“Between stimulus and response there is a space.”
Standing in front of the shoe racks at TJ Maxx blows my brain. I act like somebody under the influence. Somehow when I get in front of shoes, new shoes, all in my size, in so many different colors and shapes and feels, my heart beats faster, my face breaks out into a smile all on its own. Without even knowing what’s happening (isn’t that the language we all use when we want it not to be our fault?), I’m taking off my tennis shoes and pulling up my sweatpants to try on the Naughty Monkey electric blue platforms. (And with what am I ever going to wear those? The turquoise bustier?)
Sometimes, there’s nothing quite like an hour in TJ Maxx trying on shoes to lift the spirits. Julia and I went one lunch time, and ended up trying on every 9.5 shoe on the rack. The more ridiculous the better: the thigh-high, black suede pointy-toed boots with ankle chains, yes! The purple Converse with 70s peace emblems, you betcha! The taupe Jessica Simpson five-inch wedge with striated gladiator straps that wrapped around Julia’s ankle and calf so that she looked like she was wearing a fish! We were guffawing when she grabbed those off the rack. Then she put them on. We both tilted our heads, and said, disbelievingly, “You know . . . those are kinda cute, actually, in a really weird way.” But, onto the BCBG zebra-striped Mary Janes with waffle sole.
When I’m with Julia, I can be the responsible parent, and leave the store with only the black Spandex sliding shorts we came in to buy, with maybe a cute black casual jacket thrown in because the one she’s been wearing for two years is now a charcoal grey she’s washed it so many times. But, when I’m on my own . . .
I know the Madden Too pumps with the wavy back detail will fit my feet like a glove. I don’t even really need to try them on. Ditto for the Madden Girl black-and-white tiger print platform peep-toe with maroon heel and a maroon leather rosette on the toe. Not so sure about the AK red square-toed with the gold buckle. Sometimes, the square toes cut across the ball of my foot. Wish I could wear those ballerina slippers from Ralph Lauren, but my arches are so flat, my feet splay out like a retired mallard who’s served lunchroom for the past twenty years. At least they did last time I tried on a pair like that. But, hang on . . . maybe . . . Nope. Still flatter than flat. And are these really Fossil biker boots in a really impractical cream? Hyperventilate . . . rip off the dove grey Bandolino puss-in-boots ankle booties.
I may be exaggerating, but not by much.
Time slows down; an hour feels like fifteen minutes. I emerge from the Maxx, sweaty, hair flyaway, slightly queasy, like I’ve just eaten Thanksgiving dinner. I always have at least two pairs of shoes I do not need but that make me happy to see on my feet clutched in my little paws.
What is it about me, when the shoe is on the foot, that I do not stay at “Oh, that looks good” and just enjoy the sight of it, and the snug feel of the leather against my instep? I just about always engage in a dialogue of commentary and negotiation. Despite my promises to myself when I pull up to the store that I will only look, I’m almost helpless when I go inside and stand in front of those racks. The colors, the designs, the shape of the heel, the gleam of the patent, the buckle design so artfully placed, and the drape of the leather on the boot. I know I’m going to buy something.
I do have that moment of mental and emotional balance, when the shoe is on my foot, and I’m looking at it in the little mirror that’s angled beneath the bench, when I see it and think, “Oh . . . that looks good.” Then the thoughts come and I’m off down the slope: “It’s only 19.99. I don’t have quite this color of orange. (How many orange pairs of shoes does a person need?) It’s only 19.99. It looks so cute. What’s one pair of shoes? I’ve worked hard this month. I can spend a twenty spot or two or three on a pair of shoes.” It’s hard to put up much of a fight when the voice inside your head is your own. Consequently, I try to limit my TJ Maxx episodes to less than one a month.
For each of us the impulse is different. I’ve shared my shoe obsession. It’s almost laughable, and relatively inexpensive. But still, at the end of a TJ Maxx binge, I feel foolish. Like I’ve been caught eating frozen custard straight out of the carton, with a soup ladle, while I lie on my bed on top of clean, crumpled laundry watching Premier League Soccer on a weekday afternoon.
There’s a definition for this kind of behavior. Health professionals define this as “impairment in behavioral control, craving, inability to consistently abstain, and diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships.” It can also manifest itself in cycles of relapse and remission. That’s the definition of addiction.
The hard part about giving this a name and a set of symptoms is that then a person who likes French sandals on QVC, or crack mainlined, or Russian girls with horses, or chocolate mint chip by the gallon, or blackjack at the high roller tables, or cutting their arms above the cuff level, takes refuge in their disease. Once there’s a definition with symptoms and causes, there is no way to be other than diseased. The sufferer, or victim, or body possessed by evil spirits, has no choice other than the cycle of abstention and relapse. When, after a period of time in which we’ve been so very good and under control, the urge hits, with a renewed ferocity, to click through, or shoot up, or eat out of the five gallon bucket, or run the credit card, or reach for the blade, and we give in, it’s to be expected. All part of the disease. Abdication. Inevitable.
I’m almost certain I don’t buy that. By that, I mean the notion that relapse is inevitable. (I do buy the notion that close proximity is almost more than some can bear. That merely being in a home with the Internet is like a magnetic force for some. But inevitable? That I can’t accept.) Inevitability violates the basic tenets of agency and free will. No action is inevitable. There is always a space between the invitation and the action in which we get to decide our response. Granted, some of us have made that space so small, we’re actually Pavlov’s dog. But there is still a space.
Perhaps the hardest, gut-wrenching work of building a soul is that work that’s done in the infinitesimal space between impulse and action—denial, restraint, keeping a promise, deciding to be Lot instead of her. The hardest work is sitting in front of the computer looking at the screen and knowing that if we put our hand on the mouse and click on a few links, it will take us to what our body, our mind, even our spirit seems to be craving at this moment. Yet, we stay our hand. Or we listen to the voice in our head, which, irritatingly, sounds like the voice we love the best (our own), telling us something about just this once, won’t hurt, deserve it, horrible person, good person, useless to resist, can’t help it, how bad can it be, addicted. And off we go, tumbling down the rabbit hole into a black oblivion, from which we’ll emerge hours later, flushed, hair in an electric halo, clutching whatever version of crocodile T-straps, size 9.5 rings our bell.
Even if we capitulate, we will confess, if pressed, that there was that moment when the thought did cross our mind that perhaps this was not the best . . . . In the space between impulse and action, we hear clearly the question and we know the appropriate response. For a brief moment, we see clearly the path before us. There is a moment of repose—always—before the battle begins.
It’s before the reasons, the justifications, and the release of hormones, taste buds and chemicals flood our brains to influence us. It’s before we sit down at the computer, before we pull up to the front of the store, or open the fridge. It’s where the thought first crosses our mind. It might show like a bat flitting through on the first fingers of dusk. Or, if we’re deep in the trenches of unrestrained desires and impulses, it comes pounding on the church doors like a stranger begging sanctuary. In those moments, we might feel compelled to grant entry, giving in to the lie that there is no other way. But, if we’re honest in heart, there is always a moment of rest, in which we are neither acting nor acted upon. In that moment, we get to choose again, anew.
Title: from “Long Black Train,” by Bill and Maggie Anderson.