important to you? Do the people who spent years fighting it the hardest eventually grow tired and decide to give in?

Knowing that I can’t change things for someone else has made me more critical of myself. I let my brain get the best of me on a run the other day and veered completely off course, jumped off the outer loop of Central Park and took the trails instead.

When it’s 7 a.m. and you definitely haven’t slept a full eight hours and it’s still a little dark out, the clean, smooth pavement becomes routine. It’s safe. And that’s all fine and good, but what’s the point, really? All you do is develop muscle memory. All you do is phone it in. All you do is coast. When I tried something different, I had to wake up, watch my step, pay a little closer attention, without letting caution hold me back, and be a little smarter with every move I made.

It was hard. Doing new things often is. But while you get done what you need to get done when you coast, you certainly don’t get any better. You certainly don’t win.

I’ve spent the past few runs thinking about this, watching the sun rise above the trees of Central Park and sparkle on the city as it just begins to wake up. The world is so big and bright and shiny and I just don’t understand why anyone would be reject the newness of it all. It’s always changing, and isn’t that exciting? Why not embrace that until our dying days? Why reject it out of fear or stubbornness to remain set in your ways?

Maybe that all sounds very young and naive and idealistic. Maybe I’m showing my age right now and you should come back and ask me how I feel a few decades from now. I’m okay with that. I’m going to hang on to this view as long as I can. Maybe we should all try to look at the world the same way.

To my friend: What’s the fun in treading water? What’s the benefit of doing things just for the sake of doing them? Be bold. Be brave. Take chances. You did it before and you can do it again. Life is just too short not to, too boring if you don’t switch things up. You’ll make a lot of people happy when you do. It’s scary, but you’ll be okay.

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