Inertia: standstill or flat out


I’m checking in regularly with a friend of mine who’s on a tough, life-changing, emotional ride right now. The best thing I know to do at times like these is to listen, ask a powerful question or two, and let her work her way through the wilderness. After all, she’s the expert on herself and the only one with reliable answers to her specific situation. Deep down, she’ll know which decision is right for her.

I’ve discovered that a well-placed question can help clarify thinking and lead to a better understanding of choices. One of my favorites: “What are you saying Yes to and what are you saying No to? I don’t always manage to voice the best questions, mind you. Occasionally there is no best question.  This time I posed a simple query: “How are you feeling about it all?” Her response was honest and true: she’d had a terrific bout with anxiety and a crying jag but, she assured me, she felt better now. She’d been subjected to a guilt trip that morphed into a mean streak, which, she added, only made things easier. Then she capped it. “I will feel better when the ball is rolling.” (The ball, of course, being action that will alleviate the situation.)

We hung up and went about our different days, but her words lived on in my head. Later that evening, I suggested to Charlie that he might be in the mood for some empty carbohydrates. Because he’s so suggestively easy to seduce (so to speak), we headed off for Dairy Queen, and soon worked our way to their drive-up window. (By the way, whoever suggested that DQ offer a “mini” sized blizzard deserves a raise. It opened up a whole new audience.)

Luckily, we were in the Toyota Prius, which is a great car for drive-through restaurants and banks because it stops running when it has to sit motionless. And DQ does take a while. Eventually, though, even mini-Blizzards are ready to go. So, treat in hand, Charlie pressed the gas pedal lightly. (He likes to see just how long he can run on pure electrical energy and, besides, the escape route from that calorie-rich drive through is a straight, flat trajectory. You don’t need much push to get up and go.)

The little Prius moved forward slightly, then rolled right back to its original spot. Oops. Apparently Dairy Queen’s wait time is a little more extensive than most, because we were firmly rooted in a rut that had developed right where the front tires sit next to the drive-through window. Pressing the gas may have started a little momentum, but we actually needed more oomph than usual to get moving over the hump and down the road.

I nearly dropped my chocolaty treat. “Inertia,” I said. I flashed back to my conversation this morning – about feeling better once the ball gets rolling. What a great, true metaphor. Just like the Prius whose tires rested in the rut and who oh-so easily settled back again into that comfortable place, we do the same things throughout life. We get comfortable. We may not be happy or fulfilled or satisfied, but without some external stimulus prodding us, it’s just such an effort to drum up enough energy to make something happen. Sometimes, we think, it’s easier to keep on keeping on.

Consider Isaac Newton’s first law of motion: “An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.” Objects (and people) tend to do the same things all the time. It’s pretty natural to resist changes in our state of motion. That’s called inertia.

The World English Dictionary defines inertia as the tendency of a body to preserve its state of rest or uniform motion. In other words, it’s what makes us oppose any force that might make us change – whether that means we come to a stop or we keep moving along, whether we stay sitting in our rut or keep running flat out.

Now, I never took physics but I get this … and I love the lesson. For my friend, inertia is hard at work in her life. It’s inertia that makes it difficult to do what she must to end what’s not working but what’s been the status quo for so long. And it’s inertia that causes her antagonist to swing from guilt trips to pleading to anger in an attempt to maintain that very same status quo. One is trying to muster the energy necessary to get moving while the other is trying to muster the energy necessary to keep going and not stop.

For my friend, that same inertia ultimately will be responsible for ushering her forward into new beginnings and a fresh future. As much as inertia wants to keep us at rest, it also wants to keep us in motion – once we actually get the ball rolling.

Forward. That’s a very good direction, indeed.

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