As my regular readers know, a little over a year ago, I was living in an unheated apartment, concluding my second, insanely frigid winter there. For “employment”, I was languorously managing a couple unpaid enterprises, subsisting on the last bit of dough from a once-plentiful savings account.
My life wasn’t bad in my Brooklyn igloo. I had friends, an amazing girlfriend, enviable relationships with my family, great health. But there were things that seemed like they would never change, and I had the premonition that those things would eventually thwart the natural progression of the other stuff–that not making money and flushing my toilet with collected rainwater would–to a prospective wife, for example–soon transition from quirky to pathetic.
A little over a year later, I have a wife, steady, rewarding employment, a replenished savings account, heat and–check this out–a child on the way! Right?
Here’s the bitch of it all: I was responsible for these changes. Of course, I had amazing collaborators. I may even have had divine intervention. But it’s my experience that divinity needs permission to work its magic. I gave it.
I say none of this to boast. I actually don’t want to take responsibility for any of it. As long as life is more accident than creation–something that happens to me–I’m off the hook. I can stay inert and afraid of the new things that seem like they’ll never change.
Personal responsibility is the greatest gift and burden one can possess. It shows us that we can transcend any situation. It also shows us that all our prisons–however real they seem–are self-made.
What if you were responsible for your life? You don’t have to believe it. Just consider.
What story would you have to give up if this were true? That your parents, a shit economy, past relationships, poor health, etc. are preventing you from changing.
What would be possible if you were responsible for your life? What unchanging things might you be able to change?
Take one of those unchanging things and take an action to change it (preferably right now).
Monday mornings are not typically my strongest time. Rather than the week occurring as a vast ocean of possibility, it occurs as a barren creek, whose scant water is suffused with obligation and pains-in-the-ass. This perspective usually changes by Tuesday, when I see that no one is forcing me to do anything; that I signed up for all of my supposed burdens; that they’re not in fact burdens at all, but actions inside of a greater commitment; that I do and have created my life. But not Monday. And particularly not Monday morning. That time is reserved for doom.
Rather than jumping into action, I become overwhelmed and jump to have a second cup of coffee, which sends me into a state where I simultaneously do nothing while my caffeine-addled mind scorns my inaction with improved efficiency.
This disempowered state relies on a particular conceit: that who I am is a function of what I do. If I don’t do, I am not (worthy, powerful…alive).
But what if this is a mistaken conceit? What if there were nothing to prove? What if we were inherently valuable–that our existence didn’t hinge our abilities to check items off our Google Tasks widget? How would that free us?
This is not to say things don’t need to get done. When I finish writing this, I have a shitload of things to do. The question is how will we do? Will we do under the lash of obligation, maxing out our willpower to make things happen, doing to prove we are good enough, that we matter, that we exist? Or will action flow from our inherent worth and power–from a place of nowhere to go, nothing to prove? Both work in their own way–one just sounds a bit more enjoyable.
In my last post, I mentioned that I am visiting my father soon. His health is lousy.
My dad and I share many traits–our curiosities, skeptical and questioning natures, our reverence for life, our ability to cry in public. He is my best friend. I don’t want to lose him and scarier, I don’t want my child (due later this year) to be without a grandfather. My last few days have been shot through with paroxysms of grief.
Permitting grief is new to me. Historically, my default emotional response to hard emotional situations is go numb until a threat passes (the odd bouts of congenital sobbing notwithstanding).
I thought I was doing pretty great, breaking down as I was, allowing myself to feel. Feeling is good. It’s real.
While this emotional latitude was, in some sense, a breakthrough for me, it was also missing something: my dad is not dead. Sure, he’s going to die eventually–hopefully later than sooner. But so will I, my wife, every one of my friends…even you. I saw there were two foci I could apply to this terminal condition called life:
Focus on death as loss. Think about the lousy time when we will all be dead, when we will no longer share each other’s company. It’ll probably suck and be really hard.
Focus on life as opportunity. Sure, we have a finite time in these bodies (fraid’ I’m not a big believer in the Singularity stuff). So what? What are we going to do with the time we do have? As Ben Franklin put it, “Dost thou love life? then do not squander time; for that is the stuff life is made of.”
I realized there was life all around me. My wife is having a child. A good friend of mine got a great job. We got some wonderful news at my work. Yes, all of these triumphs will die, fading into memory and dust, but in the meantime there’s magnificence in witnessing the cycles of life as they occur.
I also realized that I could still call my dad, which I did. There will be a time when I cannot do that, but that time is not now.
I spend the majority of my days in front of a glowing computer screen. Though my job involves building, I am a facilitator of building rather than a builder myself. My fingertips are more calloused than my palms.
My situation is far from unique. Most professionals nowadays, regardless of profession, are stationed in front of glowing boxes. I also work from home, so the majority of my face-to-face interactions are Skyped or with clerks at the grocery store.
I often romanticize about what it’d be like to get back to the earth, living off of foraged lingonberries and caribou meat; maybe start a farm growing tubers and chard. Streaming would be limited to water (FYI, I’m from the suburbs and grew up in with a remote in my hand).
It’s possible that a wholesale withdrawal from society is the answer–that there’s some sort of fundamental flaw with the trajectory of humanity and a modification of the status quo is insufficient to restore balance to the planet’s ecosystems, much less my inconsistent levels of sanity.
Then again, my fantasies might have different causes. I have a tendency to make reality wrong and fantasy right. For example, if only I were tilling the earth instead of typing on a computer, I’d be happy; if only I had a new carbon fiber road bike instead of my heavy, steel one, I’d be happy. And so on.
There are a couple delusions inside these fantasies:
That the current thing/person/state/activity is the problem.
That the ‘instead-of” thing/person/state/activity will solve the problem.
I know this because I’ve been quite happy typing on a computer and riding a heavy, steel road bike, and I’ve been miserable in the country and riding a sweat new carbon fiber road bike.
The real function of these fantasies is that they allow me to shirk responsibility for being happy right now. Because there is something in the way of my happiness (be it a job, possession or person), I don’t have to do anything. It’s their fault.
What if we all let go of the certainty that reality–the here and now and all that entails (including who we are)–is wrong? This is not to say the world isn’t falling into an intractable psychological and environmental tailspin [couldn’t resist the opportunity to editorialize], but rather that our happiness need not depend on things being any way other than the way they are. Happiness never comes later, when. It happens now, with.
With these thoughts in mind, consider:
What fantasies are you holding onto that prevent you from being happy now?
Ask yourself, “If I had that thing/was that way/etc.” would I really be happier? Prove it without resorting to memory or assuming based on ideas promulgated by US Weekly.
Ask yourself, “How would I be and what would I do if nothing were wrong with things as they are?”
Stop waiting for things to change or get better and start living.
In 2010 and 2011, 2 of the coldest years in New York City history, I lived in a house with no heat. When I got home at night I put layers on. My around-the-house uniform included long johns, fleece pants, double wool socks, a t-shirt, fleece pullover, heavy wool sweater, parka, a scarf or two and a hunter’s cap. I slept in the same outfit under a sheet, a fleece blanket, a light cotton blanket I never bothered removing from the summer and four thick, down comforters.
In an incident I chronicled in this blog, my pipes froze, forcing me to perform midnight, 30-degree, water-cascading-from-the-ceiling household triage. Shortly thereafter, my landlord (a very loose designation) shut the pipes off. It had become so cold that the water in the toilet froze, forcing me to concoct creative waste removal operations. Because there was no drinking water, I walked around with jugs to fill when I had access to running water.
I lived this way partly because I was convinced that I was being spiritually tested. I was proving that I could find peace and meaning in the face of really uncomfortable circumstances. And I achieved that. I developed a physical and spiritual toughness, cultivating an ability to cope–and occasionally thrive–in harsh conditions.
But it was uncomfortable. Without so much as a fireplace, I was living in conditions that a neanderthal would probably find intolerable.
So why did I do it?
There was the spiritual thing, which had more than a trace of truth to it. Though the spiritual test conveniently coincided with diminishing savings and nearly nonexistent income.
The other reason is this: People can put up with some pretty lousy shit if they believe their behavior only impacts them. I can be miserable when I believe I’m the only one who’s subjected to it. I can live in a freezing home if I’m the only one who has to bundle up. I can let my personal hygiene fall off in tragic ways if I’m the only one smelling it.
What changed–the reason I type without gloves on a January night–was that my life became about more than myself. I got a girlfriend, girlfriend became wife, wife will one day be a mother. The guy who was okay porting collected rainwater from the roof to flush the toilet had little or nothing to do with being a great boyfriend, husband or father. It’s not that one is wrong and the other right–they’re just two different people.
In an ideal world, my motivation would be purely intrinsic, the voice of God would speak through me, divining me an intuitive wisdom that shows me the way of strength and goodness. Every so often, that’s how it goes.
More often, my motivators are extrinsic–something I cherish outside myself compels me to step into a bigger role. I want A, but A is not possible as long as I’m being B.
Let me clarify one point: I’m not promoting betraying oneself. The changes I’m referring to are aligned with who we are (our intrinsic motivation). The guy who got a job, a heated apartment and wanted to take care of others is more aligned with who I am than my previous incarnation as Nanook of Brooklyn Heights.
With these thoughts in mind, consider:
Name an extrinsic motivator in your life. Preferably this is something you want to have or have but are not feeling fulfilled by (e.g. relationship, job, goal).
What way of ‘being’ is preventing you from having this situation work? For me, I was being lazy and proud. Lazy about creating income and too proud to admit that I didn’t enjoy hanging around a sub-zero living room.
What impact are you pretending doesn’t exist by holding onto this way of being? For example, saying you don’t care about something or want something when you really do.
What way of ‘being’ could make the situation work? In my case, I had to grow up–or ‘be’ responsible.
Take one action today inside of this way of being.
First off, I’m trying to realize my dream of writing for a living. I’ve been at it for 6 months and I’m not making money. I’m not broke as I earn money from other sources and have savings to draw off for living expenses. I also have a supportive girlfriend, family and friends. But I am afraid I won’t be able to realize my dream. If I don’t, it’ll mean I’m a loser. It’s a big, horrible problem.
Another problem is my diet. A couple months ago I started practicing the Paleolithic diet, which suggests that humans are not genetically set up to consume domesticated foodstuffs like grains and sugar. The diet mostly consists of eating vegetables and meat—no grains, no legumes, no processed foods. I was doing good for a while, but my girlfriend and I started holding community brunches every Sunday. Between 10 and 30 people show up each week, each contributing dishes. The brunches have been great, but I’ve had trouble not consuming grain products. It’s been tough to get back on track the next day. My blood sugar fluctuates quite a bit and sometimes (like now) I feel a little lightheaded detoxing from the sugar. If I don’t stick to this diet, I’ll be a flabby, energy-deprived loser, which is an awful problem.
I have communication problems. My phone was broke last week, which was a huge clusterfuck. I relented and got an iPhone the other day. It works great, but I can’t seem to figure out how to sync my Google calendar with with my iCal for realtime updates. I’m afraid I’ll put an appointment in Google and it won’t sync with iCal (or vice-versa), which might cause me to double book or something. People will think I’m a flake. My life will unravel around me.
I have housing problems. My girlfriend and I are discussing moving in together. We want a nice place in Brooklyn, preferably around Park Slope or Cobble Hill—two beautiful, tree and brownstone-lined neighborhoods. But we also want someplace to duck out on weekends in the country—maybe something in the Catskills or in Pennsylvania. We’re not sure where we’ll live or how we’ll make the country thing happen. Without quiet, spacious homes, we might not achieve inner peace and enlightenment, which is a pretty significant problem.
I can’t think of any other problems at the moment, but I’ll post them in the comment section when I do.
If a problem is a flame, significance is its oxygen. No significance, no problem.
This is easy to see with problems as as shamefully bourgeois as mine—the kind of problems most of us deal with. We have no “real” problems. Most (if not all) of us have computers, which puts us ahead of at least 85% of the world’s population in wealth. We are reading a blog, which suggests we’re on the younger side and are probably relatively healthy. We probably live in America or some other first world nation and enjoy a stable, non-violent society. The majority of problems that occupy our consciousness are probably pretty trivial, centering around ourselves and our unmet desires.
A fraction of us have problems that seem inherently significant. Terminal illness, major health problems, death of a close friend or family member, eviction, impending or realized poverty, etc. We believe there is no spin on them that would make them insignificant.
But what if nothing had any significance outside of the meaning we give it? Let’s take terminal illness as an example. It seems inherently significant, but, as Chuck Palahniuk writes in “Fight Club,” “On a long enough timeline. The survival rate for everyone drops to zero.” We’re all going to die. Every important figure throughout history has lost against some form of terminal illness. Why are we or our loved ones so special? What if death had no significance?
I’m not suggesting we deny that things have meaning to us. For example, we might decide ending war has meaning (surely a higher caliber issue than syncing calendars on an iPhone). But what if we recognized that the meaning and significance we give something is ours, not the thing’s? Believing this, we could act and whether we achieved the results we wanted or not, it would not mean anything about ourselves or the world.
The worst part of giving significance is that it often compels us to not act at all. The results have such grave implications, so we just avoid the issue altogether. For example, we won’t submit that manuscript or ask that girl out because if we don’t receive the result we seek, it’s significant. It might confirm that we are the losers we think we are. Better to do nothing instead and not receive confirmation.
What if we could just act without making the problem or the results significant?
With these these thoughts in mind, consider the following:
List the big problems in your life?
What meaning do you give them? For example, not getting a raise means you aren’t valued or important, or not getting a return call from a girl you like means you’re unattractive.
What if these problems had no intrinsic significance? What if not getting a raise or not getting a return call meant nothing? They lacked significance.
In what ways would you act if the results of your actions lost their significance? What if getting rejected was not significant? What if dying was not significant? How might you act if these were the case?
Choose one action you’ve been avoiding because of its significance and take it now.
[This is going to be the final installment of this series. It pretty much sums up my whole view of relationships, though the preceding installments are useful for more tactical approaches to dating and relationships.]
Be the person you want to attract and be in a relationship with
It’s never, ever, ever, ever about the other person. Not even that one time.
This is the sad and good news. Sad because accepting this holds us responsible for all of our failed relationships, courting nightmares and people we attract. Good because nothing is wrong with the universe. There is no shortage of good men or sane women. Our childhoods did not irreparably damage us. We are the problem and solution. We hold the key to your pasts, presents and futures.
An easy way to demonstrate this is by looking at how we often seek qualities in a partner that we do not possess ourselves. I know scores of fat, out-of-shape guys who deride women for not being pretty and thin enough. I know scores of women who complain about men being irresolute and uncommitted yet engage in relationships with these same men, even though the women know they are not what they want; in other words, they are irresolute and uncommitted about what they want.
Focusing on other people’s faults always seems to make ours disappear.
If you want a fit partner, exercise. If you want a more worldly partner, travel. If you want a partner who listens, listen. If want more mature partners, be mature. If you want greater commitment, commit to what you want.
Perhaps you think you are the things you seek. You think you are responsible, healthy, or whatever trait you’re looking for in a partner. Yet you attract irresponsible, unhealthy, etc. partners—or none at all. Instead of asking yourself if you might be the problem, conceding that you may have blind-spots about yourself, you blame the other party. You sooner declare a global drought of suitable partners than look at what it is in you that continually attracts and creates what you seemingly don’t want.
I write “seemingly” because we always get what we want, even though it seems like we don’t. The problem is what we want unconsciously trumps what we want consciously. Our want to feel important, look good, be comfortable, be right, secure, not change, not be alone and so on, trumps and undermines our want to be happy, healthy, generous, etc. Don’t believe me? Look at your relationships and who you attract into your life. They are the evidence that this is true.
Many of us will point to our families and friendships as evidence that we aren’t doing anything wrong. Because they work so well, it shows that we know how to be in healthy relationships. The only logical conclusion is that there is a good-man or sane-woman shortage.
Family, friends, co-workers and other non-romantic relationships show us who we are, but not in the way romantic ones do. If relationships are like mirrors for who we are, then family, friends, etc. are like a mirror you pass in the hallway—useful for straightening up and checking yourself out. Romantic relationships are like those cosmetic mirrors, where every pore and imperfection stands out. Our romantic partners and prospects show us what we really think about ourselves, what we are really willing to accept out of our lives—not some intellectualized concept we talk about with friends.
This close-viewing is the promise romantic relationships hold. It’s hard to find out so much about ourselves without this level of intimacy. Living a life filled with only friends and family, it’s easier to stop short of full self-knowledge. The level of closeness inherent in romantic relationships forces people to do one of three things: confront themselves, impose an uneasy stalemate or abandon ship. If you’re ready to take a deep look at yourself and really free yourself, few situations are more conducive to that than romantic relationships.
Also realize that just because our partners and prospects don’t match up with the misbegotten notions we have about ourselves, this inconsistency need not be a deal-breaker. We need people to work our shit out with. It’s preferable to do it with someone who’s more-or-less on the same page. It’s delusional to think you’re going to find someone without problems. The key is to find someone with complimentary problems and wants to work them out with you. This is actually the best part of my present relationship: we both have shit, but we use each other to work that shit out.
This is all a long-winded way of saying keep the attention on yourself. Like everything, courtship, dating and relationships are inside jobs. The perceiver and the perceived are the same thing. You want to attract a great partner? You want a great relationship? Be a great person.
From ages 8 to 23, I was an insomniac. I would lay in bed for countless hours wishing for sleep. My body would be exhausted, my eyes heavy and burning, but my mind would be alert and racing. I usually passed out around daybreak, only to wake a few hours later.
I tried to treat body and mind. I drank chamomile tea. I took melatonin. I had a white-noise generator. I went to a therapist. I played games like “stop thinking for a minute.” I created elaborate fantasy worlds with serial plot-lines to pass the hours in bed and still my anxiety. When I was 16, I started smoking weed. Later, Jim Beam became Mr. Sandman.
When I sobered up at 23, my biggest fear was not how I was going to have fun or what people would think of me. I feared not sleeping.
Fortunately, that fear was unfounded. By no longer annihilating myself and addressing my underlying emotional problems, I ended up with pretty normal sleeping patterns. I fall asleep easily and stay that way the whole night through most nights.
While my difficulties with sleeping are gone, my story about sleeping continues to be an issue. This became apparent to me the other night.
I was helping some friends out and what we were doing was running longer than I had anticipated. It was about 10PM and I decided I wanted to go home. The thought “I’m so tired” entered my mind. I started to yawn repeatedly. My eyes started to close and burn.
I decided to celebrate my 28th birthday at a West Village bar a friend worked at. I envisioned a casual celebration, where from 6-9PM a steady stream of friends and acquaintances would play tag-team for my attention as I held court on my barstool thrown.
It turned out that my kingdom was not as mighty as I thought. The first hour no one showed up. Nor the second. The third, my friend George showed up with a nice little notebook and pen gift. A couple other people showed up near the end of my time window. No more than 4 people showed up throughout the evening.
A realization became clear sitting there those lonely hours: I was a person people didn’t show up for. How did I know this? Because no one showed up.
There were 2 options for handling my realization:
Blame others for my misfortune. I could have accused friends of being unkind, unreliable, dishonest, etc. It wasn’t me. It was them.
Take responsibility for the results in my life. I could have looked at what it was about me that was so easy to easy to ignore.
Fortunately, I chose option #2. I saw people didn’t show up for me because I didn’t show up for them. I saw that I gave up on people. That I used friends for favors and to stave off loneliness. I seldom actively took an interest in their welfare. I rarely went out of my way to help them. I wouldn’t have shown up for me either. Continue reading “Forgettable…In Every Way”
After my buddy Jeremy and I hung out the other night, he invited me to a late concert. I said no. I had a date. Because Jeremy is a vegetarian, I couldn’t share what that date was.
I rode my bike to the Whole Foods at Bowery and Houston. I snuck in, hoping no one I knew was there. I milled around the produce section for a few minutes, trying to lose PETA agents who might be on my trail. My covert ops were meant to obscure my destination: the butcher. My date was with meat. We hadn’t gone out in over 4 years.
I’ve been a vegetarian off and on for 16 years. My reason historically has been the environmental toll meat production takes compared to a vegetarian diet. My last spell started when I was dating a Mahayana Buddhist. Mahayana’s believe in an elaborate system of reincarnation, with possible rebirths in hell realms, ghost realms, and many other nasty sounding places. One of the lower realms is the animal realm. Contrary to the idealized version of animal life many people hold, Mahayana’s believe that animals are in a state of near-constant suffering, forever at the mercy of their needs, lacking consciousness to transcend them. Where you go in the next life depends on your end-of-life karmic balance; basically a matter of how much negative karma you’ve burned off during your life.
A Bodhisattva is someone who tries to rid himself of negative karma and achieve Buddhahood (or at least higher rebirth). He achieves this by devoting himself to freeing all living beings from suffering. Aiding to that suffering means lower rebirth for you.
I decided to go veg to cover my bases. I didn’t want to risk lower rebirth. But even if Buddhist beliefs were hogwash, I could see that most livestock live lives of nonstop, abject suffering. This is particularly true of livestock raised in the industrial-agricultural meat complex, where animals are shot up with growth hormones, steroids and antibiotics, force-fed, stuffed into diseased and shockingly small spaces, and killed in brutal ways. I wanted no part of it in this lifetime, much less pay for it in the next.