Monday, August 14, 2006

Changing a Lightbulb

I trotted downstairs to the basement, where we keep our stationary bicycle. For the past few months I've been putting in "seven miles" -- so it assures me, I suspect it's more like four -- every other day on this contraption, which we refer to as "the stuck bike."

But to put in seven miles on the stuck bike you need to be able to see its odometer. At the bottom of the stairs I flicked on the light for that side of the basement. Nothing happened.

I hesitated. Could I see the odometer by the light of the dim narrow window? I took a look. Not a chance. Could I track by counting my "steps"? I'd taken to counting lately. 140 regular steps, 70 faster, 105 regular, that made a mile. I could count it out. But could I keep track of the number of miles at the same time? On my fingers, perhaps?

The watchman I've posted in my mind stirred uneasily. "Hey, boss?" he said. "Take a look at this. I don't think it's quite right."

Reluctantly I brought my attention to it. Oh. Yeah. There is another way to handle problems like this. And the place we keep new lightbulbs is in the basement, five paces away from where I was standing, in fact.

With an effort of will I made myself do what most of you would have done without thinking. I changed the lightbulb. And it occurred to me, as I did so, that for two days, since we got back from the beach, I've been working around the fact that the light in the bathroom has been burned out, without it ever once having occurred to me that I might seize the initiative and change the lightbulb there.

Such is the strength of my habit of passivity. And of my children's. All initiative in our family is delegated to Martha, a burden she staggers under -- but also relinquishes reluctantly. My automatic response to a difficulty is to change, not my circumstances, but myself. Which has its upside of course. I'm temperamentally less easily fooled by the blandishments and threats of Samsara than many people; I'm not always imagining that a million dollars or a newer car will give me a new life. But it has also, obviously, a downside. I spend a lot of time in the dark, concocting workarounds.

The habit has to be undone, piece by piece. I have to notice when I'm being pathologically passive, and I have to respond differently. It is not a glorious task, it's not even a dignified one, but it's the work of my life, at the moment.

The joke is maybe so old that some of you don't know it:

How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb?

-- Only one, but the lightbulb has to really want to change.

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