“Everybody has a plan, until they get punched in the mouth.”
– Mike Tyson, boxer
You decide to get to a better place, a place where you will be more than you are now. You have a new plan and new stuff. There’s a new you waiting just down the road. You’re so passionate. Finally, you’re on the right path.
Day One of the journey is fun. A warm sun beams down out of a blue sky, flowers perfume the air, the birds sing, and there’s a spring in your step. It’s all smiles to the people you meet on the road to self-improvement. This will be shooting fish in a barrel.
On Day Two, the fish in the barrel begin to shoot back. There’s a chill in the air. The flowers are drooping and it looks like rain. You walk on, though, still pretty chipper: You’re gonna do this!
On Day Three, the songbirds have given way to crows, your feet are sore, and you have a headache. You keep moving, though not as far as yesterday.
On Day Four you wake up in a dark and swampy place. Your diet book is in tatters, your new running shoes are filthy, your backpack smells like garbage, and you are nauseated and depressed.
The path is now watery mud festooned with litter, poison ivy, and abandoned tires. The crows have given way to flying monkeys and your fellow travelers look like zombies.
You approach a wobbly rope bridge slung above a deep canyon. This is the border between where you are and where you want to go—between dependence and freedom. You can’t recall your Day One enthusiasm.
Looking back, you spot a friendly face. Your bad habit is waving to you from a limo. It has hot coffee, blankets, dry clothes, and a light. There’s a cooler in the trunk.
You realize how unpleasant your life is without your bad habit. It takes your mind off your troubles. You two share pleasing rituals: the fire ceremony of lighting a cigarette, the sacred offering of the platinum card, sexual euphoria, fragrant incense from the barbeque pit, the whirling trance of chasing the big deal, ice cubes ringing in your drink like the bells of a mountain shrine.
On Day Four you experience the real meaning of passion: suffering. How much suffering depends on how much discomfort your bad habit helps you avoid. Day Four lasts a month.
You set out on Day One to be free of your bad habit, to become better. But you need what you need right now. You want to choose better, but you don’t want to give up what you have so long enjoyed. Courage is for confronting these two irreconcilable desires— and doing what needs to be done.
On Day Four, we retreat from the emotional strain of being responsible for ourselves. We retreat from active to passive. We retreat to our bad habit, our status quo, what doesn’t require any effort. Becoming better is hard, and we are soft.
We speak of lacking willpower. What we lack is the courage to bear the suffering that comes with personal change and growth. Can we be afraid of the right things? Can we ever move on from what is comfortable?
Many people never get past Day Four. Many people never cross the border. Many people never grow up.
Unexplored places on the early maps of the world were noted with dragons and the words “There be monsters.” What is courage for? Courage is for going there.