Letters to Kafka

Limiting beliefs, and how to undo them

On limiting beliefs: “One’s imprisonment is therefore organised as a perfectly ordinary, not over-comfortable form of daily life.”

Dear Franz,

I’ve been looking for a suitable quote in your work about freedom — that what one earns through hard work is a type of freedom — but most of what I read in you in terms of what you say is all about prisons, bars and chains. And worse, the chains are invisible, they are in the mind only, they are what the individual creates for himself or herself — they are the limiting beliefs and fears behind which the individual cowers in comfort and security. “Everything sails under a false flag,” you say to your confidante Janouch:

no word corresponds to the truth. I, for instance — I am no going home. But it only looks as if I were. In reality, I mount into a prison specially constructed for myself, which is all the harsher because it looks like a perfectly ordinary bourgeois home and — except for myself — no one would recognise it as a prison. For that reason, every attempt at escape is useless. One cannot break one’s chains when there are no chains to be seen. One’s imprisonment is therefore organised as a perfectly ordinary, not over-comfortable form of daily life. Everything looks as if it were made of solid, lasting stuff. But on the contrary it is a life in which one is falling towards an abyss. It isn’t visible. But if one closes one’s eyes, one can hear it’s rush and roar.

This rush and roar is the antithesis of Ann Cvetkovich’s “utopia of ordinary habits” I spoke about to you briefly a few days ago. The trick in life, as you say elsewhere, and as Dr Haber, the manipulative “but benevolent” (so it seems) doctor in Ursula K Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven, says to his patient George Orr, who changes the world through dreaming the change, is to be able to tell apart what is utopia and what is the prison. For you, perhaps, and for many writers, especially of sci-fi, there is no difference. Think of Gulliver’s Travels, or The Time Machine and the Eloi. And they are the same, because braving life means to both live ordinarily and to live in a prison.

limiting beliefs

And yet… one can live well. Franz, I used to think that my freedom needed to be found in the magical ability to be an uber-person, to take on all and everything, to juggle at least six major commitments at once, to live the high-flying executive life, juggling a job and volunteering and writing, trustee roles, friendships, loves, running marathons, barely sleeping, etc. And yet this was a prison I made for myself, out of the chains of my limiting beliefs: that I always need(ed) to be doing more, being more. I believed my freedom came in being limitless — that my energy was boundless. That all things fed into one another.

I woke at 330am this morning and was unable to sleep afterwards — rather, M, my cat, woke me, is that besides the point, or part of it? — and all I could think of, in pure certainty, was that I am not a director of the voluntary association I work with; that I must quit. It feels painful to do, in part, as if I am losing a sense of myself as able to do all things at once, and that I am grown, capable, and mature… and yet perhaps isn’t it more mature and capable of me to quit, and quit well, amicably? I simply do not have the capacity to do everything. To juggle so many things, and to do any of them well.

And of course, certainly not those things I am doing for the wrong reasons. And the wrong reasons are always, it seems, external validation, approval, recognition “as someone” important, holding a position, a director, etc. Perhaps I am realising, finally, that these titles and positions don’t mean much if I am not engaged and fulfilled by the actual doing. That is, there is no point being X if the doing of X is sore, painful, draining, done for the wrong reasons. These are my limiting beliefs: that I am not good enough, for some reason. That I always need to be proving myself, seeking for the end of disapproval. (For some reason, I say… we know why, and it is my father’s debt to me.) The actual voluntary work I do is good, but when I have so much to do already, so much I want to do, such as write,and write well…

Write, write, and write, and don’t waste time. Is this not what (my) life is about? Is this not what one must do: give it your best shot?

About Alex R Lockwood

I learn as much about the the art of living through literature (especially Kafka) as I do through other people. I read and write fiction and non-fiction, and research the cultural value of the creative writer; the ways that literature impacts our lives; the craft of writing, particularly what it means to be a non-anthropocentric (vegan) writer; the representation of animals; and the ethics of human-animal relations in literature, media and culture since 1945. This site is a platform for capturing the threads of different literary projects and, I hope, offers something to those thinking through the value of reading and writing in their lives.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *