What We Bring
When I was fifteen or sixteen, I went through a period of whys. I identified at least one of the major obstacles to my own success – and I’m talking empirical obstacles, and empirical success here. And then did a fifteen or sixteen year old’s version of meditating on the matter. I focused specifically and intensely on where my maladies came from, and on what might have caused them. I sought deeply a spiritual revelation. I wanted to know why. Why am I this way? Where did it come from? The search felt very important. The question felt grown-up. The quest, in itself, felt exultant. In the way young people do, I talked about it a lot.
There was a man in my life at the time who I regarded (at the time) to be very wise. Everyone called him Pop, for Christ sake, a title, I suppose, designed to shroud him in a veneer of wisdom and tenderness, so it’s no wonder I fell for it. Anyway, he said something like, “What difference does it make?” My response was something along the lines of, “If I can figure out why, then I can work to undo it. I can heal whatever wound that was, then… then, then, then.” And his response again was basically, “Who cares where it originated? That’s not important.” And boy, what disappointment ensued. Without the impetus to seek out the source, I was left alone with them. You know, me and my fucked up behaviors. Just us. Forever. Like the helpless characters in “No Exit”. Them, pursuing me. Me, pursuing something else. Forever and ever into eternity. He had a point, of course. But what he neglected to explain was that it doesn’t matter so much where they came from, as what they now serve.
A few years later that movie, “Good Will Hunting” came out. A great flick where Matt Damon plays a recalcitrant genius that refuses to honor his own gifts. Throughout the film, Damon’s character succeeds and fails. He goes to therapy and finds a support he never new. Triumph looms, and in the moment just preceding success, he rejects it all. He discards the possibility of his own happiness. Until, that is, Robin Williams (his wise and sad-sack therapist) helps him get in touch with a remarkably painful past. He endures the memories, cries it out, and then viola! He’s ready to become whole. He casts off his hermit-like solitude, goes after the girl, and opens his mind to the glory that can be his.
I bought it hook, line and sinker. I was moved, inspired. A friend of mine, older than me (in a time when the difference between seventeen and twenty felt like a whole lot), found it absurd. “It’s not like that!” she ranted. “You don’t become so deeply screwed up, have seven meaningful sessions with a great therapist, and then everything turns around. That’s not how it works.” And I realized she was right. It’s never just one thing. It’s a whole collection of experiences each of us harbor and feed on, combined with whatever was there before we were born. Our decisions and behaviors are nothing more than reactions to what takes place both actually, and chemically. While some of us are lucky enough to have powerful moments that inspire change, we then have to do the gruesome day to day work that is unlearning inborn or lifelong patterns.
So, now I’m thirty-one. A very weird age that’s both the beginning of the end of my youth and the beginning of I don’t know what. I suffer effects from some of the same weaknesses that plagued my youth. Though I’m pleased and relieved to report, it’s now a much, much quieter and less devastating affair. But these things are there, taking shape in adult ways. As my adult mind grows, and it does ever grow, the things that make living less than easy just fill the space. Adaptable fuckers. I guess that means if they were an element, they’d be water. The rest of me is definitely earth. Which makes sense, because the landscape of this particular consideration is mud.
Sometimes I wish I were a drug addict. Or a tear the walls down, wake up in Mexico three days later, alcoholic. I know all the NA and AA folks are shaking their knowing heads, thinking, oh no you don’t! But, sort of I do, because then I could have already gone through it. (I know, you’re always going through it, just suspend the disbelief a little, mmkay?) See, if I were a true addict of something, I could have suffered the indignities, found a concrete version of spirituality, and defined an abstinence. I could, day by day, work to maintain sobriety. The thing would be cut and dry. Addiction, and a drug eliminated. But I’m not really an addict. I’m just not. I have addictive behaviors, to be sure, but they shapeshift like a motherfucker. I indulge in this or that, but occasionally. Christ, I’m even a non-committal cigarette smoker. I go entire weekends, or longer, before I remember that I smoke, and think offhandedly, “Gee, a cigarette might be nice”. It’s almost disappointing…
What I have… Whatever it is that keeps me from fulfilling my own ambitions… is something I cannot, and have not ever been able to put my finger on.
Last month, I had to make a decision. It was – without hyperbole – the single most difficult decision I’ve ever had to make. I’m not gonna go into it, because it’s none of your business. The point is, I learned more about myself in a few short days than I’ve really learned about myself in years. I had one of those aforementioned powerful moments. I was in a position where many of the loosely defined goals I’ve had for myself for years became, in a flash, clear as crystal. The What I Wants and the Where I Ams were there, in the viewfinder of my brain, defined sharply in autofocus and Technicolor and high-motherfucking-definition. All the bullshit I tell myself about what’s possible, and what’s not, and when – now or later – or what I need to make it happen, or what would happen if I did, and what would happen if I didn’t, and what if I do but no one likes it, and what if I’m just not good enough, and what if I really can’t even if I try… All that was just blasted out of the swampy waters into something clear, and cool and beautiful. I could touch it. I could touch and feel and see a clear-cut path. My way to everything.
And now that it’s over, those waters are as they were. Without a crisis to turn the windshield wipers on, it seems, I’m driving blind here. “Hope” and “want” take the place of “do”, and I am not clear. I am not grounded.
On a slightly different topic (stay with me – it’ll all come back) my partner is one of those people who everyone loves, right away, immediately. He’s just a lovable, likable, immediately trustworthy and memorable character. We go to parties sometimes where we’ve met everyone before, and no one knows who the hell I am. Till they see him, that is, and then it’s all hugs and smiles. They remember him even though I sometimes wear outfits made entirely of sequins! Just the other day, he and I were telling a story, together, about something that happened to us. When he spoke, the listeners looked at him. When I spoke, they also looked at him. Frankly, I thought his rendition was somewhat unclear and tangential, where as I delivered hard facts dressed up in just enough embellishment to make for an exciting tell, and still. They were all about him. This was hard to accept when we first got to together. I joked, “People used to like me, too.” But now, I realize, it’s simply what we bring. It doesn’t matter if we speak in the same tone, gesture with the same flourish, or say verbatim what the other has said. Because what people respond to is all that invisible stuff that emanates from some hidden place. And his invisible stuff, apparently, has a universal appeal, where as my invisible stuff seems to be favored by folks with a different sort of palate. Or perhaps, by those who don’t rely on that first wave of nearly imperceptible information, and who stick around to see what comes next.
It’s what we bring. It’s what we show up with every day. And he and I do not come from the same place. He anticipates a warm reception, and guileless acceptance. He generally trusts until it’s proven that trust is not deserved. Basically the opposite of all those things are true for me.
And, praise jesus and yahweh and all the little angles and every rainbow and woodland creature and all the other godly things, it’s really okay. In this regard, the good news is, I no longer wonder why. I walk through this life difficult to love and be loved. I mistrust. I’m guarded. I think most people are assholes who are just plain not worth my time (though I’m not unreasonable – I’m willing to reassess and reconsider if it seems I’ve been hasty). The point is, I know why. The skies, in that direction, are clear. I can see way, way back to my very beginnings. They’re no more or less traumatic than anyone else’s, I suppose. It’s just that I’m super, extra-sensitive, and my brain tends to fire in all directions, so it still feels bad to spend time there. But I know. And it does matter to know, Pop, you arrogant shit head. It matters a lot. Because while I’m not able to go back and Spackle the holes in those walls, I can say there it all is. And so what of it? And mean it. Because where it matters, I am loved. And where there are gaps in what I desire from outside myself, I’m quite sturdy enough to supply from within.
However. Still, I stand here. And there, on the far side of some double black diamond mountains, remains a bunch of the Stuff I Want. I struggle. I force myself into the fray. And when I stumble, I point to the mountains and say, “But look. I had no snowshoes. I had no coat. I’m frostbitten and I’ve lost half a foot!” But. I know that if I were stronger I could explode those mountains into nothing. I could pad barefoot and light hearted right over to my fullest potential, scoop it up, and carry it home. But I swear, I don’t know how.
Despite my clarity in the one direction, in the other I still float like prehistoric plankton, flapping my useless cilia in the primordial gak of some subequatorial swamp. That analogy is overwrought, but so be it. It paints a picture of my frustration fairly accurately. Except that while we now all feel badly for the plankton – poor prehistoric plankton – no one, least of all myself, should pity me. Because at least I can say that if I fail. If I never get there – there with a capital T – at this point, I’ll have no one to blame but myself. And that is a strange sort of freedom for which I feel grateful.
I love the plankton analogy, it reminds me of being in a rowboat in a strong current with only one oar. Do we only have a small measure of control over our destiny or can we simply will the water in a different direction?