When You Give In, The Terrorists Win

Don’t give up.  Really don’t give up.  Continue under all circumstances.    

            ~~  Natalie Goldberg, writing guru and best-selling author


You may recall hearing in the days after the September 11 attacks that if you did – or didn’t do – thus and such, “the terrorists would win.”

I can’t even recall now what any of those things were, but at our house the phrase has morphed into:

Don’t let the terrorists win.

A terrorist in this case is any obstacle(s) that is/are keeping you from whatever it is you need to do for your art and your life.

You can be terrorized by the voiceover in your head that tells you you’re not good enough, educated enough, or good-looking enough.  Or by the well-meaning friend or relative who tears you down “for your own good,” wielding honesty as a weapon.  A busy day can terrorize you, or a negative review, or a few extra pounds, or a head cold.  Anything that diminishes you or throws you off track is a bona fide terrorist.

My number one terrorist is depression.  I’ve battled the black dog most of my life: it started during my teens but the past twenty years have been a really wild ride.  Even with targeted medication, cognitive therapy, and an amazing husband who refuses to give up on me, I still have days when I don’t give a damn whether I live or die, or whether I get out of bed or not, forget getting up to write.

Now, I’ve never been one of those people who eagerly jumps out of bed to greet each new day – I’m a night person by training and by temperament, in addition to the fact that for most depressives mornings are not our best hours.  But on the days when the black dog really has me in its teeth and won’t let go, my first win is to get my sorry ass out of bed.  It doesn’t matter whether I want to or not – wanting doesn’t even figure into it – if I stay in bed the terrorists will win.

Then at each step after that: making coffee, checking my email, working out, getting showered and dressed – I remind myself that I’m doing these things because doing them will get me past these rough hours to the part where it isn’t so hard.  Then when I’m finally awake enough to sit down at the computer to work, I give myself a (brief) pat on the back.  I haven’t let the terrorists win.  At least not yet; not at this moment.  And this moment is all that matters.

Whenever I’m unhappy with some aspect of my life, it’s usually because I’m letting the terrorists win: I’ve given in to inertia, or distraction, or sadness, or self-doubt.  I give myself bad reviews, compare myself unfavorably to others, beat myself up over something or other (there’s never any dearth of things over which to beat myself up).  Then the wallowing begins: how unfair, how hard, how trivial it all is.

Yadda yadda yadda

Wallowing can be a sort of strangely rewarding fun if I don’t indulge it for too long.  But when I catch myself at it I know it’s time to move on (nothing more to see here folks).  Because if I don’t the terrorists will win.  I wrote an entire novel this way: I just kept going, kept putting one foot in front of the other, even when I had no idea what to do or where I was going.  I’ve used the same battle plan to perform leading roles when I had no faith whatsoever in my ability to perform them.  Another blow to the terrorists.

Because, ultimately, the biggest daily battle we fight is with ourselves.  It’s a battle to keep going when we don’t feel like it, or don’t completely trust ourselves, or when the rewards are few and far between.  It can be hard to carve out the time for our art, hard to say no to more tempting – or just plain easier – offers (ice cream, anyone?).

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes you need a time out.  There was so much turmoil and family drama after my father died, not to mention incapacitating grief, that work was the farthest thing from my mind, if it had even been possible.  I turned down jobs and let myself heal.  Time off is sometimes the best medicine.  That’s self care, and everyone needs it, artists included.

But I’m talking about the daily obstacles – the insidious distractions that trip you up and keep you from your art, from your passion.  The terrorists you have to fight, romance, ignore, or plea bargain with just to get to the work, let alone get it done.

My terrorist is fond of coffee and crosswords.  Every afternoon when I sit down to write (no big surprise that I’m a late-in-the-day creative), I promise her that if she’ll give me an hour – just one measly hour – she can have a fresh cup and a Sunday grid at the end of the session.  Not only does it work, I get so lost in whatever I’m working on that when I look up again many hours have passed (because I love writing, it’s my terrorist who has other ideas).  I’ve been keeping her in line this way for years.

You’d think she’d catch on.


This post is dedicated to the memory of comedian, actor, and artist, Robin Williams (1951-2014).  His terrorists won, but not before he put up a valiant, life-long fight.

“Goodnight, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

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