Turn Around (Brighteyes)

Because I can’t help myself when it comes to referencing unrelated pop lyrics.  

There must be people who read more self-help books than me.  Consumers of TED talks that get to the bottom of way more presentations by earnest smart people offering the answer to everything.  But I’ve read my fair share…

It is entirely possible that I was ruined by writing poetry.  While I’d hate to be held to the poetic standard without exception, I certainly feel free to apply it liberally everywhere else: the best use of words is to say exactly what you mean with as much economy as you are capable of.  A book on Essentialism that stretches to 200+ pages is a contradiction that risks the entire premise of the book.  

Most books have this problem.  We authors tend to fall in love with the sound of our own voice in the same way that children in the midst of a tantrum keep crying: they get used to the rhythm of it and the body just perpetuates the posture.  I’m sure I am as guilty as anyone.  On the other hand, I get fussed at for writing too sparsely, so maybe it is only the blog where I wax eloquently to excess.  

Anyway, pushing aside my digressions, what I’m trying to say is this: much of the self-help advice I’ve come across comes down to a simple chunk of advice.  Turn around and face whatever it is you are trying to get away from.  

There are many ways to get to this:  

  • Mindfulness, which advises to approach with curiosity whatever you’re trying to squash in yourself.
  • The metaphor of a car in an unwanted spin – turn into the spin to regain control.  
  • Ariel and Shya Kane – what you resist, persists.  
  • Dawna Markova (I will be singing the praises of Dawna forever, but even she could have condensed), who advises readers to sit with their demons and seek understanding.  
  • Deri Llewellyn-Davis says fuck the fear and sends you off to do the thing that scares you the most.  

I’d never tell anyone to forgo reading.  Buy a book.  Buy loads of books.  Buy my book, while you’re at it.  All I’m saying is that you’re going to come back to the same simple concept time and time again.  To find that freedom most of us are seeking, turn around and face what constrains you with curiosity and compassion.  Stop running, and your fears will stop chasing you.  Give up, but in the nicest possible way.  Surrender.  

There.  Hundreds of dollars in self help books in two paragraphs, one bulleted list, and some tangential rambling about poetry.  

Our destiny is frequently met in the very paths we take to avoid it.  –Jean de La Fontaine

Turn Around (Brighteyes)

Somebody Else

A hazard of being the product of millennia of progenitors who were good at fitting into the social construct is the degree to which the idea of what I’m *supposed to be* refuses to budge.  This would be one of those things I keep to myself, except that I hear it from my friends as well.  They confront relationship challenges (not just the romantic ones) with this idea that they are *supposed* to have a reaction or approach that isn’t natural.  Who calls, how long before you respond to a text, what is okay to give for a birthday present.  You don’t want to give too much, but you also don’t want to be outdone by the other guy.  No one wants to show up at the birthday party with a homemade card when everyone else is boasting Hallmark.  Or whatever.

But here’s the deal with success or failure in your social endeavors (to include romantic relationships): win or lose, wouldn’t you rather it be for who you are, not for some role you’re playing?

Say you go down in flames.  If you crash and burn spectacularly because you were playing games or trying to be someone you aren’t, don’t you then end up living with the regret?  I’d wonder what might have happened if I’d just been myself, gone with my gut, followed what I was sure of, set my fears aside, stopped listening to the voice that told me there was something I was supposed to be, or the relationship was supposed to be, and just embraced what I was, what the relationship was, and what made me happy.  What if I’d just said what I feel, what I want, and let the cards fall where they might?

Come to think of it, I do live with that…  I can think of three relationships that crashed and burned because of the supposed to’s:  my first love in college – that never got off the ground because the difference between what it was and what it was supposed to be was insurmountable.  Part of the failure of my marriage can be blamed on me not being able to move past the gap between what it was and what I thought it was supposed to be.  I’ll not try to characterize the third relationship here.  Suffice it to say that we all struggle with the gap between reality and “supposed to.”

Moving on.  What if you succeed on the merits of being someone else…  Have you thought through the part where you’re going to have to sustain that charade.  Indefinitely?

I’m certainly not trying to claim that authenticity is easy.  It takes a lot of bravery to say “fuck it, this is who I am, this is how I feel, this is what makes me happy, this is what I want.”  It’s even harder to say all of that with complete ownership over yourself and no expectation that the world is going to bow to your will and deliver what it is that you want.  Consider the alternatives, though.  You can fake it and feel safe because you’re hiding behind the mask you think other people want to see, but succeed or fail, the long-term consequences are pretty difficult.

Between regret or sustaining the lie and the risk associated with just going with the best I can do with my authentic self, I think I’m aspiring to the risk.  If I’m going to go down, I can live with going down on the truth.  It’s easier to live with than losing something over an ephemeral “supposed to.”

The only possible caveat here is if your authentic self is a creep or an asshole.  In that case, become a nice person and then be your authentic self.

Somebody Else

* The Meta-feeling Charlie Foxtrot

Most of us are carrying around two parallel sets of reactions.  There is the original, genuine feeling and then the feeling about the feeling.

I’ve discovered that a good portion of my problem is in the feeling about the feeling.

Something unhappy happened a few months back and my body immediately told me I was scared.  The feeling was the feeling.  In the same breath, however, I began piling on additional feelings.  I was afraid of the anxiety that had taken up residence in my stomach.  I judged that anxiety.  I tried to talk myself out of it.  I argued with it.  I fought it tooth and nail.  Every time I wanted to cry, I judged that too.  I tried to tell myself why the need to cry was stupid.  I started looking for someone else to tell me things were going to be okay.  I floundered.  I kicked and screamed.  I railed.  I lost all sense of my own knowing because I was working so damn hard to distance myself from the original feeling.

Guess what.  It didn’t work.  The further I tried to get from my scared, the worse it got.  The harder I fought it, the stronger its grip.

The annoying thing is that I know better.  What do I tell myself all the time?  Surrender.  Go under.  What you resist persists.

Apparently, this is a lesson I need to learn six ways from Sunday, because it took me nearly three months to admit that all of my denial wasn’t getting me anywhere and to ask the question “what if I just let myself be afraid?”

Three months of waking up with my stomach twisted with anxiety.  Three months of being afraid to brush my teeth because I just knew I was going to gag on having something in my mouth.  And with two weeks of letting the terror be what it is and not judging it…  I’m not blissful, don’t get me wrong.  But I have re-directed myself back into the pool and I’m being a little more constructive than I was two months ago.

How useless is it to feel the fear twice?  I’m scared.  Okay.  Now I’m going to be scared of being scared?  Really?

So here’s my reminder to myself: feel what you feel.  Absolutely.  But don’t add layers of feelings about the feeling to the mix.

I’ve been contemplating a trip back to the tattoo shop.  I had all of these brilliant ideas, but I am thinking that what I really need is to put “surrender” right on my wrist.  Maybe with a little white flag.

* The Meta-feeling Charlie Foxtrot

Stories in the Closet

Some other time I’ll have to see if I can come up with a cogent, reasoned basis for my starting point: our lives are governed by the stories we tell.  We start with the basic building-blocks–genetics, brain structure/chemistry, parents, society, culture, language – and we come up with a story that is our identity.  No, it isn’t all choices.  You don’t chose the color of your skin or your parents propensity to read to you.  But you choose the story you tell, and that story gets told in every choice you make.  From what we read to what we put in our closets, all of these things work together to express our story about who we are – our identities.  

It is the question of appearance as a collection of choices designed to tell a story that I’d like to talk about.  Mark Cuban is in the news for talking about his prejudices when it comes to young men in hoodies and anyone with a face tattoo, but I don’t think the negative press is fair.  We’re all engaged in a social contract.  Unless you live in monkish isolation all alone in a cave next to a snow leopard in the Himalayas, you are a part of the social contract.  In any interaction, there are two people and they both bring something to the table.

Let’s get the Trayvon Martin sticking point out of the way.  At no point did Mr. Cuban say he would be justified in shooting a young man in a hoodie.  He said he would cross the street.  I don’t care what you’re wearing or how you choose to present yourself or what falls out of your mouth, no one should be shot over someone else’s prejudices.

Hoodies are a part of the sartorial lexicon for a number of cultural subgroups.  It is a choice in clothing that means something:  If you’re in Silicone Valley, the hoodie is a badge of belonging in the ranks of hackers and programmers.   In London, a hoodie was uniform for the riots in 2011. With this item of clothing, I would imagine that much depends on whether the hood is up or down.  At least in my own perception – as a hoodie-wearer when I’m not pretending to be a grown up at work – hood down is something entirely different than hood up.

We’re social creatures navigating with the evolutionary tools that kept us alive for millennia: the ability to make quick judgement about what is safe and what isn’t, an intuitive understanding of how to project invincibility like a puffer-fish under attack, and the ability to camouflage ourselves to go undetected and unpunished.    Every day, we make choices that navigate those social constructs.  We know that we will be judged by the way we present ourselves and we react accordingly.

Unless it’s cold or raining, a hood-up hoodie is functionally unnecessary, therefore  whether the hood is up or down is a choice to project a message.  It may be the equivalent of a dog with it’s hackles up – don’t mess with me, I’m bigger than you – but it is a choice that telegraphs something intentional to anyone looking at you.  To deny that is insupportable.

Mr. Cuban also pointed out facial tattoos.  Let’s be honest.  Unless you’re from a Berber (or some other) tribe  that practices facial tattooing as a part of social cohesion, you don’t get your face tattooed to tell people looking at you that you are a conformer who is deeply committed to the social construct.  You just don’t.

It is disingenuous to expect that society not react to the choices you make about how you present yourself.  You make those choices for exactly that reason: you want to send a message about who you are, the story you’ve told about yourself that you want the rest of us to buy.  The messages change – visible tattoos don’t have the same gasp factor inside the bell curve that they used to, and I think that’s a good thing – but the messages don’t go away.  As a part of the social contract, I have a responsibility to understand what is expected within the social group I’m a part of and make my choices accordingly.  It is unreasonable for me to reject the consequences of those choices as being unfair.

If I get a Kat VonD constellation tattoo around my eye, I would be telling my co-workers in the government building I’m in that I wasn’t interested in playing the game they’re playing.  Would I be fired over it?  Probably not.  Would I get the same job if I came to the interview table with that tattoo?  Probably not.  My competence level would be the same, the difference is that I’d be telling the interviewees that I was actively unwillingly to conform to the social norms of the workplace I was in.

And that’s fine, it is my right.  But I can’t send the message to the world that I’m uninterested in playing by societal norms and then be mad when the social group (family, friends, work, public transportation, these are all social spaces where people interact) doesn’t want to play with me.

I wear a lot of black.  It’s deliberate.  When I open my mouth, more often than not, I’m memorable.  I want to be able to choose the message I give and when I want to give it.  I want my clothes to be pretty unremarkable.  My hair, my eye shadow, my nail polish, my shoes, when I’m shopping I choose not just on whether or not things fit, I’m shopping for the message I want to send about myself: slightly unknowable, more interesting on the second (and closer) look than she is on the first, and self-contained.  There isn’t a lot of booty hanging out, not much by way of flashy jewelry.  And I’d be straight up full of shit if I tried to say that my closet wasn’t curated to send a specific set of messages.  For good or ill, that message is mine.  It is the story I tell to someone who’s never met me, before I even open my mouth.

It doesn’t include a facial tattoo, because I want to be able to choose when I tell someone I don’t give a shit what they think of me, I don’t want them to know that when they first see me across the street.

So I don’t have a problem with Mr. Cuban reading a message in the hood-up collection of young men walking down the street and getting out of the way.  To suggest that someone not react to the visual clues being sent by other individuals in a social group is to suggest that we can or should wipe out a million years of social evolution.  Unlikely.  I’m not saying don’t get a face tattoo.  Just don’t get one and expect to become the Director of the Office of Personnel Management.  You can’t tell a story about yourself and get mad when other people take you at your word.

When I say everything we do is in accordance with the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, clothing and grooming is included.  When we do something contrary to the story, either the story or the behavior must change.  We don’t do well out of alignment with our own stories (which is why, when looking to change yourself, it helps to start by changing your story about yourself…  either the behavior or the story has to change.  If you’re deliberate about the story, then the behavior follows).  For a good example, check out this video of a homeless man getting a makeover and see it all the way through.

I don’t know Mr. Cuban from a doorpost.  All I’m saying is I’m not buying that he’s a schmuck off of this one interview.

Stories in the Closet

The Secret

Get ready for this, because I’m going to lay out the secret to life.  The answer to every question you’ve ever had.  Okay, so maybe not the answer to every question.  But the big ones.  And, as usual, this assumes that you aren’t an asshole and, if given the choice, can be trusted to do the thing that doesn’t involve hurting someone/thing else.

You ready for it?  You’d better sit down.

The secret to everything; the grand unifying theory of how to best be a human is contained in two words:

Show up.

  • You’re going to fail.  Show up anyway.
  • It’s going to hurt.  Show up anyway.
  • It’s going to be hard.  Show up anyway.
  • You won’t know if you’re good enough.  Show up anyway.
  • You might get it wrong.  Show up anyway.
  • You may never get rewarded.  Show up anyway.
  • They’ll laugh at you.  Show up anyway.
The Secret

On Unpopular Love

Oprah ruined love.  Hallmark delivered several death blows, but Oprah (and through her, Dr. Phil) killed it.

Love yourself.  It’s a pop psychology mantra that we hear everywhere.  But who can really qualify what that means?  It’s a concept that’s been broken down into 15-second sound bites for commercials.  “Next on Tyra/Oprah/Dr. Phil…  Love yourself in time for dinner.”

But our whole concept of love is completely fucked up.  We think it is what we see on TV or read about in trashy romance novels.  A proud broken man, a woman with a secret.  They fall in love but their differences tear them apart.  All until the man realizes that he doesn’t have to be broken any more and the woman shares her secret and then they stay married and have loads of babies and wedded bliss.

We think we can do the hard stuff once and be done with it.  You can’t.  The hard stuff has to be done over and over and over again.  It’s like going to the gym.  Or staying away from the FroYo.

We think love is roses and chocolate and bubble baths and sunset walks on the beach and Paris and diamond rings.  And all of these ideas came from people who wanted to sell us shit.  People that wanted our money in exchange for the accessories that they told us were associated with love.  We gave up the real thing for the “as seen on TV” version.

So now we’re supposed to love ourselves.  With the diamond rings for our right hands since the left hand is reserved for Prince Charming?  Let’s face it, some of us take the TV version of “love yourself” a little too far.  It’s called narcissism, and I promise you, it doesn’t make for good partnerships.  All this love yourself nonsense starts to look like it belongs nestled up to our notions of “deserve.”  We know how I feel about that, and if you don’t, I’ll summarize: deserve is the wrong damn question.

Love yourself is not about looking yourself in the mirror deeply and saying “I love myself” over and over again.  It isn’t about justifying a Mercedes Benz.  It isn’t about justifying a new piece of jewelry, or a new house, or a long vacation.  It isn’t approving of everything about yourself unconditionally.  Loving yourself along the lines of Hallmark and Oprah hasn’t gotten us very far.

Let me tell you what I know about love.

Love sees clearly.  Even more important, love is willing to look.  Love doesn’t gloss over faults or pretend that they don’t exist.  Love is willing to acknowledge the parts that are ugly and selfish and mean-spirited and arrogant and lazy and fragile.  Love sees all of those things and doesn’t flinch and doesn’t condemn.

Love gets out of the way of the consequences.  Love doesn’t deprive the beloved of the benefit of their failures.  Love lets the beloved fail because any meaningful success is nourished by the shit that didn’t work.

Love doesn’t have the answers; love sits with you while you ask the questions.

Love doesn’t save you; it stands next to you as you save yourself.

Love is pragmatic.  It acknowledges reality and adjusts accordingly.  It is more interested in what works than it is in being right or preserving its ego or defending its opinions.

Love takes the long view.  It looks at the aggregate, not the last five minutes.

Love is supple.  Flexible.  Adaptable.  Resilient.  It can be okay in a variety of situations.  It might grumble a little, but it will find a way to make it work.  It’s strong that way.

Love is loyalty.  It is trusting someone even when you don’t understand what’s happening or why.  It is speaking kindly of someone to the external world when you really want to smack them in the face.  It’s keeping the personal between you and the beloved.  It believes in someone when the evidence points in other direction.  It acknowledges their imperfections even as it acknowledges that your place is next to this flawed individual.  Hell, it might find those flaws endearing in the right light.

Love shows up.

Love finds reasons to laugh, even on the most miserable of days.  Gallows humor counts, and if you’re going to go down, you might as well go down laughing.

So what does it mean to love yourself?  Own everything, your good and bad qualities equally.  Acknowledge that perfect isn’t possible, but that trying is well within your capacity.  Have a sense of humor, risk failure, show up relentlessly, tell yourself the truth, do what you can from where you are, and forgive yourself for being a bloody idiot.  Because we’re all bloody idiots in one way or another.

If you can do that for someone else, you can do it for yourself.  And if you can do it for yourself, you can do it for someone else.

On Unpopular Love

Fine Lines

There are some heuristics that I’ll stand by until there’s any evidence at all that they’re wrong.  One is that no one has ever thanked someone else for saving them.  At least not in the metaphorical sense.  My sister once gave a guy who had a heart attack and fell off a barn roof CPR until the ambulance showed up.  He thanked her for saving his life, but other than clear cases of being rescued from imminent death?  No one ever got thanked for trying to save someone.

The other relevant heuristic is that everyone gets to be the expert on themselves.  If someone says “I need x, y, and z,” believe them.  We know.  Give the other guy some credit.  Your friend with the bitch of a wife knows she’s a bitch.  But he’s juggling a bunch of competing priorities and if he isn’t dealing with the fact that his wife is a bitch right now, it’s because other things are a bigger priority.  You don’t get to decide for him.  You listen until he asks for something.  Your perspective is unwelcome until specifically invited.  Anyway, you’ve got whatever it is going in your own life that your friends are all looking at you and sighing over.  You know, Missy needs to loose twenty pounds.  She knows that her Momma has type 2 diabetes and if she keeps on the path she’s on she’s gonna end up there too.  It seems to be universally true that we all think we can live the other guy’s life to more success than they seem capable of.

So it’s generally better to celebrate the beauty you see in your friends and let the rest go.  They’re the expert and they aren’t going to thank you for interfering.

Which is a problem.  Because when you see someone standing in a hole, does lowering a ladder for them to take advantage of if they don’t like their hole anymore…  when they haven’t asked for a ladder…  does that count as the kind of saving that someone is never going to thank me for?  Inquiring minds want to know.

Fine Lines