The Rediscovery of Accomplishment and Reward

Staying plugged into social media, cable television, newsfeeds, health sites, and the daily blow-by-blow of the presidential primaries can weigh me down like mafia-designed concrete shoes in the East River. Since I’m not ready to succumb to a watery grave, I’ve had to find a way to lighten the existential load and float above the meta-analyses and meaningless preliminary studies, the brazen lies of infomercials, and the bullying and shaming tactics of the diet and exercise industrial complex. As much as I admire people who totally unplug from popular culture and live as one with nature—or at least with the work of Henry David Thoreau—that’s a bit too extreme for me. But I found some good alternatives just the same, and that is accomplishment number one.

As of this writing moment, I am listening to the Benedictine monks sing Gregorian chant. It’s on a DVD, they aren’t actually crowded into my apartment giving a live performance. As wonderful as that would be, the distraction would defeat the purpose. Years ago I discovered that this is the only vocal stuff I can listen to while writing without the words finding their way into my text. Once I was listening to the radio weather report and that day’s pollen count suddenly appeared on the page. I’m just too suggestible to listen to anything in English. Sanctus, benedictus, and spiritus haven’t shown up in the narrative yet, so I think I’m safe. Latin is useful after all!

But here’s my big accomplishment this spring. I’ve made some progress on quieting my critical inner voice and replacing it with a cheerleader, pom-poms and all, rah-rahing me for every little thing on my to-do list that I can cross off each day with a big scarlet checkmark. I use a fat red Sharpie so it shows up really well. I need to do that to get my attention. I’m not one to pay too much mind to praise, as it has so little emotional heft compared to criticism. One must find ways to add ballast to praise, and lots of it. Make it heavy and hard to kick aside. A big red checkmark feels to me like a grown-up version of the gold star my piano teacher would paste onto my music whenever I memorized a tune. It’s a tangible reminder that I put time and effort into a task that must have been worthwhile to me since I grinned with pride whenever I’d glance at it.

I know what presses my buttons. The desire for mastery and control is the thing that propels me to make lists. But the impetus for taking action is the hardest part. Winter is a version of suspended animation for me, only without the hyper-sleep. I wish it could be more like hibernation, but darn it, we humans were initially tropical creatures and didn’t evolve those habits, and, like it or not, we can stay warm and find food just fine as long as we stay awake to do them. Nerts. Well, at least there’s spring, and that’s what provides the motivation for my red check-marking activity.

Spring provides an increase in air temperature, and that can have a huge impact on my symptoms. For me, just a ten-degree increase from a frigid 30 degrees F to a milder 40 degrees F means the difference between having chronic pain and being virtually pain-free. The daylight hours lengthen, too, and whenever I look through my patio window at a still-lit yard at 7:30 p.m., my brain compels my body to “walk towards the light” and therefore spend more time on my feet without even thinking about it.

Spring cleaning is the first task to appear on my list. The increase in sunlight illuminates the dirt and clutter, which in turn makes my newly light-infused brain want more cleanliness and order. A to-do list is born. I recently spent an entire week knocking off each item on a long list, pacing myself each day, and a wonderful thing happened. Not only did I get every single item done, I felt pride and satisfaction at having done it. The first two days were physically very hard on my unconditioned body, but by the third day, my muscles became conditioned to the new level of activity and adjusted amazingly quickly, improving my posture and endurance for the rest of the week. And another wonderful thing happened. I became addicted to the high that came with doing something productive that had a reward at the end.

Reward. That fat red checkmark next to a task on a slip of paper. It’s a childish thing, but in a good way! That cheerleader with the pom-poms just won’t shut up now. I’m still on a roll, adding new things to the list and ticking off the older items above them, one task at a time. It has changed my thinking, my focus, my attitude, and my actions. If you’re thinking Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, you’re right on the money. Only you don’t need a therapist to do this stuff. I think of it as re-sensitizing myself to the experience of accomplishment and reward. It’s a kid thing that never leaves us, and it’s aching for us to shine a light on it, nourish it, and give it something to do.

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