As a young person I developed a habit that became a significant handicap. I believed that if I started reading a book I should read it cover to cover. However boring or irrelevant it proved to be, I stoically ploughed on to the end, in the mistaken belief that it was the only way to truly appreciate the work and extract its full value. It was really only in my forties that I realised how foolish this was, and worked to cultivate the ability to ‘gut a book’ and to develop the art of nonfinishing.
But this ran deeper than just a reading style. I would never not finish a meal, not finish a conversation, not finish a relationship. I was the dumpee not the dumper. I treated life as if everything was equivalent to juice extraction. However much pain, however much ‘pulp’, was in this book, relationship, fruit, film, or spiritual exercise, if I just kept ‘grinding away’ at it, I would extract the maximum learning, nourishment, illumination from it. So in one way it was driven by greed, in another way by a sense of lack – I was always looking for more. But in another way, too, it was driven by certain ideas I had picked up. The obvious cultural ones were there: “Always finish your plate,” “Be ambitious, don’t be a quitter”. But then certain spiritual influences reinforced this idea: “perseverance furthers” the I-Ching constantly told me in my teens; the Path to Enlightenment involves surmounting obstacles, challenges, trials, was the message from reading spiritual biographies. “Carry On!” was the message everywhere in Britain: from the silly ‘Carry On’ films to the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ wartime posters with their endless variations (our fridge magnet says: “Keep Calm. I’ve got my wand!’)
And then, with an interest in psychotherapy, came the learning that our subconscious can try to sabotage us, that it’s precisely when we experience resistance to something that we should keep pushing for more insight. And so making oneself move out of the Comfort Zone became the way to go: “You’re finding this hard? Good, keep going! Break through! Don’t stop now! Don’t finish now! Just a little bit more effort and you’ll turn the corner. Redemption is just down the road. Keep walking!”
And of course this is true – sometimes, often even. But the opposite can be true too. Sometimes it makes sense to follow the opposite injuction: “Don’t go for victory, for conquest, every time. Try surrender! Stop now! Don’t complete it! Drop out! Lie down! Let go!”
When I went inside just now and asked where this drive to finish everything came from, I understood that it was often fear, and I thought of this track by Sarah McLachhlin: