belief over time
by Agnes Martin
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I think a lot about the fluctuations of belief—the inevitable up and downs of maintaining engagement with something over long periods of time. Most people seem to think that love is unchanging versus merely enduring, that if you’re really passionate about something you wake up excited to do it every day. I don’t believe that’s true. In fact, it sets you up for failure—you start out in a manic rush of excitement, believing that the framework or cause or person you’ve found will be your salvation, and after a while you become disenchanted. If you think disenchantment is a sign of disaster, you’ll probably abandon what you’re doing. In order to stick with anything for a long period of time, you have to believe that disenchantment is a normal, healthy part of experience. Continuity is only possible if change is factored in.
In Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott there’s an essay called Shitty First Drafts that includes this wonderful passage:
“Very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it. Nor do they go about their business feeling dewy and thrilled. They do not type a few stiff warm-up sentences and then find themselves bounding along like huskies across the snow. One writer I know tells me that he sits down every morning and says to himself nicely, "It’s not like you don’t have a choice, because you do—you can either type or kill yourself." We all often feel like we are pulling teeth, even those writers whose prose ends up being the most natural and fluid. The right words and sentences just do not come pouring out like ticker tape most of the time. Now, Muriel Spark is said to have felt that she was taking dictation from God every morning—sitting there, one supposes, plugged into a Dictaphone, typing away, humming. But this is a very hostile and aggressive position. One might hope for bad things to rain down on a person like this.”
I can’t tell you what a relief it was to hear that it was totally fine to not at all feel like I was “taking dictation from God.” Instead when I write I often feel like I’m wading through very thick mud. There’s really a lot of resistance. Of course, there are weeks when everything is easy and wonderful, but they always alternate with bad weeks. In order to stay sane I have to really believe that the bad weeks (months!!) are 1) normal and 2) will pass.
For me, this extends beyond writing. It’s true of everything in my life—reading, romantic relationships, friendships, and working out. It’s true of movements: I’ve been reflecting recently on how I entered tech at a time when everyone was obsessed with AI, and now five years later everyone is obsessed with Web3. We live in waves: peaks and troughs followed by peaks and troughs. When you’re at a local minima, it’s easy to catastrophize and believe that everything is doomed. When you’re at a local maxima, it’s easy to believe that this is the best things will ever be. Usually neither is true.
There’s something soothing about all-or-nothing thinking, the seduction of easy answers. But it’s a fantasy. When we let our desire for reassurance overrule our ability to live in reality, we numb out our emotions. There’s this joke I make a lot about having “real thoughts”—real thoughts in this case referring to an opinion that’s not reflexive, not a product of your immediate environment. Something that springs from actual sustained engagement with the world around you. It’s hard to have a real thought. That’s the fight—sticking with something long enough to have actually meaningful observations. You have to weather a lot of peaks and troughs to get there, but the time spent is worth it.