The Tao of Discomfort: Or, My First Dalliance with Operant Conditioning....
This should be an easy concept for me to grasp, as, from the very beginning, all I remember is discomfort. My earliest memories are of frustration and dissatisfaction. My earliest memories are "crib" memories--both literally and otherwise.
I remember, for example, lying in a crib next to my cousin Mas Chingon, who was a month older than I was. The memory isn't still-waters clear, of course. No, the memory is witnessed more through some trembling, cloudy waters. But it's not so much what I see that's important, it's the memory of what I felt. I was angry. I'm a Furious, so I was born angry, but this memory only supports that fact. Of course I was an infant, so I didn't think in words. I didn't think I was "angry," for example. I just remember the feeling of intense discomfort that I now know as anger. I remember feeling "lost" and "disoriented" because I didn't recognize my "environment." The "crib" wasn't the crib I was used to. The room I was in was utterly "unfamiliar." At first I was "scared"--that was the initial discomfort I felt. But as the fear lingered and nobody came to alleviate that feeling, I remember it turning to "rage." I do remember crying and kicking and the now-all-too-familiar heat of sheer wrath.
Regardless, in the end, it was all "discomfort."
I remember a year or two later, sitting on the floor in my house playing with blocks and toy cars, and suddenly I became flooded with the feeling I now know as "nausea." I remember feeling the bile hit the back of my throat and I remember feeling as though the living room of the house got suddenly larger, and my mom seeming so far away. And there was the discomfort of the nausea and of my mom being too distant and unable to console the feeling. I remember tilting my head back and screaming with furious abandon in the hopes that it would somehow draw my mom closer to me.
Around the same age I remember sitting in a darkened movie theater watching Bambi, and understanding, on some level, the tragedy of Bambi's mother being shot, and the fear and loathing that followed.
Again, more discomfort.
You get the idea.
And but so it makes some sort of sense why, from a very early age, I was grumpy. If you picture young Manny Furious at all, you must picture him at, say, five years old, with a persistent and inconsolable case of bed head, and a perpetual look of perturbation on his face. And squinting, lots of squinting because it would be several more years before anybody realized he couldn't see without glasses.
The haze of perpetual perturbation, though--that followed him everywhere. It was a signal of how he just didn't get on with reality. He couldn't fathom why existence would exist if everything was so uncomfortable all the time. He couldn't conjure a point or a reason for it.
Fear. There was also lots of fear within that boy. Though I, myself, don't actually remember this aspect of my early youth, I'm told by credible sources who were there at the time, that Young Manny Furious was afraid of his own shadow. Literally. But I figure this must've been before I was five years old, as I do have a lot of memories of being five, but none of them include me entering the fight or flight response at the sight of my own penumbra.
Anyway, fear, too is uncomfortable. So while I may not have walked around in a state of persistent psychological trauma, I was just, again, uncomfortable all the goddamned time. And, as such, I became a sucker for relief. If you wanted to convince or coerce me into doing something, all you had to do was put me in a situation where you were in a position to increase my discomfort, make fear that even more discomfort was on its way, and then offer me some kind of promise of relief.
For example, let's take a look at how Young Manny Furious, age 5, was convinced to attend his first day of kindergarten. First, he was awoken before he desired or was even ready to be awoken. But, also, his lovely mother, Mama Furious, would not allow him to fall back to sleep. This, of course, was placing him in an uncomfortable situation. Then, when Young Manny Furious insisted on resisting his wake up call and to get ready for school, Mama Furious had successfully placed herself in a position to agitate his discomfort.
"If you don't get up and get ready to go to school on time..." she said, skillfully allowing the mystery and tension of the rest of the threat to accumulate. "Santa WILL NOT be bringing you presents for Christmas, this year."
Holy Shit! Young Manny Furious thought to himself. There was no worse fate you could possibly imagine. A Christmas with no presents? No Ghostbusters action figures?! No Ninja Turtle van?! No Jean Claude Van Damme movies?
What's the point of living?
The point here, though, is you see Young Manny Furious's mother implementing stage 2 of getting Manny Furious to do something--tightening the screws and suggesting that if he did not do the uncomfortable task of getting up, getting ready and getting to school on time, there would be even more, even larger, even crueler discomfort in the form of a lack of Christmas presents.
Frankly, at this point, the job was done. Mama Furious could've just let the idea of no Christmas presents waft about the empty, stupid recesses of the weak, fearful mind of Young Manny Furious for a few moments. It would've been enough to rouse him out of bed and into school. But, being his mother, she was already well-aware of his fragile psychology. She already knew that even if she had left it there--with the idea of no Christmas for Young Manny Furious--it may have gotten the desired result, superficially. But there would've been a certain motivation, or a certain impetus, missing from his actions. He would simply be going through the motions of getting out of bed and into school with the least amount of effort or investment he could muster.
In order to cultivate the most engagement and investment possible, Mama Furious implemented Stage 3 of getting Manny Furious to do shit--she gave him some sort of promise of relief.
"Listen," she told him, as he began to rouse himself out of bed. "If you get up and got to school, when you come home, you can stay up a little late and read two whole chapters of The Autobiography of Malcolm X."
Or the promise of it, anyway.
So I said a few "motherfuckers" under my breath, got up and went to school.
And when I got home, there were two whole chapters of The Autobiography of Malcolm X waiting for me.
And a few months later, Santa did indeed bring me a toy version of the Ghostbusters firehouse, AND, a poster of a half-naked Jean Claude Van Damme flexing in a karate pose of some sort, my joy at which, looking back, probably convinced every member of my family that I was gay. A conviction that still seems to linger in the minds of some....
Needless to say, I learned my first lessons about discomfort and motivation from that experience. But there would be many more.