The Putty

A long time ago, when I was still a young buck in middle school, I was sitting around with my best friend at his trailer playing around, and I noticed a giant tub of what I took to be Silly Putty. Had to have been half a gallon of the stuff, pink, in a white plastic tub.

I thought: hell, yes, tub of putty. Gonna play with some putty. Gonna just scoop up a bunch of this putty, and—it’s a rock. I can’t shove my hand in. I only left finger dimples.

My friend told me it’s putty for physical therapy. “You squeeze it with your hand.” He dipped his hand in slowly, and it gave way to his light touch.

He explained, in middle-school words, that the viscosity makes it resist any flow faster than a fixed rate. You can’t make it flow any faster, no matter how much effort you put in. You can’t speed it up. To shape it, to squeeze it, it doesn’t matter how much force you put in. It always flows at the same speed.

I tried it. He was right. It felt soft and yielding as long as I applied very little force. If I added more force, it responded with obstinate indifference.

He was able to scoop it up smoothly because he allowed his hand time to sink in without shoving. I had thought of it as a liquid like any other that would simply make room for me as I pushed my hand in, but it didn’t. It pushed back. No effort on my part made a difference. Only time mattered.

Early on in my life, many things came easily to me. By that, I mean I learned new information easily and retained it. Some things came more quickly to me that did not come as quickly to others, and I was encouraged for it. I became accustomed to gliding through tasks superficially. I used my innate aptitude to move past unpleasant work as quickly as possible and attend to my interests. But this was an undisciplined way to live. The more I indulged only what came easily, the more I neglected other aptitudes I should have nurtured.

Later came problems for which I had less inherent aptitude—whether that meant synthesizing existing knowledge to adapt to novel situations, coping with uncertainty or ambiguity, training for physical tasks, or understanding and empathizing with new people. I had no ready-made shortcut here. When the time passed beyond which I could no longer ignore these problems, my instinct was again to find some other way to speed up my approach.

I had formed a habit of rushing of which I wasn’t even aware. I also didn’t like being caught off-guard and unprepared.

I figured maybe I could power through these new situations with a burst of concentrated effort. It made sense to me. If I could just summon up one good wind, I could quickly clear whatever problem and—ironically—avoid self-discipline again.

However, I often encountered frustration instead, and I tended to begin by blaming my frustration on extrinsic factors. At work, for example, I blamed the documentation, training material, or managers. I blamed the people around me for confusing me or misleading me. I dismissed or downplayed the subject’s importance. After a while, these excuses stopped working, and my frustration then turned inward. I ended up blaming myself.

My life—one with a relative lack of financial privilege until recently—had a way of forcing me through the hardship of those episodes, just to survive and make my way, and I’m better off for it today. I can look back at times when I finally saw what had to happen, acted on it, and grew from it. I only regret that I had to pass through so much needless, self-inflicted frustration, pain, and blame along the way.

I’ve begun thinking more and more about that physical therapy putty as I get older. I think we’re the putty.

To learn—to grow—we must change, in a real and physical sense, by reshaping our brains and (sometimes) our bodies. This is a process that takes time. Laborious effort makes no dramatic difference in the rate at which this happens, the way a novice cannot just throw a massive amount of weight onto the rack at the gym to get stronger right away. On the other hand, neither can it be slowed by failing to bring all our effort to bear—so long as we devote the time and commit to some progress—nor initial lack of innate ability. We inevitably change as a function of time, provided we keep going, bit by bit, every day.

I have thought about this as I learned guitar. I thought about it when I learned French. I thought about it when I taught myself to juggle. I thought about it as I tried to train my eye to see through a telescope. And I thought about it as I recognized the pattern of discomfort I move through as I begin a new job. As long as I kept at it, I improved—usually just about at the same pace from one experience to the next.

I learned that new kinds of growth came from applying myself and then just waiting, and from accommodating within myself the discomfort of that waiting.

I have often avoided uncertainty in my life out of fear, I think. I’ve never been encouraged to be uncertain or doubtful. Not having the answers makes me vulnerable because it undermines the very thing that set me apart early in life and made me feel more capable. With that vulnerability then comes discomfort because I am unkind to myself when I notice I’m unable to meet my own expectations. Worst of all, it feels inescapable in the moment: there’s just no way to get easy answers, an easy fix, a magic word. It’s tempting to believe—after half a lifetime of being addicted to all the answers coming so quickly—that you’re failing, and it’s your fault.

However, I believe uncertainty, discomfort, and self-forgiveness are precisely the traits I need in order to grow beyond superficial knowledge acquisition, so that I may find kindness and connect to new things and people I could not have done when I was younger. Cultivating these traits allow me to surrender myself in the present to the passage of time and all it brings—and eventually to new circumstances and possibilities I would not have had otherwise. There are matters of experience which I cannot touch intellectually, no matter how hard I try.

The hell of it is, I still don’t know how I will do these things yet. I think that’s okay for now, as long as I keep trying.

(I am grateful to Amy Farrell and to Sophie for their constructive feedback on my earlier drafts of this post.)