Personal alarm system

Sometimes I see a behaviour that I dislike enough to find myself saying “I never want to end up doing that”. Sometimes it’s quite blatant, like the heap of people climbing over each other at a Black Friday sale, all in the name of getting the TV which is just that bit bigger than what they already have. Sometimes it’s less obvious, like the subtle but crucial absence of passionate fire when someone’s describing how exciting their work is, which is just salient enough that I can tell it’s a working life I’d be disappointed to live if it were my own.

Other times, I find myself in a situation which I really don’t want to be in, and once I get out of it I find myself saying “I never want to do that again” — like spending day in day out for months and months in lectures where I felt like I wasn’t learning all that much.

Experiences like this are often ones I wish I could have subbed out for something more worthwhile, but I’ve actually come to find them surprisingly useful later in life. By stating loud and clear that “I never want to be like that”, or “I never want to find myself doing that thing” when I see something I don’t like, I set up a kind of personal alarm system for myself. Shouting something loud like this instils it in you, and if, through the twists and turns and unpredictable narrative of growing up, you find yourself creeping towards one of those behaviours without realising, at some point you remember that you said that thing all those years ago. Somewhere along the line I made a wrong turn, and now I have to correct it.

For me one such alarm is: if the best part of my week is the feeling of buying something, then there’s a problem.

It’s a problem not just because buying something is such an ephemeral joy: it’s nowhere near as deep as the real joys either — building something meaningful, reading a truly mind-bending story, making someone feel great somehow (it doesn’t hurt that these joys are longer lived though).

Another is: if I ever hear myself using the word “love” half-heartedly, then there’s a problem.

If I ever find myself saying “I love my work”, or “I love that book” without truly meaning it, then something’s going wrong. If I mean it, then sure I’ll say it — but if I don’t, then the alarm bell in my head starts ringing, because it knows that misusing that word dilutes its meaning for every instance that I use it in the future. It knows that if I keep assigning the word “love” to the mundane, then eventually I might come to expect less from the things that I say I love, which will probably have a knock-on effect on how good I expect my life to be. Eventually I might end up settling for things that I don’t find truly interesting.

Having alarms like this all happened because back when I saw something I really didn’t like, I made sure to see it close enough and state it clearly enough that it would be committed to my memory as a warning flag. Given how useful this is to me now, the implication is that it’s actually quite useful to look closer at the next thing you find yourself staring in disapproval at before you try to move on to think about something else. To spend a little more time in that moment, saying to yourself “that’s a real person, and I don’t understand how they got to be like they are, but maybe one day — if I don’t watch out — I could end up doing what they are doing too”. So that’s something I’ll make sure I keep doing.