I was either born or molded into a perfectionist. I just wanted to put that out there. I also am, how should I say, not given to optimism. I do realize the power of an optimistic outlook. In fact, my stepfather is in his 80s and is known among friends and family as being able to ignore inconvenient truths and view the world through rose-colored glasses. Usually, I would look upon that with a certain disdain, as I studied psychological science and clinical practice, and took a number of classes at “the school of hard knocks,” if you will. This blog is about the challenge of optimism (for me at least) and dealing with “life on life’s terms.”
The folks at Alcoholics Anonymous have a saying, which is I think a quote by Reinhold Niebuhr: “God grant me the courage to change the things I can, the serenity to change the things I can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference.” That is full of pith, I tell ya. But the profound phrase in question is a reference to living life on life’s terms. This is a dictum that got me out of bed at 4:45 a.m., a good 3 hours early. I just couldn’t sleep – the true mark of a perfectionistic (dare I say, neurotic?) individual. My mother, dad, and sister have that nasty propensity in spades, unfortunately. But life is usually easier now, compared to what it has been at times in my past.
I realized fairly early in life that it wasn’t all wine and roses, as the poem goes. Being reminded of that phrase makes me remember my late, valuable friend John Alexander Marshall. We both were a huge fan of the trenchant line from an Ernest Dowson poem: “They are not long, the days of wine and roses.” That simple poetic snapshot has the power to bring a tear to one’s eye. I see that line and the idea of living life on life’s terms as related in a way. When I think about what living life on life’s terms means, I think it is a sharp way of denoting the fact that for all of us at many times in our lives, and some more than others, life is not going to be soft on us. It is akin to the question oft-asked by parents of children: Who said life is fair? Where is that written? <That is actually the quote from that fantastic movie, The Princess Bride, asked of Fred Savage by the grandfather, played by Peter Falk.
As I was indicating, my life was particularly challenging in high school, when I was plagued by self-doubt, low self-esteem, insecurity, and associated issues stemming largely from my home life (though, I realize that a person’s reaction to their environment is virtually inextricable, at least for all practical purposes, from their genes). Point being, I had it pretty rough for a while there. My family was breaking up and my parents were using their substances and drugs and we all were experiencing massive tumult and yet trying to maintain all positive outward appearances. I pitied and resented my father, and was often scared of my mother. Then I would go to high school and try to deal with life on life’s terms.
Though I believe I read in a developmental psychology textbook that adolescence need not be as forehead-slappingly difficult as some families experience it, or as folk wisdom would have it. But indeed, for many kids, life is brutal. They find it exceedingly difficult to live life on life’s terms. I realized at about 17 that I had a problem with depression, but I think that is not quite right. The issues that I think my family experiences isn’t true clinical depression, it’s a mish-mash of noxious symptoms that are some combination of dysphoria, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive thinking and behaving, and general neuroticism. It’s complex, vague, diffuse, and it ebbs and flows. I haven’t usually been so low that I couldn’t get out of bed, but many times I have sighed and meandered from bed over to the couch where I then began to stare at the ceiling. That is what depression is to me.
Which brings me back to my thesis. I was walking down the stairs this morning, feeling sort of pissed off that my little problems in life were keeping me awake at night, wondering if I was being neurotic or if I was really experiencing the dark side of life. What I mean is, I have always had a difficulty such that when I combine my mental prowess with my emotional difficulties and my perfectionism and the strain of living life on life’s terms, it can feel like a neurotic puzzle. I get why folks can become addicted to various substances or myriad defense mechanisms – it appears, at least in the beginning, to beat feeling shitty and plagued by neurotic thinking.
If you will forgive that previous, meandering paragraph, where I aim to go with that is that for someone like me, it’s not just the obvious stressor of joblessness, or a romantic breakup, or a physical illness. It’s more nuanced than that. It is shades of grey within a house of mirrors. It’s a dark place one goes.
This blog is not meant to be some kind of confessional, or emotion-dump on my unwitting reader. I want to reflect, finally, on living life on life’s terms. It’s rough. Did you know that suicide is the tenth leading cause of death for Americans? Think about how difficult every single method of suicide is, and then imagine the suffering that must obviously be the antecedent to that permanent act of anger, depression, frustration, giving up, and self-eradication. It’s like getting high or going to sleep or telling a boss or a loved one to go fuck themselves, if you will pardon the expression, yet doubly intense. Many Americans per year, despite our relative wealth and position and opportunities and advantages, choose to break their necks by hanging from a rope, or putting a bullet through their temple. This is a serious sign of a serious societal problem.
Living life on life’s terms. No “Get Out of Jail Free Cards.” No second or third chances. No 9th place trophies just for participating. It’s a wonderful way to characterize how absurd, challenging, galling, complex, brutal, and powerless we human beings can feel. Not only do we cause many problems for ourselves, but we are specks on a planet spinning at a thousand miles per hour circling the sun in a massive ellipse.
Two aspects of that paragraph stand out. One, “not only do we cause problems for ourselves…” That is really a salient fact worth meditating on. Think about how many problems human beings have to deal with in modern society that are really pretty damned foolish, absurd, or self-inflicted. It’s actually mind-boggling to think about how far we have come (sunk?) using this primate brain which surrounds a smaller, older mammalian brain, which sits atop a much more primitive reptilian brain. It’s true; many aspects of our 3.5-pound piece of meat inside our cranium, of which we use less than 20%, is still about the same as it was when we were early hominids. The same apparatus that helped us descend from the trees as advanced mammals to primates of advanced status roaming the savannah of Africa is still inside us. You have heard of “fight or flight,” or experienced an adrenaline rush, or been in a blind rage, or wanted to fuck someone you haven’t even met? This is the reptilian brain; it’s our evolutionary heritage. It kept us hiding, excreting, watching, mating, foraging, hunting, socializing, competing, and inventing millions of years ago. Yes, that CEO or physician or politician you read about is plagued by very archaic, primitive impulses and influences. It’s no wonder war, capitalism, slavery, murder, suicide, child molestation, and rape occur. We’re animals who wear clothes. We are genetically closer to the chimpanzee than a zebra is to a horse. No joke!
So yes, we cause problems for ourselves.
But we are also just insignificant little things – billions and billions of us – on one of billions and billions of planets orbiting billions and billions of stars. It’s mind-boggling. There is also the very real possibility that there isn’t just one universe, but many. Potentially an infinite number. It makes the worship of the “son” of an ancient god of the Sumerians or Canaanites regarded by many as obviously and undoubtedly the only one, true, all-powerful, benevolent, invisible, all-knowing god who loves the Jews but loves Christians a lot seem pathetically absurd.
The existentialists have something going, but it’s not emotionally reassuring. Their perception of our insignificance in a cold and dark universe is haunting, really. The enormity of that is crushing to consider. It does not indicate that we all have a special, loving relationship with a super-powerful sky god who chose the ancient Israelites because they were his children. Existentialism posits that life is absurd because we live in a world of billions of individuals trying with minimal success to be themselves in relation to others trying to do the exact same thing. “Hell is other people,” John-Paul Sartre famously said. “There is one true philosophical question, and that is suicide” noted Albert Camus. “It is the eternal silence of the infinite that scares me,” Blaise Pascal put it (paraphrased from memory). These are not reassuring ideas. There is a sliver of hope, and a wide array of opportunities for action and freedom. Or is there? A strict reading of philosophy indicates that it can’t be shown that we truly do have free will, but that our actions are all more or less determined.
My point of this whole piece is really that living life on life’s terms is a high challenge, for many reasons. Many persons have a very hard time of it much of the time, and we all have a very hard time of it at some point. We are born alone, we die alone, and we suffer aloneness through much of it. We step on each other’s toes, we harm each other, we feel very separate from each other, we make up lies, we ruin our only planet, we suffer. It really can feel very weighty, confusing, disturbing, and painful.
“Sooner or later, life makes a philosopher out of us all,” as the saying goes. This night, as many nights in my past, are marked by a keen sense of the absurdity of life, the difficulty of it, and the myopia and dysfunction that plague many of us to a great degree. “Life is a tragedy for those who think, and a comedy for those who feel,” La Bruyere wrote. Perhaps I am too “in my head” and too reflective and skeptical for my own good. I can’t help but feel that life would be simpler if I were dumber. A shallow existence, or one that concocts an elaborate story about how we are all connected, or how God exists and indeed loves each of us, or one focused on pedantic and pedestrian concerns and tasks such as getting one over on your fellow citizen, following America’s Showman in Chief, or using drugs to cope, seems not that foolish, really.
It leads to questions of where this all leaves me. As I sit here realizing that the night is long and dark, I also know that the sun also rises, as Hemingway (who shot himself with a shotgun as an end to a remarkable, manic and depressed existence) put it. There are many comforts, and they assuage anxieties and dispiriting feelings to some degree. Maybe we are all “one,” as is claimed. Perhaps God is what I need to feel whole. Maybe my family (nuclear and parental) really does love me. Perhaps there is a path that can be found.
But that is probably another blog for another day.
For now, I think it is success enough to simply have gotten these thoughts out. It is usually therapeutic for me to write, journal, whathaveyou. It works for many people; it underlies part of the enduring strength of psychotherapy. Part of the dismal existence for many people is that they don’t have good outlets for the frustration, disappointment, loneliness, and rage that plague us all to some degree, and some of us to an alarming degree. Show me a school shooter who is well-adjusted and socially-integrated and from a functional family…
None of this is helpful for the soul or the body. I place a great emphasis on truth and insight, but sometimes that tendency combined with perfectionism and being self-employed can really subject me to self-evaluation, hyperfocusing, and a glass-half-empty view of the world. I am not sure that the more intelligent one is, the more they suffer for their perceptiveness, but it sometimes feels right. But I do know that stress is not good overall. Hostility is a precursor of heart attack. Worry makes the journey too long and too challenging. Perhaps the apparently-simplistic idea of not sweating the small stuff is wise beyond measure. It’s hard for many of us who are somewhat “type A” to “turn it off” and just enjoy the journey. Considering that no one gets out of here alive, missing what can be enjoyed along the journey is a pernicious habit.
This morning, I feel I had to put pen to paper. In my loneliest hours, that was always my best coping mechanism and anchor to sanity. I am reflecting on the fact that a rare few of us will wake up on our yacht, maybe get in a swim, play some poker, smoke a cigar, perhaps tan, probably have a whiskey, maybe call in a directive to their assistant back in New York, engaging in a relatively meaningless and solipsistic existence. Indeed, the world is turning at a thousand miles an hour, and most of us live lives of quiet desperation, as Thoreau put it, or searing pain. Many kids go to bed hungry, are missing dads, and face bullying and violence in their communities. Donald Trump is president. Pharmaceutical companies lobby the semi-corrupt government for ways to manipulate us for money, thereby causing some folks to choose not to vaccinate their children. Cars are being recalled for safety issues. Children are being molested or kept as sex slaves. Our national debt is over $20,000,000,000,000 and growing daily. A fair number of us will take our own lives today, and there may very well be another of the increasingly-devastating phenomenon of school shooting followed by NRA countermeasures to gun control. There are human beings involved in war, famine, disease, and sundry forms of pain. Millions of us wake up and go to sleep in prisons, in many cases for dubious offenses or racism and classism, and that is because they have a propensity toward violence or society screwed them or they fucked up or they are plagued by the human condition, and it costs us $35,000 a year for them to be there. Many people will be sexually harassed or fired for a very sketchy reason (and millions are working in dead-end jobs for companies like Walmart, or producing bullshit like the company Monsanto). I will feel like I am carrying too much weight, but be relatively passive and hedonistic in my willingness to eat comfort foods. Liberals will get tarred and feathered today, and the 24-hour news cycle will drone on incessantly, endlessly, monotonously. Newspapers will fail to really do their highest and best societal role, primarily trying to sell papers and invent copy. My dad, John, and my dog Atlas will remain dead today as they were yesterday and as they will be tomorrow. Kids will stare at their screens, literally never learning how to write in cursive with a pen. Dentists will trudge through their vacuous and disgusting workdays, again, for what feels like or really is the thousandth time. Poor people will go without, and they won’t be motivated to try all that hard. Walmart will continue to exist. Apple and Google will play an outsized role in my life as they attempt to make money for their upper management and their shareholders and dominate the market. The market will still be fairly characterized as crony-capitalistic. I will get closer to dying of probably cancer. Foods will be sprayed with toxic substances and stored in nitrogen and refrigeration and shipped across the globe by gas-guzzling airplanes and rusty old cargo ships. Fracking will go on unabated. The schooling in this country is weak at the lower levels and expensive at the upper. Animals will suffer due to human activity and callousness. The planet will grow more laden with carbon dioxide and methane. I will take my meds as a way to try to feel better about living life on life’s terms, perhaps as a way to avoid doing the real work required to grow and cope. An alarmingly high number of scientists will either cheat or be mistaken in their research, and a journal will be lazy or ignorant or corrupt enough to publish it. Many scientists will do work that will never see publication. Millions of us will struggle emotionally, want for material insufficiency, and fail to have legitimate political representation. Most Americans will not vote in the critical midterm elections coming up. A huge number of Americans will not read today because they cannot. Those who can probably won’t, because they don’t make the time or have to work hard to try to make ends meet. I will live with glaucoma. My wife will maybe experience another day where she eats a cheeseburger and chips for dinner and a milkshake for dessert. My dog will very possibly chew the couch, and the other one, who will probably be dead next year, will lick her own ass, thereby wetting the couch, thereby causing great frustration for my wife and me. Living life on life’s terms can range from highly inconvenient to very disturbing to simply too much to take.
I will ask if any of this is fair, or the mark of a good and all-seeing God on high. I tend to feel that it isn’t in both cases, and ponder if life is worth the pain of living. Maybe I should just go back to bed. And so I shall.
Fulfillment and Happiness Are Worthy Goals is the title of a previous blog. If you didn’t turn off your computer in exhaustion after reading this blog about living life on life’s terms, maybe try that one. And I appreciate your readership.
After reading this whiskey shot of a blog, you might want to taste the sweet chaser of a Pepsi that this external blog about goal-attainment, success, and happiness describes.