Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

The Harder It Gets The More You Want It

Effort Justification and why we dream big when the going gets tough

The more you want to reach a goal, the more you’ll strive to achieve it, but the reverse is also true. The more you’re forced to strive for a goal, the more you had better want it, even fabricating inflated reasons why it’s worth it.

I first noticed this pattern when a friend fell in love with a woman 3,000 miles away, a wildly inconvenient romance because both had spouses and young kids already and neither could move cross-country. Between the divorces and the air miles there was going to be a lot of striving, and “you’ve got to really want this” took on a whole new meaning.

To hear him wax rhapsodic about her it seemed his heart was working overtime to surmount the logistical hurdles, fabricating reasons why they simply absolutely had to be together, no choice about it, a match made in heaven.

It didn’t last.  “Crazy Janet” he calls her now. Who knows whether their situation fits what in Cognitive Dissonace Theory is called Effort Justification. Maybe their marriages were on the rocks anyway and their romance was just a necessary catalyst.  Still it got me thinking about the pattern, noticing its potential for explaining other situations including some of my own.

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As luck would have it, twice now I’ve partnered with women who six months in experienced precipitous falls in fortune. Both times, six months in, our love had grown just strong enough that me leaving in the midst of their new grief wasn’t really an option, so I stayed.  The logistical cost of being together went up and I met that cost for years during which time my love grew commensurately, and perhaps then some, since it had to grow to keep me paying the unforeseen costs of being in these partnerships.

For love to work we have to collect reasons why it’s worth it and ignore reasons why it isn’t.  We build and maintain the walls on whatever row we are hoeing, reasons why it’s a groove and not a rut, a groove deep enough to keep us in it. And if it’s a tough row to hoe we end up having to build the walls that much sturdier and higher, more reasons to stay in it. 

I got to see how deep my rows had become when these two relationships ended. I missed my partners, hardships and all with otherwise inexplicable depth. They were truly wonderful people, but still. Inventorying my heart, I’d guess my commitment to them was greater than it would have been had I not, by circumstances had to strive so much during our partnerships. 

When we love, we strive, but when circumstances force us to strive, we accumulate and embrace all of the reasons why it’s worth it. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. What doesn’t kill our commitment makes our commitment stronger. 

Effort Justification isn’t restricted to romance. Take the quest for enlightenment. As with all many-called-few-chosen career goals--becoming the next Shaquille O’Neal, Adele or Anne Hathaway, striving for enlightenment is a long shot. But it’s actually much more of a long shot, because Shaq, Adele and Anne are people who really did succeed in their careers, whereas few if any of us can point to someone we’re sure is actually enlightened. In a way no real-world exemplars is an advantage—like the true love my friend and Crazy Janet dreamt of achieving, there aren’t reality checks on enlightenment to dampen the dream.

What is enlightenment?  A figment of ultimate satisfaction, a yearning on steroids fueled half by hope and half by the incredible amount of schlep involved in campaigns to achieve it. To do what achieving enlightenment supposedly requires it had damn well better be worth it.

Over the centuries spiritual practices would naturally accumulate reasons why it is worth it to where the final enlightenment payoff becomes some overblown fantasy, the kind of thing you get from reckless salesmen who will tout any advantage their product offers, real or imagined, without even much regard to consistency, like playing a game of 20 questions but answering all questions with whichever answer makes the product look best.

Are the enlightened at peace? Yes completely.

Are they aware of everything? Totally.

Do they always take right action? Yes always.

Do they ignore anything? No nothing.

Do they love everyone?  Yes everyone.

Are they stressed by people’s ups and downs? Never.

Are they mindful?  Completely.

Are their minds full of thoughts? Never.

And of course, so too heaven, another unknown quantity we’re free to fabricate toward whatever interpretation best motivates the extraordinary amount of work people invest in getting through its pearly gates.

And more down to earth, I suspect that the reason so many people aspire to write the Great American Novel is less hubris than hardship. To draft and redraft in the face of a seemingly infinite supply of rejection letters, it had better be on the verge of greatness, or else why keep trying?

I know this from personal experience, not that I fancy myself a novelist, but in addition to writing these columns, I’ve far too long aspired to finish a book, a few really, but one in particular, I’ve been working on it so damned long, that I’m going to dedicate it to itself. It has been my muse, my folly and nemesis for over a decade, a book fittingly titled “Doubt: A User’s Guide.”  It has had three high-powered agents, and no bites from New York publishers.

I’m a trifecta of un-publishability, it seems. I have no claim to fame and what I write is too abstract theoretical and academic for the popular press and too pop, informal and playful for the academic press.

That hasn’t kept me from trying.  I’ve written the whole book twelve times (writer’s block hasn’t been my problem) and I noticed that as my efforts redoubled and redoubled again, my dreams of what it would be once published inflated to where I thought it was bound to become a classic, the Great American Whatever you call the kind of thing I write. 

My father used to talk about overcoming the “Tyranny of the Big Idea” and embracing the “Courage of your own insignificance.”  On my book project, that’s finally happened for me lately in the sweetest way, thanks to advances in self-publishing.

I’m about done with my lucky thirteenth version of the book and for once, it’s flowing as easily as have the 400 articles like this one that I’ve written.  Courage of my own insignificance has finally won out over my Effort Justification.  I’ve gotten much more casual about the project, finally straightforward uncomplicated and un-exalted end to it:  Hire an editor and pop it up on Amazon as an ebook. With the monkey of greatness off my back, writing this book has become much easier.

Published greatness was my version of mad love for Crazy Janet.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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