The Freedom of Constraints

Fear comes from not knowing what to expect and not feeling you have any control over what’s about to happen. When you feel helpless, you’re far more afraid than you would be if you knew the facts — Chris Hadfield

I don’t like uncertainty: I’m a planner. In early January, as I do every year, I sat down, reviewed my 2019 plan and my five-year goals, and wrote my plan for 2020. It was all set: I was going to sit my exams, do some short courses, then go home to New Zealand in early April.

Regardless of whether you read my blog, you already know how well that turned out: I’m stuck in the UK and I can’t go home until the New Zealand borders reopen. That’s unlikely to happen before there’s a vaccine.

In just a few days, my carefully-laid plans shattered into complete disarray. None of my backup plans covered this situation. For the first time in years, I found myself frozen in analysis paralysis, trying to work out what to do next.

Man is born free and is everywhere in chains. — Rousseau

There’s a strange freedom in constraints. For at least the next year, I’m free to do anything I want (within reason), except go home.

If I were locked down at home now, I’d have all sorts of things to do, including:

  • look after my house;
  • support my neighbours and friends (at a safe distance);
  • sew and 3D print face masks;
  • deliver food and other essentials; and
  • manufacture hand sanitiser.

I can’t do any of those here. I’m living out of a backpack in the spare room of some lovely family members, but they’re not into sewing machines, 3D printing, or volunteering. My primary responsibility is to do nothing that might put them at risk.

Within those constraints, I have no commitments but those I manufacture, and no responsibilities beyond those I choose. I’m free to do whatever I choose, and that’s terrifying.

My biggest fear isn’t catching Covid-19. I fear committing to something — a job, study, or voluntary work — then learning that the New Zealand borders have opened. I dread having to choose between breaking a commitment (which goes against my personal code of conduct) and going home. I know I’d honour my commitments, but I also know that that decision would tear me apart. Therefore, I procrastinate.

In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing. — Theodore Roosevelt

I have a set of questions I’ve used for years to make decisions:

  • If I say, “Yes,” to this, what am I saying, “No,” to?
  • If I look back on this decision in ten years, will I agree with this trade-off?
  • When was the last time I made a similar decision? Looking back, was it as important as I thought it was?
  • If I were advising a friend who was faced with the same decision, what advice would I give them?
  • If I were writing myself as a character in a story, what choice would the character make? Where would they end up? What would be the twist in the story?
  • If I were to flip a coin and it came up with option A, would I want to flip it again?

A goal without a plan is just a wish. — Antoine de Saint-Exupery

My primary goal is to go home. My secondary goal is to do something with the time that will either help the people around me or put me in a better position to help the people around me. And in ten years, no matter what I choose now, it will seem like the only reasonable option.

Should I expand my freelance writing to build a stable income? Study towards a qualification in a new industry so that I can find work when I get home? Volunteer somewhere? Sit in a corner and cry? Eat chocolate? Learn to crochet a baby seal?

One of the things that make us human is the ability to imagine things that haven’t happened yet. I could keep waiting, keep hoping that I’ll be able to go home, but if I do that, how long will I wait before I have to make a decision anyway? If I wait to find out what will happen at home, I waste time that I could use to do something useful, so I need to commit.

You can never cross the ocean until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore. (Christopher Columbus)

In the long term, studying and volunteering will improve my ability to support myself and to help others, so that’s my plan. I’ve applied to go back to the Africa Mercy and enrolled in a correspondence course for a shore-based qualification.

Despite what my lizard brain is saying, I will get home one day; in the meantime, there’s a whole world of possibilities!

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