on sticking with it

I’ve been thinking about the phenomenon I call “loss of faith.” You start something new, you’re super excited, and then one day—let’s say six months in—you wake up and you’re like, eh, I’m really not feeling this. This is little similar to the phenomenon known as “The Dip,” but I think calling it a dip implies that it’s short and temporary in a way that isn’t always true.

It’s normal to go through periods of disenchantment and re-enchantment. Sometimes those periods can last a long time—months or years.

Going back to the faith analogy, it’s like a religious conversion: I’m reading Emmanuel Carrere’s The Kingdom right now and there’s a section about how when you first convert you feel this rapturous certainty that God is with you. Then time passes and it fades. Maybe it’ll come back, but there’s at least some period of time you spend tormented with doubt, feeling all alone.

Mother Teresa felt it—in the phase of her life before she started working in Calcutta, she heard Jesus’ voice: he told her to work among the poor. She said, "I want to love Jesus as he has never been loved before."

But then his voice disappeared. She stopped hearing him for 50 years.

From a letter she wrote to an advisor:

So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them ... because of the blasphemy ... If there be God ... please forgive me ... When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. I am told God loves me ... and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.

She found it hard to pray: “I utter words of community prayers -- and try my utmost to get out of every word the sweetness it has to give -- but my prayer of union is not there any longer -- I no longer pray.”

I take this as evidence that even people who are famously passionate feel long stretches of doubt. The idea that you have to like something all the time in order to stick with it is harmful and insidious. Most things for me are Type 2 or Type 3 fun—rewarding, but only fun after the fact or not fun at all. If you expect things to always be Type 1 fun, you’ll keep quitting because you’ll inevitably have moments when you lose faith in what you’re doing.

As someone who likes visible progress, I always want things to be perfect and I’m invariably disappointed. I want everything I write to be the best thing I’ve ever written; I want every day at the gym to be the best day at the gym. Sometimes it is, but often it isn’t. I’ve been trying to teach myself to be okay with plateaus, with taking short breaks, with not feeling it.

We’re fed this cultural narrative that doing the right thing should be accompanied by a feeling. But most of the time all you get is ambivalence. You want to believe but you’re not sure if you should. Certainty often appears only in retrospect.

So how do you keep going? How do you know if you should keep going?

I think it’s important to figure out the distinction between not feeling something and not valuing it. If you’re someone who has a lot of ideas and energy, you probably frequently get excited about new projects. But once the thrill wears off you might realize that you actually don’t care that much about it. You were wedded to the idea you invented, not the sweat of making it real.

If you’re doing something for an imagined reward you might achieve it eventually, but you’ll probably always feel disappointed. A great Heather Havrilesky quote (yes, I try to include at least one per essay): “As long as you imagine that the outside world will one day deliver to you the external rewards you need to feel happy, you will always perceive your survival as exhausting and perceive your life as a long slog to nowhere.”

The question, I think, is whether there’s something you’d keep doing even if you were never going to be rewarded, something you feel compelled to do even when you don’t particularly enjoy it. Something, in short, that grabs your attention and keeps it.

This quote by Amy Krouse Rosenthal sums it up: “For anyone trying to discern what to do with their life: PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT YOU PAY ATTENTION TO. That’s pretty much all the info you need.”

You value what you pay attention to. And if you’re convinced of the inherent worthiness of what you’re doing, you’re more likely to persist.

Even if you’re frustrated with what you’re doing and not making any linear progress, if you’re still thinking about it—still paying attention—it’s probably worthwhile. Many things worth doing don’t have quick feedback loops, and if you can divorce yourself from the need for instant validation it’ll be easier to stick with it.

Most of the time things get better right when I give up on them getting better. I’m like, okay, whatever, I’m just going to keep doing this, it’s fine if I never make progress. And then I improve.

We don’t always have conviction. Sometimes all we get is some sense of creation, some occasional feeling of motion. We’re yanked forward by the desire for things to deepen and change. Disenchantment is inevitable: things are never perfect. Or things are only perfect for brief, blinding moments that you barely feel before they slip away. How many times have you gotten the thing you wanted and barely felt it?

But you don’t need perfection, you only need to endure. It’s like marriage—you stay married as long as you don’t get divorced. You’re committed to the thing as long as you don’t quit. All you have to do is continue.