Discover more from Thinking Out Loud | Michael Ashcroft
Grieve the road not taken | #63
17 August 2023 :: Re-emerging after some time in my body-mind. The sun is shining and the birds are singing. Here are some thoughts on the road not taken and how 'should' suppresses 'want'
Somehow it has been four months since I last wrote to you. There has been a lot going on inside my body-mind, very little of which has made it onto paper. I’m not unhappy about this, but I am excited to be shifting back towards creation again after a period of constructive introspection and inner work.
📣 This edition is ‘sponsored’ by my partner, Cécile, who recently put together some materials for people thinking about taking a sabbatical from work, having done so last year herself.
There’s a freebie for a people thinking of taking the jump, and an inexpensive paid course for those already on the journey. You can find out more here.
I recommend it highly—and not just because I think she’s pretty or because she used my fancy camera equipment. 📣
1. Grieve the road not taken
All my life I've been tantalised by little wisps of dreams. Whether these dreams belong to me or to others is hard to discern, but they arise and tempt me all the same. I could live here, or there. I could be this kind of person, or that. I could marry this person, or not.
While the wisps stir a powerful yearning, they tend to be ambiguous with their imagery and narrative. Like a siren call, they pull me away from my life as it is, towards my life as it could be.
There have been times when I listened, smiled and decided to follow that call. Sometimes that paid off, sometimes not.
There have been times when I listened, smiled, and decided to stay my course. Sometimes that paid off, sometimes not.
And there have been times when I listened, frowned and, in abdicating a decision, I tore myself apart.
Through these experiences, I suffered mostly through abdication, not through decision.
When two roads diverged in a wood, Robert took the road less travelled by, and that, he said, made all the difference. I wonder whether Robert grieved the other road, and in so doing liberated himself to step wholeheartedly onto the road he took. Or, once his decision was made, did he allow the wisps of his unfulfilled potential tear his spirit from his chosen road?
Perhaps it wasn't the road he took that made all the difference at, but the nature of his decision to take it.
I was born as a field of pure potential. As I grow, my potential crystallises, piece by piece, into actuality. To welcome this is to look directly into and accept my own finitude and death, to be rewarded, perhaps, with a sonorous, bright life of potential made manifest. To deny it is to cling to the promise of potential without action, to be rewarded, perhaps, with anxiety and resentment. It is the nature of the wave function to collapse when it encounters the world of matter—of things that matter.
In tying himself to the mast, Odysseus made his choice. He invited the full force of a road not taken to ravage and transmute his soul, yet he remained steadfast on the road he took.
I feel that I must do the same. Wherever those dream wisps come from, and whether they're mine or not, I shall listen to them with a smile. Some I will pursue, the rest I will decide against. From time to time, I shall tie myself to the mast and grieve the road not taken.
But, above all, when I have decided which road to take, I will walk it wholeheartedly.
2. Should suppresses want
A few weeks ago I finished the Art of Accomplishment Master Class, an eight week course that is largely about welcoming and feeling all your emotions.
There was one particular lesson, which explored the relationship between want and should, that really caught my attention. It’s become a cliché that you should (ha) avoid using should, because should brings with it a kind of heaviness of expectations.
There’s even an expression – “don’t should all over yourself” — that has become the kind of advice that we hear, say “yeah, I really should stop doing that” and then change precisely nothing.
This time, though, I found a way to actually stop the should process, and it does indeed work. It’s quite annoying for something that clichéd to actually work, but I guess they’re clichés for a reason.
What really stood out to me is what happens when should and want overlap.
When I want something, without the should, I feel un-conflicted about pursuing it and things generally feel light and easy.
When I feel like I should do something—or, perhaps worse, should want something—the whole experience is tight and pressured. I should do this project at work, but because I feel like I should I’m going to procrastinate, moan and not enjoy it.
But what if I feel like I should do something that I also want to do? In my experience, the should overrides and shuts down the want. It becomes much harder to see and experience my wants when they’re shrouded in should.
There are a lot of big decisions in life—whether or not to go to university, whether to have a child, whether to go for the promotion—that come with an externally-derived should.
Imagine not knowing if you want to have children because you’ve been too exposed to the idea that you should (“all of your ancestors reproduced!”) or shouldn’t (“the planet can’t handle more people!”). I realised that this is the situation I’m in for many things, and I suspect I’m not alone.
The way out of this, I think, is to look clearly at all the should narratives and give yourself full permission not to comply with any of them.
Then, when the power of should has been reduced, remember that the underlying want remains. Now is the time to listen for it, protect it from being poisoned by other people’s expectations, and go after it.
3. Things I’ve made
Most of my writing lately has been for Every, which is behind a paywall. If you have a subscription, I hope you enjoy!
I also had fun recording a group conversation with Visa, Malcolm and Paul, hosted by Kai, on what it’s like to be a ‘feral free agent’. It’s pretty informal, but if you’re the kind of person who enjoys such things, I suspect you’ll get a lot out of it.
You can watch it on YouTube here:
4. Things others have made
I want to give a shoutout to, who recently wrote “As Pants The Hart” on his Substack, which I enjoyed deeply. Here are some of my highlights:
Deer anxiety is sober and reasonable. Person anxiety is self-stoking. People are prone to paranoid loops, the discomfort of an imagined threat primes me to be more pessimistic and scared. Deer anxiety is a clear signal to move somewhere safer. Person anxiety can be a hangover from a memory of something that happened 20 years ago.
Let me tell you, the combination of amplified interoception and a profound unshakeable sense of safety: that's a recipe for bliss.
Music wants me to dance, it shows me how, directly, like the stream calls the deer forward to drink, the music tugs on me. I don't need to push, I don't need to think, I don't need to be self-conscious about getting it right, or do anything according to any rules, for any "because" reasons. When the setting is right, and the music is right, I just need to relax and to trust, and it will inevitably pull me forward, out of my seat and onto the dancefloor.
5. Some art
I saw this installation at Kew Gardens in London. It’s called All The Flowers Are For Me and it draws inspiration from Islamic art. It’s astonishing to be in the same space at this thing.
Until next time.