Coaching Myself through Fear and Discomfort

A constellation of ten acupuncture needles surrounded the knobby bone of my right wrist. After four or five acupuncture sessions, my shoulder pain was subsiding, but my wrist pain refused to budge. So, my practitioner had increased the number of needles he was using on my wrist and tweaked their placement.

This more aggressive configuration of needles was uncomfortable. As I moved my hand in search of a better position, I experienced a tiny lightning bolt inside my wrist.

Before the next session, I mentioned this jolt to the acupuncturist. My wrist had shown progress with the new needle placement, and neither of us wanted to mess with that, so he made only minor adjustments.

Each week, I would lie there face down on the table, with needles in my back, shoulders, and wrist, fearful of moving a fraction of an inch. What if the shock was worse next time?

I started coaching myself not to be so anxious. I noted that pain is our body’s way of alerting us that something may be wrong. In this case, my body didn’t understand that I was not under attack, so I reminded myself that I was voluntarily welcoming a small amount of discomfort to heal an injury.

While undergoing acupuncture treatments, I was also developing a daily meditation practice. One of the suggestions in the 30-day program I was following was to sit completely still during my ten minutes of meditation.

My first instinct was to write off this idea as impossible. I am a fidgety person who moves around a lot, and I’m always touching my hair or pushing up my sleeves or scratching an itch. How could I remain motionless for ten whole minutes?

I decided to take on the challenge anyway. Initially, I had to coach myself like I did with the acupuncture, noting that an itch or a slight sense of unease did not need to be addressed immediately. My body would not suffer great harm if I did not scratch that itch.

When I reported to my brain that I was not in real danger, during both acupuncture and meditation, the pain or itch would often recede into the background or disappear entirely. I might forget about it without realizing I had done so.

Big deal, right?! Well, yes, actually. As the weeks went on, it occurred to me that I was developing a skill that could be applied to all types of circumstances. Dealing with these little annoyances was allowing me to stare down bigger and bigger provocations.

Even my fear of death started to retreat. Since I was a child, this existential dread would grip me as I tried to fall asleep. Out of nowhere I would think, what if I died in my sleep? Then, it would feel like someone was clutching at me from inside my throat. I used to surrender to that fear—the thoughts and sensations feeding off each other. Now I focus on breathing slowly and deeply, usually interrupting the cycle within minutes.

At first, I was afraid to stop being afraid. My decades-long anxiety around discomfort, pain, and my own mortality felt like a part of me. I identified with it. Who would I be if I let it go? Would I still be me?

The answer is yes, I am still me. My fear is a bad habit, a security blanket studded with thorns. Once I recognized that my panic is not intrinsic to who I am, the work of letting it go could begin in earnest.

The Road Trip of Your Life

Suppose you have two road trips planned (for once this pandemic is behind us, of course). The first trip will take you only four hours away from home. You haven’t been to this city in forever, and you can’t wait to see some old friends who live there. On the second trip, you will drive for several days to reach your destination. You’ll be setting foot in this state for the first time, and you’re super excited to go.

Would you ever tell yourself that the second trip won’t be worth it because it takes too long to get there? That the first trip will be much more fun because you’re going to arrive sooner? I’m guessing your answer is No.

This is the kind of analogy I create to guide myself through self-doubt and disappointment. I have several big life goals I haven’t yet achieved—goals my younger self thought for sure I would have realized by now. Perhaps it’s just taking me longer to get there, which in no way invalidates the journey or the destination.

Travel as a metaphor appeals to me so much, I’m going to elaborate on it…

Imagine you’ve always dreamed of going to Paris. You thought for sure you would go there in your early 20s, but years have passed and you still haven’t seen Paris.

If you do make it there one day, will Paris be any less spectacular because you’re not in your 20s anymore? The experience might be different because you won’t be the same person you were when you were younger, but what’s wrong with that?

In the meantime, you’ve spent time in lots of great cities in the U.S.—like Boston, New York City, Washington, D.C., Miami, San Francisco, and Las Vegas, plus you’ve been to Mexico a couple times. For years, you’ve been discovering places your younger self didn’t even think to put on the to-see list.

What if you never make it to Paris? Is that ok? Can you find other locales to satisfy your sense of adventure?  

You see, I was “supposed” to be a published author by now. I hoped a big publishing house would print my first book while I was still in my 20s, with more to follow. If I am completely honest, I guess I thought I would win a few awards and settle down in middle-age to teach creative writing at a university. These dreams were my Paris.

But none of that happened. What did happen is, I worked at several interesting and fulfilling jobs where I acquired multiple degrees worth of knowledge and met many hilarious, kind, and inspiring people. I am a changed person from the girl who thought she needed to publish her first novel before she hit 25. Those positions I held, the skills and confidence I developed, and the friends I made are like visits to Boston and San Francisco.

I may never be a published author. I am working on a book, and possibly the writing process will be sufficient reward all on its own. Or maybe I will self-publish. Whatever I decide to do, it won’t be any less gratifying because it took longer than planned.

Reevaluating old goals is acceptable, even healthy. You may learn that other goals suit you better now. Whatever you do, be patient with yourself—you may be on a winding road trip that is worth every precious second.  

Lessons Learned From My Media Break

During Thanksgiving week, I took seven days off from social media, television, and podcasts. I’ve unplugged from media before with fruitful results. This round was prompted by Jocelyn K. Glei’s course RESET. Glei suggests taking a break from “inputs that play a huge role in the life of your mind” in order to “open up space for new ideas to flow.”

I’ve been writing a book, so I was eager to see if dramatically reducing external inputs could spark creativity and promote productivity. Full confession: I cheated more than once. However, it was still an illuminating experiment. Three observations stood out:

Silence Equals Discomfort

While making lunch, cleaning, or driving, I would normally listen to podcasts or my own music playlists. Once I eliminated these, I did not like the way I filled up the silence by singing the same lines from the same handful of songs over and over. My chattering mind is accustomed to filling in the blank spots. So, I tried listening to classical music to ease the transition. By the end of the week, I was better able to tolerate short quiet stretches, and I started generating ideas in these open windows.

I’ve come to think of this as giving my brain “me” time. The more silence I give myself, the better my mind gets at focusing my scattered mental energy. Like building muscles, developing a deep comfort with quiet time will take dedication and repetition.

Cable News Makes Me Anxious

One night I was meditating upstairs while my husband was watching TV downstairs. I could sense immediately when he switched to cable news by how angry the voices sounded. I know there’s a lot to be mad about in our world, but this shift in perspective helped me realize how unhealthy it is to pump so much tension into my brain every day.

With more time at home this year, my cable news routine had devolved to include watching my favorite news show on the iPad while preparing dinner, and then my husband and I might watch more news in the living room and again in the bedroom before going to sleep. Thanks to my media break, we rarely tune into cable news now, and I feel much calmer. We do listen to a brief news podcast while eating breakfast—just 15 minutes or less compared to the two hours I had been consuming daily.

Media is Like Pecan Pie

We bought a store-made pecan pie for Thanksgiving this year and salted caramel ice cream to go with it. It was delicious, yet I would never think to eat such a decadent desert regularly, let alone multiple times a day. Perhaps I should treat TV, podcasts, and social media more like pie and less like a staple in my diet.

Balance is everything. When I spend less time on screens, I read books, meditate, and exercise more. And I’ve come to the conclusion that social media works best for me as a tool rather than an endless conversation—I have to know why I’m on there.

But you know what? After cheating several nights in a row, I came to accept that my husband and I enjoy watching TV together in the evenings. And that’s ok. It’s also ok for me to skip a night now and then to write or do yoga.

Media and technology add value to our lives, if used mindfully. I’ve learned that occasional breaks shine light on my habits and alert me to how these inputs might be crowding out other positive experiences.

The Non-Magic of Making and Breaking Habits

Drinking coffee was not a regular thing for me before 2020. Caffeine has an intense effect on my nervous system, so for decades I rarely consumed coffee.

With the pandemic lockdowns, I suddenly had more time each morning, and the soothing ritual of grinding, brewing, and sipping coffee appealed to me. So, I found a local business that roasts flavorful half-caf and decaf blends and started ordering their beans.

This custom became part of my day pretty quickly. Before I knew it, I was already looking forward to my morning cup of joe in the early evening.

My new coffee habit emerged organically, but those that don’t can be challenging to establish.

A couple months ago I decided to initiate a pre-bedtime routine of using the Waterpik, brushing my teeth, and then rinsing with mouthwash. At first, I wondered when this practice would ever become automatic. I resented the extra time and effort it took when all I wanted to do was slide under the covers.

Even now, as the habit is finally taking root, some nights I negotiate with myself: What if I skipped tonight and went to bed with fuzzy teeth? Would just one time hurt?

Once a habit has solidified, it can be tough to quit. Three and a half years ago, I decided to remove alcohol from my life. I hadn’t intended to build a drinking habit, but the ongoing repetition in my late teens and early 20s ensured that it took hold. For decades, I drank several times a week. And then I tried to defy all that training.

At first, there were so many triggers that made me want to drink again. Birthdays and anniversaries, dinners at nice restaurants, Friday evenings after a long week—all of these markers were intimately linked with alcohol. I had to power through each one to break the habit.

This Thanksgiving weekend, I was working on a craft project and out of nowhere came the thought that I should have a drink after I finished.

For most of my adult life, long holiday weekends were for drinking—this pattern included drinking earlier in the day than usual and consuming alcohol for three or four consecutive days (something I didn’t usually do). For me, this merriment typically started off fun but did not end well. Yet here was an echo, surfacing after nearly four sober years, telling me a drink was in order. Talk about power!

For many years, I taught my brain that multiple glasses of wine paired well with talking on the phone with friends, that beer went hand-in-hand with playing darts, that alcohol was part of brunch and eating oysters and dancing at weddings and sitting by the fire.

My mind got the message that numerous activities were not reward enough without a drink before, during, or after. Luckily, this not-so-magical trick is a clue to how we can sever old habits and nurture new ones.

We must look for the associations. They are the support posts that we put down along the way. If we want to disassemble an entrenched habit, we must detach it from these props. We can do this by repeating the action, like eating brunch, without the habit. Remember, this is how we got into said mess, by repeating the activity with the habit.

Our desired new habits will need their own support posts—even something as simple as a time of day, like my bedtime teeth cleaning ritual.

Not all habits will be as immediately pleasant as drinking coffee. But if we tether them to something sturdy, we will persevere.

Moving at the Speed of YOU

The internet is overflowing with motivational quotes. I often take screenshots on my phone of messages that speak to me. As I was transferring a batch of these images to my laptop recently, this one came up: “Be the Kind of Woman That Makes Other Women Want to Up Their Game.”

(Note: A Google search revealed that this quote has been shared countless times in numerous designs and with a variety of attributions. I tried to identify the original author, with no luck as of yet.)

I can see why many women would find these words inspiring. But I saved the quote because it provoked complicated feelings that I wanted to explore later.

We humans frequently compare ourselves to each other, and we like to compete to determine who’s the best at pretty much everything. Social media platforms take advantage of this inclination. They pit us against each other in a battle of likes and follows and retweets.

As someone who grew up feeling like I was “less than” my peers, and who still struggles with my inner critic, social media is like thumbing through a catalog of successful people—every one of them apparently working harder than me to get ahead.

The self-interrogation starts: Did I do enough today? Did I do the right things? Did I do them well? Am I smart? Interesting? Highly competent? Better than average? More than mediocre?

For decades I wished that I were more self-motived, ambitious, driven. But when I left my last full-time job a couple years ago, I did so with the knowledge that I no longer wanted to climb the corporate ladder. I had ascended as high as I cared to on my office’s organizational chart, and I was surprisingly ok with the fact that I would never hold a VP or executive director title.

Ok, it stings a bit, but I’m getting used to it.  

In our culture, we often look down on those we think aren’t living up to their potential or to society’s expectations. I’ve been guilty of this myself—guilty of thinking people are being lazy and taking advantage of others.

Now I’m unemployed and looking at this from a new perspective…

We already know that people are different in all kinds of wonderful ways. Maybe we are also different in our ability to grind away.

Three questions come to mind:

1) What if there is a wide spectrum of how much physical and mental energy humans are capable of exerting on a regular basis over an extended period of time?

2) What if our society does a poor job of providing people with the opportunity to identify the kind of work that suits them best?

3) What if getting frustrated that not everyone is busting their butt equally is a pointless and unhelpful endeavor?

Maybe some us were meant for a slower life.

Maybe some of us get stressed out easier than others.

Maybe it’s ok if we don’t all work at the same speed and intensity.

Maybe some of us take longer to accelerate in life, while others decelerate sooner.  

Maybe some of us need longer sabbaticals in between periods of steady employment.

Maybe I don’t want to push myself in order to make another woman feel like she needs to do more.

Maybe, just maybe, our cultural standards don’t work well for everyone, and we need to challenge ourselves to think about how we can expand our definition of work and achievement and contribution to family and society.

More on this to come!

Your Cluttered House

In my last blog post I compared a worn-out couch sitting in your living room to a bad habit taking up space in your life. Both the couch and the habit need to go, but you must make a plan for what to put in the spots that they occupy. Now I would like to propose a follow-up analogy—a cluttered house.

Let’s say you inherit a cabin in the woods from a distant relative. You didn’t even know someone in your family had a getaway house! You head out to the cabin, and you discover that the place is a mess. Apparently this relative was a bit of a hoarder.

Towering piles of books, newspapers, and magazines are everywhere. The kitchen is littered with empty jars, broken toasters, and abandoned cereal boxes. The bathroom is crowded with old towels, shampoo bottles, and loads of extra toilet paper. The bedroom is bursting with creepy dolls and other thrift store purchases.

Where do you start? Maybe you should just burn it all down you think, only half joking. You were so excited about spending long weekends and summer vacations at your very own cabin, so you reluctantly get cleaning.

You start with the biggest fire hazard—those ancient newspapers and magazines in the living room. It takes a lot of hard work, but you feel great once you’ve removed all that paper from the house. Then, you start to see an abundance of plastic grocery bags stuffed with trash that had been tucked in between the piles.

With the bags tossed, you move on to the other rooms. Room after room is the same: As you sweep away the junk that stands out the most, you uncover more stuff. There always seems to be more stuff.

This work takes time. You return to the cabin every weekend. Slowly, the floorboards, the bathroom tile, and the kitchen counters become visible. You can see the bones of the house. Now you must identify and address the structural issues that were hidden.

This house is us. The junk is all the unhealthy habits, coping mechanisms, and distractions that we’ve built up over our lives. The foundation, the walls, the windows, the roof—these represent our body, mind, heart, and soul. As we clear away the behaviors and beliefs that haven’t been serving us, we can pinpoint the issues underneath.  

I’ve been cleaning out my metaphorical house for more than three years. I started with my drinking because it was the towering pile that was getting in the way of the life I wanted to lead. Without the drinking, it became obvious that my TV and social media habits needed tackling.

There was and is no shortage of crap in my house. I am a hoarder of personal issues: Shopping and money-related anxiety, fixating on my weight and body image, people-pleasing, ruminating and catastrophizing, body-focused repetitive behaviors, procrastination tendencies, and so on.

This assortment of diversions, short-term solutions, and numbing techniques kept me from peering below the surface. Without all the clutter, I was able to get a good look at my self-doubt. Then I had to acknowledged that unless I wanted to fill myself up all over again with a new set of counter-productive habits, I needed to face my pain and my fears.

Keeping your personal foundation solid is an ongoing task, but much like a real house, if you want a nice place in which to live, you have to do the work!

The New Couch

I love analogies and metaphors. By translating abstract concepts into relatable situations, analogies promote understanding. Analogies and metaphors typically work best when they use everyday examples. Like a worn-out couch.

Imagine you have a sofa in your living room that is faded and sagging. It’s uncomfortable to sit on and stuffing is poking out of the arms.

But this couch has sentimental value. You’ve had it for a long time—perhaps it’s the first nice sofa you ever bought, or maybe your grandparents gave it to you.   

You know you need to replace this couch, so if you’re anything like me, you do one of two things…

A) After an embarrassing incident when a visiting relative struggled to extricate themselves from your sofa’s caved-in cushions, you banish it to an extra room or the garage. You now have one chair in your living room and a big empty space. You know you need to go buy a new couch, and you realize that if you keep putting off this task, you’ll be tempted to drag that dilapidated old thing back into the living room. Still, you procrastinate.

B) You go furniture shopping and fall in love with a snazzy new sofa. You purchase it, and the salesperson tells you it will be delivered in four weeks. You have plenty of time to make room for the new couch, right? But you put it off, and the next thing you know the furniture store is calling to set up a time to deliver your new sofa tomorrow, and your old one is still sitting right there.

In both cases, your shabby couch may be a reminder of good times, but it’s not doing its job anymore. At the same time, you have a living room with the appropriate amount of space for one couch. Zero couches will only work for so long, and two couches won’t work at all.

If you haven’t already guessed, the decrepit sofa in my story is a stand-in for any counter-productive behavior that is taking up space in your life. Like, say, social media scrolling, maxing out your credit cards, or gossiping. You may be well aware that you need to scale back or quit this habit entirely. But if you give it up without a plan for how to reallocate all the time and energy it’s been sucking up, you might find yourself right back where you started, like the couch-banisher in scenario A.

Or maybe you do have something you’ve been dreaming about—traveling the world, learning how to play the guitar, or starting a small business. Like the couch-shopper in scenario B, you have to make space in your life for this passion, otherwise where will you put it?

A little over three years ago I realized I was living in scenario B. My writing had been pushed aside while I drank wine and watched TV. I finally had to ditch alcohol and reduce my media consumption to make time for my writing and all the other things I wanted to do.

If you can relate to situation A or B, I’m pretty sure there’s an amazing new couch waiting for you. But you have to do the work of finding it and clearing the way.

My Fleeting Flirtation with TikTok

Like many people, I fell in love with comedian Sarah Cooper earlier this year. I wanted to easily find all her Donald Trump lip-syncing videos, and I heard she was posting them on TikTok, so I downloaded the app onto my phone.

Coincidentally, I had put myself in a social media “time-out” right before taking the plunge into TikTok. In quick succession, I had removed Facebook, then Instagram, and then Twitter from my phone. Each time I deleted an app, I found myself spending more time scrolling on whatever remained. I even took to scrolling on LinkedIn for a brief period! So, I’m sure you can guess what happened next.

First, when you download TikTok, the app asks you to check off what topics interest you. The subjects I selected seemed innocent enough, but the outcome was an endless stream of girls in bikinis doing identical dance routines.

This should have scared me off, and yet it didn’t. Fascinated, I scrolled and scrolled through videos of young women with seemingly perfect bodies, beautiful hair, and not half-bad dance moves. I started to feel bad about my own appearance, which is pretty stupid given the vast age difference between me and these video stars. Even the moms showing off their youthful good looks were at least a decade younger than me.

Disconcerting thoughts popped up: I’m pretty sure we didn’t have butts like that when I was a teenager! Was I ever that flexible or sexy? Could I get away with wearing an outfit like that at my age? And how come everyone lives in such a fancy, pristine house?

I had to remind myself that I was seeing these specific videos because they were among the most popular content on TikTok. Not everyone posting on the app looks or moves like that or has a closet full of trendy clothes.

The videos started playing in my head even when I wasn’t scrolling. Thus, after only a few weeks, I banished TikTok from my phone. Perhaps it was just a weird phase I went through in a relentlessly awful year.

Still, I’m mad at myself for falling prey once again to the idea that being “hot” is the ultimate achievement for women of all ages. For goodness’ sake, I worked at a feminist organization for 18 years and helped create content for a campaign promoting positive body images. Maybe that’s why I loved working on that project—because I was intimately familiar with the how the media exploit and even cultivate our personal insecurities.

Well into middle age, I haven’t really recovered from the sense that life would be better if I were more attractive. Instead, my fixations have simply shifted. Rather than hating on my big nose, my stubby legs, or my frizzy hair, now I’m more obsessed with my saggy neck, my stomach cellulite, or the gray in my hair.

As I try to escape this feeling of beauty inadequacy, the practices that work the best are spending less time looking in the mirror and waaaay less time scrolling through social media. When I’m moving my body as opposed to focusing on its reflection, I forget about my self-doubt.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still on social media—and Instagram is back on my phone. But these days I consciously concentrate on the accounts I have deemed worthy of my attention, and I do my best to avoid the content served up through ads or the search function.

My recommendation: Identify why and how you want to use social media and stay within those margins!

Why I’m Breaking Up with To-Do Lists

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For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved making lists—particularly to-do lists. Those empty little boxes next to each task thrill me, and I can barely wait to fill them in with triumphant checkmarks.

Over the last couple years, my to-do list habit grew and morphed into something a bit more obsessive. The items multiplied and branched out into sub-categories. I experimented with keeping a Bullet Journal and settled on a variation that required me to rewrite the list over again every morning in a steno book.

Then I left my job and COVID hit, and suddenly I didn’t need such elaborate lists (if I ever did). And yet, I remained in thrall to those little suckers. They appeared on post-its and scraps of paper in my kitchen, in notebooks of all sizes, typed up in my phone notes, and in files on my laptop. I started to suspect that all this documenting and tracking of everything from trivial daily tasks to big life goals might be contributing to my anxiety.

Then, I got a brilliant idea, which I must credit in part to dancer, choreographer, and author Twyla Tharp. In her book “The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life,” Tharp shares her practice of temporarily removing the biggest distractions from her life in order to boost creativity and focus. For a week, she steers clear of multitasking, movies, numbers, and background music.

Tharp writes: “Subtracting your dependence on some of the things you take for granted increases your independence. It’s liberating, forcing you to rely on your own ability rather than your customary crutches.”

She’s right, of course. Quitting to-do lists for a short period of time felt so freeing that I’ve chosen to strike them indefinitely—maybe forever.

What am I getting out of it?

Once I stopped writing down all my tasks, I started to get a better idea of my true priorities. Apparently, in my haste to check off items on the list, I had been tackling the easy tasks first plus the ones I wanted to get out of the way. Consequently, the things I really wanted to do kept sliding to the bottom of the list and then on to the next day, and the next, and the next.

With no list taunting me, I’m able to ask myself, what do I want to do right now? And then I do it. It’s sounds ridiculous, but for someone like me, it seems to be working.

For important items, like doctor’s appointments, I schedule them in the calendar in my phone and set a digital reminder to make sure I don’t miss them. But I do this only for appointments that must not be missed. Everything else is up for grabs.

This hasn’t been easy. My hand wants to grab that pen and paper. My mind wants to see what all is on my plate. But I stop myself and move on. And it gets easier every day. My mind feels more spacious and fluid.

I also decided to stop mentally ticking off all my accomplishments for the day. I used to do this in bed at night, and though it sounds like a nice way to pat myself on the back, in practice it functioned too much like a nightly meeting with the judge who resides inside my head.

Maybe one day I will try making a simpler version of my to-do lists; or maybe, like alcohol, my life is better without them.

The Domino Effect

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Sometimes when I struggle with making a decision or writing a blog post, I “interview” myself. When I have some time alone, I ask myself probing questions and answer them, often out loud to hear how they sound. Does this make me sound nutty? Don’t answer that.

Recently, I asked myself what I thought was the most influential thing that I’ve done to improve my confidence and peace of mind. If I could recommend one big life-changing step to others, what would it be? This was not a difficult question to tackle, except I kept changing my answer—maybe it was quitting drinking three years ago, or maybe it was quitting smoking 11 years ago, or maybe it was something else.

Picture a long line of dominoes standing on their ends. When you push one it knocks down the next domino and so on until the final domino falls. Which domino would you say is the single most important piece in getting the chain from the beginning to the end point? The first domino gets everything rolling, of course. And the last one completes the action. But every domino in the chain connects the domino before it to the domino after it—each one serves a purpose and keeps the momentum alive.

That’s how it’s been for me this past decade-plus. Each decision I made to improve my life was often impacted by the decision before it and then led to a subsequent positive choice. After I quit smoking, I started exercising more. Feeling better made me want to live in a place where I could get outside more. When my husband and I moved, being around nature made me want to improve my physical and mental health even more. I started meditating and eating mostly Paleo. This led me to quit drinking, which led me to take a writing workshop. Writing more led me to leave my marketing job in search of something more fulfilling.

Each step of this journey played its part, just like each domino plays its part in the chain reaction. When we get stuck on one step, the way a domino occasionally fails to push over the next one, we can miss out on all the other great steps that are waiting on the other side.

So, I can’t really say what is the best life-changing action someone could or should take. But I can say that the most important thing you can do is identify the next critical action—whether it’s finding a form of exercise you actually want to do, leaving a stressful job, getting into therapy, moving on from a bad relationship—and take it, so that the domino effect of your life never stops progressing.