I can’t count the number of times I’ve run into the wall on my two hands and two feet. Hell, even with a shiny robotic hand implanted in my abdomen, I still wouldn’t have enough digits to count all of my wall collisions. And I’d be an idiot, for several reasons:
Why would I get a hand implanted in my stomach? At the least, I should get it implanted somewhere useful, like the back of my head. I’d never be caught off guard.
Apparently, I don’t know that calculators exist.
I run into the wall so often; one extra hand wouldn’t cut it. I’d have to become a tangled bundle of robotic hands to keep up the count. So long, normal human body. Hello, future career as, Spider Hand, the main antagonist in a made-for-television movie on the SyFy channel.
I ran into the wall more than ten times while writing this essay. Honestly, it’s a surprise that I don’t run into the wall more often in life. Especially considering today’s smartphone filled world. We’re all shooting stars, drifting across empty space, faces twinkling with the warm familiarity of electric glow. Thanks to the Internet, thousands of videos now exist to document foolish victims who were sucked too far into the black hole of a screen. In these clips, they’re comets blazing towards bumpers and painfully pinballing away, like the world is a cosmic arcade game. May those poor souls rest in peace.
I shouldn’t use the word they to talk about those digital ghosts who are cursed to haunt fail compilations for eternity. Their spirits are reduced to two-dimensional caricatures of shame and are trapped within the four corners of a computer screen. I imagine labels like “that guy who bumped into a bus stop” or “that woman who slipped on a block of ice” buzz around them like locusts during a plague. Meanwhile, I have the privilege of being seen in three-dimensions and full color. To most of the outside world, I am an untitled Word document, and I write my own story.
Truthfully, I am one of those theys. I too have fallen down the stairs and have collided with a telephone pole. I have fallen prey to the bings and bongs, and the pings and pongs. I’m just lucky that I haven’t been caught yet. I think most of us have slipped into the bear-trap of technology at least once. It’s easy for our square boxes of fun to snap closed with us inside. Inside those boxes, our connection to our exterior surroundings is severed. All we can see is what flashes closest to our eyes.
The point of this isn’t to talk about how bad technology is or how social media is corrupting our society. I love how technology can create so many possibilities almost out of thin air. I love how it makes it seem we’re living on the edge of the future. Seriously, I wear my Apple Watch to feel like a secret agent from 2076. I’m trying to point out how hard it can be to see the walls in life, even if they’re right in front of us. After all, our phones and tablets all have walls, borders, bezels, or whatever we’re calling edges now.
Technology isn’t the only reason I don’t think I’m the only one who has faced the wall. Katy Perry once sang about feeling like a plastic bag in the wind. Personally, when I hit the wall, it feels more like a mirror shattering, but same difference. If pop stars are singing about feeling like hitting the wall, I think it’s fair to call it a side effect of being human. It’s part of our pop culture and our collective identity. It’s universal, which is why the wall is hard to describe. It comes in all shapes, sizes, and varieties. I’m pretty sure Walmart even sells them.
Sometimes the wall is a medieval fortress barrier with vines crawling to the top. Sometimes the wall is a rusty prison gate with stale water painting it in dull green mold. Sometimes the wall is just an ordinary divider that’s fitted for cookie-cutter houses and colored an inoffensive beige. Other times the wall is actually a white picket fence. Regardless, when you hit the wall, you usually come away sore.
When I face the wall, I immediately feel stuck. Staring down any obstacle is a challenge. It’s a block in the road, and that means moving forward won’t be easy. It means I’ll have to find an alternative route. Worse yet, I’ll have to do it without GPS. I could climb over, but this time the wall looks crusty, and I don’t want to catch tetanus or some alien infection. So I question whether I should turn back, but I’ve already come so far. When I do turn around, to check that there are no monsters behind me, I see that the wall has brought a friend as always. I’m stuck in the middle of nothing with two walls drifting towards me. Soon, the walls will collide and sandwich me inside. I’ll ooze out as a limp cream of salty emotions.
I know that I’ll be crushed, yet I do nothing. I don’t turn back, and I don’t move forward. I’m stuck, for a lot of reasons. Maybe I’m tired, sad, distracted, or just not feeling productive. Maybe I didn’t eat or sleep well. Maybe I’m sick. In the end, I know that the reason doesn’t really matter. I just feel stuck. You might be thinking that the wall sounds a lot like writer’s block or burnout. You’re right, but I also think the wall is a little bit more than that.
The wall isn’t just a lack of ideas or action. Most of the time, I face the wall when I’ve already started something, or after I’ve created something. Instead, the wall is a blockage between the individual and the idea. Ideas are fickle things. One moment, they’ll flock around me like migrating birds and flow like whitewater. The next moment, finding them is like sweeping up dust. I have to scrape them out like the last blob of Nutella in a jar. It all comes down to how mentally constipated I am. Sadly, the tides, moon phases, and horoscopes offer little insight into predicting that.
The wall consists of all the shit that we carry with us through the day. The wall is that fiery argument you had with your significant other, that approaching deadline looming over you, the chatter of your phone’s notifications, and the pull of that binge-worthy season of television. The problem is that these things pile up quickly. Our idea machine clogs easily and clouds our perceptions with foggy uncertainty.
In that haze, even if I have ideas, it’s hard to make them solid. They’ll come out like jelly, and I’ll smear them across the page. Of course, the fog will burn my eyes and blind me. I won’t be able to see what I’ve got. I’ll desperately scoop up slimy blobs of half an idea and watch them slip through my fingers. All that doubt and fear makes it impossible to assemble anything. I question whether it’s good enough, or whether it’s worth it. I’ll grow frustrated that I wasted time on something meaningless. I’ll decide that it’s worthless because no one will see it. I’m stuck. I’m covered in sloppy goo.
Worse yet, I’ll often build the wall myself. As I try to unfreeze myself, I’ll scratch at the wall. I’ll chip off the wet cement of fear, anger, and disappointment. I’ll think I’m getting through the wall, but I’m just gluing myself to negativity. The wall is sticky, not hard like writer’s block, so it gets on everything. I still haven’t been able to find a stain remover to get it out properly.
The wall exists not just in creativity, but in relationships too. The idea doesn’t have to be art or work; it can be anything. The wall is a block in free expression. When the wall jams up communication between people, messages overflow and spill out into dirty puddles. The wall has stopped me from saying things that I should have said. I was afraid of the wall. The wall has made me less open about things that I shouldn’t have locked up. It’s led to misunderstandings and mistakes. It keeps you from saying and doing the things that matter most. It fills your perspective with so much crap, and you can’t see through it.
When I think back to the times where I’ve faced the wall in my personal life, I think most about what I didn’t do. The truth is that “I love you(s),” adventures and opportunities are fleeting. Fear, doubt, and regret are permanent if you let them be. It’s hard to choose the right choice, but it’s better than no decision.
If you’ve gotten this far, congrats. You’ve knocked my wall down a little. Secondly, if you think that this is some kind of holy self-help guide, I’m sorry. I can’t tell you how to be happy. I can’t tell you how to defeat the final boss in Zelda or your boss at work. I can’t tell you to get rid of the wall. This isn’t an instructional manual. It doesn’t come with a set of values to assemble into the perfect life. I can’t even figure out to put together a chair from IKEA. In this, there’s no sequel or cliff-hanger plugged into the end. This is a story about why this story doesn’t have an ending. This is a story about hanging off the side of a cliff and being too stuck to jump.
In fact, I don’t even want my wall to be destroyed. When I climb over the wall, I often find my best work. It comes from being stuck behind walls and breaking out of them. My escape from doubt, frustration, and adversity is sweet because of the pressure. Without the challenge, I wouldn’t learn or grow. The wall pushes me onto new paths where I find new ideas and solutions. The wall is something I manage, not avoid.
Controlling the wall means focusing on what is important and what isn’t. When you look at the wall from a neutral mindset, it’s mostly made of shit. You pull the bricks and blocks that are meaningful or important out of the wall. You stack them together to get a leg up and make the climb easier. You move around the sharp fragments and take the smoothest path upwards.
Navigating the wall also means realizing that it’s a wall. That might seem obvious, but it requires understanding. It means accepting that the wall isn’t going to move or change. It means there’s always going to be an obstacle. When you accept the wall for what it is, you can break it down. Instead of a vast towering mass, it becomes a bunch of smaller sections put together. You see that the bottom half of the wall is built from the time pressure you’re feeling. Suddenly, the wall becomes much smaller. If you can get over your time-related stress, you’ll already be halfway up the wall.
You use the rest of the wall to your advantage. Maybe a quarter of your wall is a screen playing YouTube videos. So you stop, and you rest on the rest of your wall. You allow yourself to give in to some of your distractions, and you recover while handling them. You’re almost at the top, but some of the wall is still in your way. You accept that the wall is static. It can’t change, but you can. Failure might be an obstacle, but it’s not the ending. After all, you climbed almost all of the wall.
There will always be another wall, but there will also always be another opportunity to climb it. I know that the wall will crush me on occasion. Still, I choose to create despite that threat. I don’t give up because the wall is there. I have dozens of notebooks filled with half-baked ideas. I’ve started way more projects than I’ve finished. A lot of them are trash and will end up in the garbage. Still, I try to add each project to my pile of past ideas.
Slowly, with each project, the garbage pile of half-finished or dumb ideas builds up next to the wall. In the pile, the ideas decompose and mix. New ideas germinate, and others die. One day, the pile will reach a peak and loom over the wall. My ideas will be more than my doubts. I will swaddle a little baby idea in my arms and listen to it ‘goo and gah.’ Together, we will walk up the pile of old ideas. We will stand on top of the wall and look into a melodramatic sunset. Then, the old untitled Word document that defines me will be full with my story.
Note: This article was originally published on Medium in October 2018.