The force of will
The body is stronger than the mind. At least that was what the military drilled in me. Your mind will give up well before your body fails. Because being uncomfortable is, well uncomfortable. We don’t like discomfort and we don’t like pushing ourselves outside a limit we’re comfortable with. But constantly pushing yourself past your established limits… that isn’t good either.
A PhD is a marathon, it’s not a race. The average PhD takes five years to finish and my school gives me a maximum of ten years, a whole decade to get it done. If that isn’t a marathon, I don’t know what is. It required a change of thinking on my part. I think the problem is I’m not a marathon person, in the literal sense. I don’t like running, it’s not my thing. Instead, I’m more of a powerlifter (literally), or at least I was before I started falling apart.
Limits are something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about as I’ve gotten older. Limits are a fluid thing, you can climb a mountain in your early years, but how many 90+ year olds can do it? My limits have changed over the years, probably more so than most, it’s been huge shifts in what I can and cannot do. Not just from a mind standpoint, but from a physical standpoint.
Once I got out of the military, I turned to weight lifting and physical therapy to help get myself back to normal. It was a rollercoaster of weight gain, weight loss, super active, super not. I’ve hit a good middle ground now, but that’s because I’ve had to rethink how I run my race. I’ve got so many health problems now that I joke I’m an old soul trapped in a younger man’s body, but I have the health problems of an old man. So it balances out I guess?
There are physical and mental limits that we all struggle with and while I think sometimes we (or rather I) give up physically because we (I) mentally cannot take it, as opposed to physically cannot do something. Part of the physical issues that I deal with now is due to buying into the mindset that the body will give out far later than the mind. I’ve found it to be true, but I’ve also found that the idea that pain is just weakness is a great motto until you’re stuck dealing with the repercussions.
Days ago I hurt my back. I didn’t do anything fancy to hurt it, I literally woke up and boom back pain. Not back pain exactly, I know what it is because I’ve had the issue once before. I assume it’s a remnant of my original muscle strain or whatever the problem was years and years ago. It’s a pain I remember, because I seem to remember those things. Which put me in this line of thinking and how it ties into my education.
Education in general is a marathon. I’ve never been good at that and to really drive that point home once I took 23 credit hours as an undergrad. I had to petition the school to let me (they did) and I managed just fine, but shortly after I fell apart. That was for other reasons, but the point is even if I hadn’t doing that sort of thing it’s not healthy. For reference, a full time undergrad is 12 credit hours, or was at my school.
Now that I’m getting ready to finish my PhD (fingers crossed), I find myself struggling with the marathon pace that I need to keep in order not to burn out and ruin everything. Because mental health is frankly more important than physical health, because you can be physically healthy, but not mentally. We tend to ignore mental health because there’s no gauge or external warning system. You don’t have a physical break like you do with a bone. There’s no blood test, diagnostic imaging, nothing that can measure your mental health.
In society these days we push willpower. Use your willpower to put down that donut you fat piece of shit. Go eat a steak you scrawny girlyman. It’s all willpower and I used to pride myself on my willpower. It’s not a virtue I am happy with now because willpower is code for ability to push through anything that comes at you. In some ways that’s a good thing, but like anything in the world can be deadly in excess.
It’s something I’ve learned the hard way and the back pain (muscle pain/strain/whatever) was a friendly reminder of how far I’ve come and some of the not so visible scarring that I’ve done to myself in the name of doing what I thought people wanted from me.
This is my not so friendly reminder to you, that if you’re doing a PhD, BS, MS, MD, etc. take a fucking break from time to time. You get exactly one body and one life, enjoy them and take care of them because despite the ads for us to be thinner, faster, stronger, wealthy, none of it matters. There’s always a middle path that is not only better for you physically and mentally, but it’s one that will make you happiest. All the rest is just advertisements and propaganda literally trying to make you feel horrible about yourself so you buy a product, but it doesn’t matter. Because if what you’re doing is not making you happy, then what’s the point?
I’m happy that I’m trying to get my PhD, I’m doing it for me and I’m doing it because it’s what I want. Yes, sometimes it hurts (literally), but I’m happy with my choice. It’s okay if you’re on this path and realize that you’re not in the same boat.
Willpower is a tool, I think. Like any tool, it can be used for good or ill. Sometimes we need to be the masters of our own discomfort, but it’s also important to remember why discomfort exists. The mind gives out before the body because it’s supposed to; pain tolerance is a safety fuse that should burn through before everything else melts.
I’m not an athlete in any respect; most of the ways I push myself are intellectual. And there’s a part of my intellect that is more like a fey creature than a machine. I haven’t found a reliable way of ordering it to perform; if it isn’t there, then it just isn’t there. I can make myself keep sitting at the computer, but that doesn’t mean I’ll achieve much. This didn’t serve me well in pre-college schooling. I got accused of being undisciplined a lot, when I was probably just burned out. But nowadays it may help keep me from overworking myself. There’s a point when the tank is empty, and I know it’s counterproductive to get too deep into that state.
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February 19, 2022 at 9:34 am
Yeah, I agree willpower cuts both ways. I think we tend to forget that because of the deluge of, what amounts to advertising, telling us otherwise. It’s kind of sad when you really think about it because we all end up getting brainwashed into hurting ourselves one way or another.
I can see how being burnt out would look a lot like being undisciplined. I’ve had to learn the hard way that forcing myself to try to get something done when I don’t have the motivation to do it is an impossible task at best.
On the brightside it sounds like we’ve both learned how to work with ourselves, which frankly is like 90% of the challenge anyway.
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February 19, 2022 at 11:54 am