If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the will which says to them: 'Hold on!'
Rudyard Kipling, If
The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.
Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture

As a child, I interviewed my great grandmother for a school writing project. I now realize how fortunate I am to have had such generational continuity and connection to my deep past, not only because I see how vanishingly rare it is, but also how easily it can be lost.

Having lost nearly all connection with my family since coming out of the closet at the age of 23, I have experienced both extreme worlds: a life full of connection to family and personal history, surrounded by a large extended family, and life in near total isolation and disconnection from nearly all foregoing relationships.

In the 15 years since I permanently exiled myself from the United States, the only members of my family I have seen are my mother, brother, and two cousins who have visited me in South America or Spain, where I have lived during this decade and a half.

My great grandmother, whose name was Pearl, was born in rural Oklahoma in 1910 and lived the formative experiences of her life in a world that would be unimaginable to anyone born in the last 50 years. She raised three children through the Great Depression without any modern utilities or conveniences that we take completely for granted. She and her family certainly had better drinking water than any of us do, but they had to walk quite a distance to get it from a natural spring and carry it back to their house. They kept things like milk cool in the spring, too — Nature’s refrigerator.

By all accounts, life was extremely difficult. When the stock market crashed, they took their money out of the bank (this was before FDIC insurance) — $1,000, cash. At first they buried it in the back yard, but feared somebody might find it, and so she sewed a pocket in the slip she wore under her dresses, and kept their entire savings on her person at all times. I can still hear her describe her constant fear of its loss in her slow, country drawl, saying that sometimes she wouldn’t be able to feel it there and “my blood’d run cold.”

Life was characterized first and foremost by absolute necessity, something as foreign to the daily experience of anyone reading this essay as having to “fetch water from the spring” would be. Yet, as hard as life was, she did not know another one. She had no television with which to see the lifestyle of the Rockefellers or Windsors. She did not have friends posting videos of their vacations to the Seychelles on TikTok.

The absence of the instantaneous and ubiquitous reproduction of imagery made the contemplation of counterfactual realities an effort that would not have even occurred to her to make. There was simply too much life-sustaining effort to make, without which life would not be sustained at all.

In this sense, I genuinely question whether we are the lucky ones, or she was. For her, the simple life of gardening, cooking, cleaning, laundry, were all-consuming endeavors, and in the early years of her life, without electric lighting. The day began with the sun, and ended with it. What took place in between had little to do with conscious, volitional election. She had few choices to make, and few options to choose from when she did have to make choices.

The inversion in which we live is so extreme, so literally absurd (etymologically “away from silence”). All of the imagery to which we are exposed, all of the access to information, consumer products, easy transportation, etc., make our lives a constant series of choices between an ever-expanding range of options.

Kierkegaard notes that “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.”

All of our choices, options, and possibilities are at the root of the anxious malaise that characterizes our living generations, and the younger, the more the choices and consequently, the more anxiety.

This anxiety is at the root of the spiritual crisis that plagues us: for fear of doing the wrong thing, we are paralyzed and do nothing at all. What we do start, we often immediately regret starting, and question whether it is worth finishing. The more we see how many options there are out there, the easier it is to think maybe we have chosen the wrong one.

It matters not the sphere of life, either.

Relationships, creative endeavors, entrepreneurial projects, learning language or mathematics and other difficult subject matter — there is a constant barrage of imagery both distracting us from the work to make those succeed, and telling us maybe it’s not what we should be doing anyway.

The age of anxiety creates an age of flakiness.

Thomas Aquinas, in his prayer entitled “To Acquire the Virtues”, concludes his petition to the Divine with the request to resist this force:

Grant that I may never crave to do things impulsively, nor disdain to do what is burdensome,

Lest I begin things before I should or abandon them before finishing.

The struggle is not new, apparently, and it seems like it has been dramatically complicated by the very tools that promised to make life easier and more efficient. We now must utilize these tools, as best we can, for their meritorious benefits, while disciplining ourselves to leave off their use the moment real benefit ceases, not merely because of the time suck they cause, but the attention-drain, the erosion of our wills, the dulling of our own originality through the constant impulse to imitate what we have seen, and so on.

These, however, are merely the shallower costs of perseverance.

The deeper, weightier costs of not giving up are the psycho-spiritual discipline to continue saying “no” to all of the voices inside and out that attempt to rationalize quitting. There are always reasons to quit, always signs that things are unlikely to work out (what really has a default probability of working anyway? At least what of any value?), always other things one could do in the penumbral panorama of optionality available to us in 21st century life.

Indeed, given the innumerable reasons for quitting any particular endeavor, it is remarkable that anybody ever finishes anything at all, sticks with relationships through the hardest times, or brings any creative idea through to the point of completion.

Worse, we live in a culture where we know nobody will blame us if we do quit. Sadly, it’s perhaps even the opposite: we are blamed for trying to persevere. We are laughed at, mocked, derided, condescended for saying “yes, this looks totally impossible and completely pointless, but I shall do it anyway!” And yet, anything that has ever been accomplished of any praiseworthiness has had to be accomplished under such conditions, when, as Emerson says, “the whole cry of voices is on the other side.”

In our society’s victim-worshiping race to the bottom, we are derided for sticking up and sticking out. Nobody wants to see somebody doing what they know they too could be trying. Even less do they want to see somebody else succeed at it, a living confrontation with their own indolence and weakness of will.

“Don’t try too hard! Don’t give too much! You deserve better! You don’t deserve to suffer! It shouldn’t be so hard!” they all say, with their stinging nettles of feigned compassion which masks their own fear of regret for not trying themselves.

“Come down here with us and let us wallow in the pit of mediocrity together!” cries society day and night in the sleepless shadows of their blue-lit screens.

Whenever I utter any such phrases or sentiments myself, I no longer am myself saying those things, but I become part of that indistinguishable mass of society, of averageness — and the doomed failure it rains down on anyone who surrenders to the basic thinking of the crowd.

Nothing has ever been, nor will ever be, achieved without perseverance, and its costs must be paid all day and every day. There is no escape from them. Even upon achievement, new horizons will be opened and new ventures begged thereof.

“Hills peep o’er hills, and alps on alps arise”, as Alexander Pope puts it.

So it is not even enough to dig in “for now”, “just until”, “while I must” — it is a requirement to permanently change one’s disposition toward the embrace of the legitimate and necessary pains of life, the decision to be militantly unwilling to suffer from those legitimate pains.

The prospect brings to my mind an experience I had whilst backpacking in Alaska during my university years. My friends and I had chartered a bush plane to fly us from the little town of McCarthy out to to a remote spot in the backcountry for an 8-day trekking journey in the trailless wilderness of Wrangell-St Elias National Park.

It was my second trip to Alaska, and I thought I had prepared myself for all eventualities, but mere minutes after our plane landed on the tundra in the literal middle of nowhere and the plane had flown off into the distance with no possibility of further communication, hailstones began to fall from the sky and kept falling in ever-larger diameter.  The spongy tundra and its brush provided no shelter from such weather, and we were many kilometers from any forest cover. We were on a tight timeline, as we needed to reach our destination on time 8 days later to ensure we would be picked up by the plane to go back to McCarthy.

We could sit down on the tundra and cover our heads with our backpacks and wait it out — not a particularly great option considering that we needed to find rockier ground to make camp — or we could go on our way, with hoods and hats, endure the hailstones, and do what we set out to do. After a few minutes of bargaining and arguing, we finally opted for the latter.

Each little hailstone that smacked my forehead from the angle of the winds was a reminder that I had put myself in the situation, opted for it voluntarily — and for entertainment! My necessity was not even for the sake of sustaining my life or the lives of people I cared about, but for the thrill of being in the wild.

What good is regret in the first minutes of an 8-day, 80 km backcountry hike?

Most beauty, discovery, invention, creation, social change for which humans can claim credit came not from physical necessity, but from this sort of spiritual necessity: the desire to do something different, to experience something different, to be different, to finish something and say “I’m proud of what I did here.”

Enduring those hailstones in the Alaskan wilderness in my early 20s contributed to my ability and willingness to continue paying the impossible and persistent costs of perseverance in my adult life, whether it was the nightmare of business litigation I would experience just a couple years later, the painful end of romantic relationships, the loss of my family when I came out, or the collapse of my second family and the Exosphere community, which I built from 2012-2017 — and all of the pains that were required in between just to keep going.

All of these experiences bolster me now, as much as they haunt and taunt me. The pain of remembering them is the pain of accepting that there is no end to them, and that to return to the path of achievement requires paying those costs anew.

If my current creative mission is to be fulfilled and my most cherished relationships sustained, I must stand up, un-shield my head and face from the hailstones, and take whatever pummeling comes next, and if I can, to do it joyfully, willing to find and accept the little pleasures and milestone achievements as fuel and force to continue — until?

Until forever.

If for artistic expression, until there is nothing left in me to express.

If for love, then “even to the edge of doom.” (Shakespeare, Sonnet 116)

If for change in human society and a life well-lived, only until the “triumph of principles.”

(Emerson, Self Reliance)

Thus, the highest cost is the acceptance that there will be high costs forever, that there will be no end, that there can be no end, that even — if I might so dangerously venture — there should be no end to the costs.

Randy Pausch, who I quoted at the beginning of the essay, is making precisely this latter point. The costs, what he refers to as “the brick walls”, are a necessary element of the journey of life. They are a natural filter keeping the half-hearted from cheaply reaching the sublime, the rarefied atmosphere that few will ever breathe.

The high costs keep us honest, and humble, and in that humility we are able to see clearly, without arrogance or pretense, those things which we must do, and keep doing, growing in the process, until one day we simply forget we are paying because it becomes second nature, newly part of our character to pay the costs of perseverance without complaint.

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