I yanked open my refrigerator door, anticipating a much-needed wave of cool air to give me relief.
It was deep in the summer of 2009 in Boulder, Colorado and I lived in a condo with no air conditioning. What it did have was a weird quirk: when I opened my patio door for a breeze, the smoke detector sometimes blared. I have no clue why. So, before I enjoyed some air from the outside, I had to stand on a chair and yank the detector’s plastic cover off, disabling it.
Today, there was no wind. My condo was more silent than usual and when I opened the fridge, there was no whiff of coolness. No light went on, either. Maybe it was playing dead? Then came the smell. It wasn’t too bad but, instead of a cheerful, crisp, sanitized plastic scent, the fridge’s innards released a smell of eerie warmth like a cheap, room temperature beer.
When it comes to a refrigerator, you want the inside crackling with cold. Warmth is unsettling. It signals rot.
Fortunately, I only had a couple of items on the shelves. A mostly empty jar of non-homogenized whole milk. Some energy drinks. Tomato sauce. A block of Romano cheese.
I shut the door, opened it again, and shut it. The lightbulb remained dark. The warm odor pulsed farther into my kitchen. A motor was supposed to flip on…maybe the fridge was dead.
I opened the door one more time, grabbed an energy drink, and opened the freezer on top. It was just as warm. The only item inside, a bottle of Smirnoff’s Triple-Distilled vodka, rested on its side, gleaming with wetness. I grabbed it too. Priorities.
It was a little before noon and I made my usual breakfast – one part energy drink and one part vodka.
I’d mixed this combo so many times that my drinking glasses had faint orange and red stains from the energy drink’s coloring, like a bridge’s high-water marks. Lately, my cup’s tide had been rising significantly.
I was in my early twenties, living alone in Boulder. I spent most of my day in front of my computer, building my businesses. At the time, I had two ventures going – selling DVDs and courses on yoga that I’d created with my older brother, and a nutritional supplement company I’d founded with two partners. For the past year, the ventures limped along and threw off just enough income to help me live like a spartan shut-in.
Even though I’d lived in my small condo for over two years, it looked like I’d moved in yesterday. Half-full boxes littered the floor. A single, plastic, red dish rested on the kitchen counter with a fork on top and a glass beside it. I had a particle board desk and metal bookshelf I’d bought on Amazon, a computer I still had from college, and a bed – my only quality possession – from Denver Mattress.
And a fridge that had just shut off.
For the next couple of hours, I surfed the web while the television blared beside my desk.
I sipped my drink, burning down my throat, cratering in my gut and rippling warmth throughout my body.
It hit my brain and I felt okay. Then, the fridge turned on.
I walked back over and opened the door. It was still warm but the light was on and the motor hummed.
Great! Problem solved.
A couple of days later, I opened the door and felt and smelled the same warmth. But it couldn’t fool me this time. A couple of hours later, it turned back on.
For the next couple of days, part of my brain wondered about the fridge. I kept listening for the motor’s hum. Was it off because it was cool enough or off because the thing finally croaked?
The fridge turned off again and, this time, it stayed off. I cleaned out the decaying cheese, tomato sauce, and milk. I left the vodka bottle in the freezer because, why not?
But what the heck was I going to eat?
Perishable stuff was no longer an option. I wasn’t at all a chef. So, I started buying four-packs of cinnamon buns. Because, hey, if I couldn’t store food, I might as well eat delicious crap.
I lived like this for at least three weeks. Finally, I called my landlord.
“Hey, uh, I think the fridge died. It hasn’t been working for a while.”
“Oh! I’m glad you told me! I’ll get a new one installed.”
Within a day, he arrived with a new refrigerator. The motor hummed like the bass of a symphony. I stopped worrying about the fridge dying. I packed it with milk, tomato sauce, and Romano cheese. My vodka bottle grew beautiful ice crystals around it.
A happy ending…right?
Over a decade later, I told my wife this story. She smiled and said, “Isn’t it funny how we just put up with stuff that causes us so much pain? And it’d be so easy – just getting up and doing one thing – to solve it…”
Humans have a tremendous capacity to withstand misery. We also have a tremendous ability to avoid change.
It’s a bizarre, harmful form of mental toughness. We can handle emotional pain, even if we shouldn’t be. We’re very adaptable – we’re not nearly as averse to change as we might assume – as long as it’s change that’s done to us. But if it’s a change we need to make for ourselves, we’re exceptionally skilled at avoiding it.
A tornado can destroy our homes but we’ll press on. We can get hit with divorce papers and feel awful but we’ll get through it. And, like me with my fridge, we can tolerate deteriorating conditions, obstacles, and unpleasant surprises with aplomb, navigating the disruption like water.
But water doesn’t navigate. Water doesn’t choose. It flows through the path of least resistance.
When my fridge died, my capacity to withstand misery was substantial enough to avoid making a healthier change. Instead of getting off my butt to get the refrigerator replaced – which wouldn’t even require physically getting off my butt as I could have called my landlord from my chair – I made the misery-based decision to live without it. I felt shy about calling my landlord. Maybe he’d blame me? Maybe he’d ignore me? Maybe he’d demand I pay for a new fridge even though he owned the condo?
Maybe…I didn’t deserve a new fridge?
Around that time, I’d been complaining to a mentor about not being able to get a date to save my life. He asked me if I felt deserving of a relationship. I replied, “Hell no!”
I assumed deserving had no place in the equation – I could either get a date or I couldn’t. Undeserving people get what they want all the time.
But it wasn’t a matter of morals or some unmeasurable sense of justice in the universe – his question was about what my brain was programmed to tolerate.
How much misery did it choose to withstand? When did my brain feel it was appropriate to get mad as hell, not take it anymore, and push for a change?
When my fridge died, I weaved my way around the worst of the pain by eating junk food. I drank warm alcohol. I put up with small hurts because I didn’t have the fortitude or sense of deservingness to calibrate my lifestyle for long-term pleasure.
Like the proverbial frog in a pot of water that gets hotter and hotter as the flames batter it from below, I didn’t think, “F*** this, I’m outta here.”
Perhaps this seems like an odd concept, but everyone has stealthy areas of life where they feel undeserving.
These pockets of undeserving-ness can show up as the belief that it’s okay to have a romantic partner that puts you down…as long as their insults are occasional, and the partner’s decent enough otherwise. The pockets of undeserving-ness can be the belief that it’s okay to not invest any of your money…because, hey, you can’t and that’s just something rich people do, right?
In your brain, right now, is a balance. One side of the balance is your ability to tolerate daily doses of misery. The other side of the balance is your sense of deservingness.
When your sense of deservingness outweighs your tolerance for misery, you do things like put your foot down with a partner who makes verbal snipes at you and, if they don’t clean up their act – which is a virtual certainty – you pack your stuff and leave them.
When your sense of deservingness outweighs your tolerance for misery, you choose to invest part of your income to build yourself a better future. It would feel weird not to.
When someone insulted me or disrespected my time, even in a small way or even just once, I chose to not interact with them. I put away $30 of savings per week when I was making $300 per week.
These aren’t physically difficult things to do.
They don’t require an inordinate amount of intelligence. Putting money into an Index Fund takes a few clicks of a mouse. Heck, you can even buy stocks using an app on your phone. The most physically challenging part of leaving a relationship is lifting heavy boxes if you live together, and you can pay someone else to do that – again, you can use an app on your phone.
Then what makes these choices so hard? The same thing that made it hard for me to ask my landlord for a new refrigerator: Feeling deserving.
Do you have the sense of deservingness to make healthy choices? Is that sense strong enough to push yourself to think and act differently? Is it stronger than your tolerance for drips of misery?
I used to let credit card bills go unpaid. I was numb to it. More, bigger bills would arrive with more red ink and I’d think, “Whoops.” When my cards declined, I paid them off enough to keep buying what I wanted – usually vodka and Romano cheese. Today, if I get an inkling that a due date is coming for a minimum payment and I might miss it, I react as fast as a cat dunked in a sink full of water. I no longer tolerate financial misery – I feel like I deserve wealth.
Where are you withstanding daily doses of misery? Where are you resisting a tiny bit of thinking and acting differently?
Are parts of your life worthy of outrage? Maybe someone is treating you in an outrageous way but you tell yourself, hey, you can handle it…
In 2014, I got a job loading trucks. It was dirty and exhausting. Once, around two in the morning when a shift finally ended, I locked myself in the bathroom and studied my muck-covered face. As I washed myself, I decided to make it a baptism. I had endured enough misery that I was worthy of washing myself clean of my sins. That helped me feel more deserving.
What rituals can you put yourself through to celebrate your freedom from daily miseries?
Once you’ve improved your sense of deserving and rid yourself of daily miseries, you might find something amazing happen: Instead of making choices to avoid misery, you’ll live more and more through inspiration. You’ll strive for changes from a place of creativity, thriving, and fun.