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Growing Bones

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Harry was no stranger to pain and injury. He had lost all the bones from his right arm once and had them painfully regrown in a night.    –Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

In seventh grade biology I learned the words “exoskeleton” and “endoskeleton.”  Of course, I was familiar with the concept of an internal skeleton–I’d been using one for quite some time!  But the idea that some creatures were able to move about without bones was mind-opening, like encountering an alien culture.

In the years since then, I came to think of endoskeleton and exoskeleton as a way of thinking about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.  I have always thrived in situations with a great deal of extrinsic motivation.  In particular, the structured expectations of teachers and professors made high school, college, and seminary environments in which I could really shine.  When I worked as a minister, I loved the “Sunday’s coming” rhythm of each week, as the exterior pressure of the looming pulpit propelled my sermon forward.

Unstructured situations are much more difficult for me.  When I have more time, I get less done.

Over the years, however, I’ve learned a few things about using extrinsic motivation in the service of intrinsic motivation.  I truly want to spend time being active outdoors–so I have a dog whose bladder and psyche make sure that I get off the couch and out of the condo.  My partner’s arrival home at lunch or at the end of the day serves as a deadline for getting things done that I might otherwise put off indefinitely.

I’m also teaching myself to use old-school tools and new technology in the service of more structure in my life.  A fellow UU blogger shared a to-do list she designed, and I’ve been using that with success.  I set reminders in iCal that help me take care of things that need to happen regularly.   Habit by newly acquired habit, I’m working on growing bones.

My partner, as she is in most things, is my polar opposite.  Self-discipline comes naturally to her, as does the practice of delayed gratification.

For a long time I’ve thought that people either have exoskeletons or endoskeletons; they’re either extrinsically motivated or intrinsically motivated.  I thought that I was doomed to a lifelong and futile quest for the perfect organizational system, and that my partner would continue to sail through life, accomplishing her goals effortlessly.

But recently I figured something out about my partner’s self-discipline.  She’s very good at making herself work harder, but the practices of self-care elude her.

It’s slow, and often painful work, this growing of bones.  I am grateful for all the lessons about self-discipline and delayed gratification that I’ve learned from my partner.  And I’m looking forward to teaching her some of my tricks.


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