One thing I am trying to figure out in life is how to have some appreciation for myself that isn’t totally dependent on external factors.
For now, my gut still tells me that there’s only four things that make me feel like I’m worth something:
- When I make good progress in my work.
- When I feel appreciated by friends and family.
- When I make progress on learning a new skill.
- When I do something creative that I feel I can be proud of.
These things, in and of themselves, are not harmful to desire, nor even harmful to be motivated by. But the biggest challenge for me is that even the deepest feelings of self-satisfaction melt away as soon as I hit a moment where none of these four things are prominently featured in the foreground of my life.
And so the thing I keep wondering is how do I feel comfortable in my own shoes most or all of the time, without any dependency on external conditions? Or at least, how can I get comfortable with experiencing those moments of discomfort that are par for the course in the ordinary flow of day to day life?
I’ve had some luck with Buddhist and Stoic practices in working through these sorts of questions before, so maybe it’s time to go looking in that direction again.
I have this idea for a story, or maybe even a game of some sort.
It involves a magical box that is sort of a time machine, but not in the ordinary sense of the word. It is small, maybe big enough to fit a dozen books or so in, and it features a 12 digit mechanical combination lock.
Once the lock is set, a parallel universe would be created where the contents of the box would then appear at exactly the date and time keyed into the box (for example: 201001011030 would mean Jan 1 2010 @ 10:30am)
In that newly generated universe, the box’s number wheels would instantly snap to zero and the lid would unlock, revealing whatever contents were “sent back from the future.” But anything that happened before that exact moment in time would be identical to the universe that sent the materials back into the past.
This simple narrative construct forms a kernel for countless different stories. But what I have in mind is the idea of some protagonist who is trying to engineer “the perfect life” even though they’d not be able to live it themselves, by repeatedly sending back notes from the future about various life choices.
I can see this taking a tragic turn, where some key “memories” are destroyed or altered, creating a peculiar game of tug-of-war between countless copies-of-copies-of-copies of past and future selves.
The box itself probably would have an origin story too, and figuring out how to construct additional boxes (or on the flip side, figuring out how to destroy the first memory box and halt the endless rollercoaster ride through parallel universes once and for all) could be possible plot lines.
If you had this kind of box, what would you do with it? What problems might you run into? How would it change your view of what it means to be alive?
A cacophony of chirping and squawking,
Mechanical keyboard clacking,
The beep-beep of a far away truck backing up.
Tree leaves bustling,
branches bouncing beneath boisterous birds.
The steady drum of a heart beat,
ba-bump, ba-bump, ba-bump.
Then a timer goes brrrrrrrrzzzz.
When something difficult to navigate appears unexpectedly when you had hoped for smooth sailing, it is often super painful.
But when you intentionally venture out into stormy seas, preparing in advance for whatever challenges you might come across, it is a very different feeling.
It can be especially tricky when both of these things happen at the same time, in different parts of your life.
If you try to rush full steam ahead without changing up your plans, you will surely end up crashing straight into sharp rocks. But if on the other hand, you shrink in fear and beat a forced retreat to safe harbor at the first sign of trouble, you’ll never develop the courage you need to grow in life.
I don’t have advice to offer here, it’s just an observation. But it’s also something I have been thinking about a lot lately.
Last night, the mother of my kids signed the lease on a new apartment and moved ten minutes across town. Now it’s up to me to take over all the responsibilities of running our family home, which we had lived in together for ten years.
Because I was the one who asked for this in the first place and we worked collaboratively on a plan to make it happen, feelings aren’t as bent out of shape as they might otherwise be. But it’s still a big change! And one that won’t really be fully understood until it is experienced, I suppose.
The most promising aspect of this huge transition is that it’s an opportunity to start fresh and figure out who exactly I want to be. Anybody who spends a long time on a rocky road of a relationship, and anybody who is run through the wringer of adapting to parenthood experiences a certain amount of identity erasure. In some cases it’s survivable. In my case it was for a while, until it wasn’t.
But I am someone who thinks super-long term about things. And so while I don’t regret a single day of the last decade or so, I also know that as my kids grow up, their needs will be quite different in the decade to come. They will look at their mom and dad and see more of who we are as people rather than just thinking of us as protectors and providers.
If we don’t know who we are, or if we’re not happy with who we are, or we’re not excited about who we’re going to become in the years to come, then our kids are going to pick up on that. And what kind of lesson would they learn from that?
It is that question that kept me up at night for far too long.
So who do I want to be, then? It’s still an open question to explore, but the rough contours of the path are already known. Being a good dad is a huge part of it, but now I get to do that in the way I think is best, rather than worrying about what somebody else’s opinion on that idea is.
But I also will have a lot more time each week, during the 3.5 days where the kids are with their mom, to forge a path through life on my own. Right now the only things that are certain about that time is that there will be a whole hell of a lot guitar playing, a ton of time spent cooking for the love of it rather than just out of necessity, and also… as much time as possible spent on deepening my existing friendships and forming new ones.
The rest of it, I’ll figure out as I go.
I spent the early hours of the morning drafting an email that I kept editing and editing until I realized that no amount of editing would put me at peace with what I was trying to say, and so I discarded it instead.
Did that decision leave me feeling any better? It did not. But it did at least remind me that I get to make my own choices… that I don’t need to be driven mindlessly by my emotions even when I’m feeling overwhelmed.
I want to write more. And I want to find my voice, which I lost ages ago.
The only way I can make sense of myself is by writing words that others can see. A private diary never worked for me.
So let this be a small step onto a whole new road.
Yesterday, I drove for the first time in, I don’t know, six or seven years? I wanted to see if I remembered how. I wanted to make sure that in a pinch, if I had to put two kids in a car and roll away to someplace near or far, I could.
It went… fine. It was just a 15 minute excursion along the winding shoreline roads, out to the lighthouse and back, but it felt like freedom and it felt like progress and it felt like the melting away of certain fears that held me back for so long.
I am at this point determined to face all my demons, and so far it has left me scratched up and bruised but also hopeful… even as the world around me burns.
For the last few days, I’ve also been fighting a Japanese Maple tree. So far, it is winning every battle but I believe I have a shot at winning the war. Trying to build up strength, I’ve been hanging from its branches. Wrapping legs around it and shimmying upwards like a sloth, until muscles twitch and I drop.
I wish this tree was in my backyard rather than right out by the sidewalk, so that I wouldn’t get side-eyed glances from people walking dogs and babies on these lovely spring days. Sometimes I have my kids come out there with me because it looks a little less strange when it’s a dad having fun with his kids rather than just some weirdo in a silent war with a tree.
But I also have been taking double doses of Don’t-give-a-fuck lately. Life is short and wild and weird and messy and all these things that perhaps we wish it weren’t but it is anyway… so we might as well just be what we’re going to be, right?
That said, I see a world around me with struggles that are so much deeper than my own. So much more severe and so much more serious. But for whatever reason, I am unable to bring myself to do more than send some money to places where it may help, listen and learn, and signal boost where I can. It feels lazy to stop there, but I haven’t figured out the right next steps yet.
Although I will try to find a way to do more for the world, this isn’t the space for that. This is the space where I’m trying to figure myself out. For whatever reason, that feels like what I need to be doing right now, and so I will keep pulling at the thread until the whole sweater comes undone.