We all know what it looks like when a totalitarian regime takes over a country.
We’ve seen pictures of Nazi Germany, Communist China, the Soviet Union – soldiers marching in lockstep, human beings in abject poverty, piles and piles of bodies from genocidal warfare, all in the name of law and order…
Now consider what the principles of totalitarian dictatorship do when applied to the life of an individual human being.
You get up in the morning and you tell yourself, “don’t eat any sugar today!“ – an order issued from a place in your mind where you are clear what needs to happen for your life to go well. And then you go about your day.
For the first few hours at least, you are in control. No cookies, thank you. No sugar in your coffee. No problem.
But how long before the underground resistance that formed when you issued your command begins to rear its committed head?
How long before the cookie sitting on the table in the office or on top of the refrigerator begins broadcasting its urgent code to reach that part of your brain that knows the dictator can and must be overthrown?
Or what if you decide to go on a full on diet end and exercise routine?
You Google a few and pick one that looks like it’ll do the trick – ie, help you lose weight fast.
You set your armies marching, buying all of the nonfat yogurt and green veggies you can get your hands on, you start doing brutal workouts every day, sweating, heaving, all the while feeling such hatred for the entire program and yourself for being so weak…
How long before you quit?
How long before you say “screw this“ and skip the workout, toss the nonfat yogurt, and go all-in for fried chicken and ice cream?
If you’re like me, it doesn’t take long. Weeks if I’m really lucky and feeling strong enough to enforce it for that long; usually more like days or even hours.
This is what happens we take an authoritarian approach to changing habits and doing what we think is best for us.
And it’s not actually our fault!
We hear a steady stream of messages on TV, in newspapers, on the Internet – everywhere in our media-saturated world – that if we just make a decision, stick to it, and use our will to force ourselves to change, that our lives would be so much better.
But what if what is actually required to change a lifetime worth of bad habits is more of a negotiation?
What if it’s more like negotiating with a three-year-old or a six-year-old who doesn’t want to eat broccoli?
And what if there’s an element of play involved? Experimentation? Making a game out of it?
What if making improvements to our lifestyle requires more patience than resolve, more flexibility and experimentation than decisions, decrees, commands, and more permission to fail than forced compliance to some idea of what it should look like to be disciplined?
When you take an authoritarian approach to discipline – for example, issuing the command to yourself, “I will not eat any sugar today“ in a voice that implies violence or shame for non-compliance – can it really be a surprise when you rebel?
This is my experience. I’ve been a dictator to myself all my life, which has not been without its moments of success.
There have been two periods of time in which my body was at a comfortable weight and I felt strong and looked lean and healthy. One of them consisted of a daily regiment of weighing and measuring my food, the other consisted of daily surfing along a beach road in Mexico.
During the first period, I was involved in an organization that exists for the purpose of helping people who habitually overeat to gain control over their eating. I went to multiple gatherings each week and declared myself “powerless” over the “disease” of overeating and submitted to a strict regimen of weighing and measuring my food – same meal, three times per day, seven days a week for three years.
I looked great – and even got too skinny at one point – but I was internally brutalized by the weight of considering my problem a “disease”; what was packaged as a “spiritual” solution to the problem was truly nothing more than submission to a well-organized authoritarian discipline.
During my time in Mexico, I was simply too active to gain weight, despite the fact that I was eating tacos and drinking multiple beers every day. The surfing, the walking, and the restful time in-between gave my body everything it needed to maintain a good condition.
Nowadays, every day consists of negotiations with my six-year-old self who would much rather eat all the cookies and sit around and play video games. Those things are fine in moderation, but they don’t make for much of a fulfilling adult life, so I make deals with myself, offering rewards for industrious and productive behavior, letting him have the cookie from time to time, but certainly not every day.
So perhaps we can all take a cue from the images we’ve all seen of concentration camps and other artifacts of brutal dictatorships, and be a little more willing to listen to ourselves, to negotiate, to honor our sovereignty and natural authority over the power of choice that we all have each and every day to care for ourselves.
And perhaps we can learn to enjoy adopting practices and disciplines and routines and habits that make us feel healthy and strong; maybe it doesn’t have to be a fight or a punishment for months, years, and decades of not so good habits.
I’d much rather go that route – wouldn’t you?