Monday, May 04, 2015
Old Farts and Their Insistence Upon Giving Advice...
When I was young, I usually resented it when some old fart insisted upon offering me their sage advice. It seemed that very little of the advice actually applied to my life in any way, and looking back, I can still say that some – but certainly not all – of that advice was really an attempt to get me to agree with their own mindset. Therefore, it is with no small measure of hesitation that I offer my own “sage advice” to younger folks in general, and to one young friend of whom I am particularly fond. So here goes…
First of all, I make no claim to being “wise.” To be honest, during the course of my life, I’ve screwed up and failed at far more than I’ve gotten right, and I don’t kid myself into believing that I’m finished screwing up. Any “wisdom” I might have achieved has occurred out of attrition, rather than mindful discovery, and reflects my attempt to be honest about my many failures. So take anything I say with a grain (no, a pound) of salt.
I’ve done some pretty ugly things in my life, and have to acknowledge that if Karma is absolute, I’ve got at least a couple more really virtuous lives to live before I can work it off. That being said, my deepest regrets as I move closer to my departure from this life than to my emergence into it are not for the things I’ve done, but rather for the things I haven’t done because I was afraid or felt I was unworthy. I need to say that again, because it’s emerged as a really important truth for me.
I am unworthy. The first girl I ever really loved was a neighbor girl down the street. She was a beautiful girl, and a genuinely good person, and therein lies the reason why I never even told her I cared about her. See, I was bad. Far too bad a kid to be deserving of a good girl. Most of the grownups knew how bad I was (I somehow offered them proof on a regular basis), and didn’t really hesitate in reminding me of that fact. They were adults, and I took their judgment very much to heart. Ironically, the little girl’s mother – Joy – was one of the few who didn’t despise me. But then again, I wasn’t going after her daughter.
I am afraid. While I was in college, there was a girl I used to hang out with – let’s call her Susie Homemaker –whose friendship I really enjoyed. We didn’t always agree about everything, but enjoyed our disagreements as much as our agreements and our shared experiences. We’d hang out all the time, and frequently tell each other how fortunate that we were to stay friends, and not screw up the friendship by being romantically involved with each other. We’d each date other people, and tell ourselves and each other that those relationships didn’t have any bearing on what we shared.
Everything was cool for a few years. That changed one night, when I was about to go into the Navy, and she was moving to Alaska with her then boyfriend. We were partying really hard that night, and I was incredibly high when it hit me: we were saying goodbye to each other, probably for keeps. And that scared me far more than I could have expected. Through the haze of my drug-addled brain, I realized something I’d hidden from for years: I’d been in love with her for a very long time, but had been afraid that revealing my true feelings would scare her away.
We eventually got away from our fellow partiers, and the truth burst out of me in a way I never allowed anyone to see. I broke down in tears and told her how I really felt, and she responded in kind. Seems that she had long felt that way about me, but figured those feelings weren’t returned. Turns out that she was afraid, just like me. But now, we’d cast our respective fates to different winds, and it was too late to change course. We hugged, cried together, kissed for the first and last time, and said our goodbyes. And we never saw or heard from each other again.
I don’t regret that she isn’t in my life now. Not really. I’m with a woman I love with all my heart, and have no desire to replace. In all honesty, even if Susie and I had followed our hearts, we’d have almost certainly ended our relationship after awhile, and it probably wouldn’t have been a particularly gentle parting. I ultimately learned the hard way that I wasn’t ready for a real relationship back then. She didn’t know the demons that dwelt in me, hidden away from everyone. Demons that would grow more virulent before being (hopefully) vanquished. But I do regret that we denied ourselves the opportunity to share something that could have been beautiful, even if only for awhile.
What is left from both these experiences is a hard lesson. I’ve never been afraid to confront others, but sacrificed things I cherished, simply because I was afraid of being hurt, of being discovered for the unworthy person I felt myself to be. The advice I would offer, to you, my young friend, and to those who, like me, are no longer young, but still have that frightened child living inside, is that love is the one thing that you should never turn away from, because you will regret doing so for the rest of your life. Better to “get the shit kicked out of you by love*” than to someday find yourself shadowed by “what if” and haunted by “if only.”
My next bit of hard-earned “wisdom” is one that most of us learn too late, and that applies to every aspect of our lives – our religion, our politics, our profession, and most certainly, our relationships.
We’ve all had jobs, relationships, and life circumstances that we figured were good enough, for now at least. I’ve learned, through repeated and often harsh examples, that “good enough” is the most insidious drug we can ever take. It is the active acknowledgment that we’ve given up, at least for the time being. We get comfortable.
Jobs. The job you have might be mind-numbing and frustrating, or even a lot of fun, but not be getting you any closer to where you dream of being. But hey, that regular paycheck sure takes the worries away, and your job title might make you feel important. Comfortably numb and effectively head-patted. Until you start getting accustomed to that paycheck and job title, and figure you can spend more, buy more, do more, and further burnish your badge of honor résumé. And like a drug, it eventually takes more for you to feel comfortably numb, even as that sense of yearning for what you really want keeps rearing its head. It’s a vicious cycle. This isn’t implying that you should blare the song, “Take This Job and Shove It” and walk immediately away. But look clearly at what your job, career, and even profession really provides for you, and if it isn’t serving to make you more like the person you dream of being, be open to clues that lead you to the job, career, or profession that does, and follow them as if your life depends upon it. And always know that you are far more than just your job title.
Relationships. To settle for a relationship that is good enough for now is to state that you don’t deserve or won’t find anything better. It is a surrender to the notion that you are less than what you really are, and acceptance of the notion that you’ll never have the love you dream of having. Unfortunately, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If your eyes are tightly closed, you will never see the sunshine, never revel at the wonder of a rainbow. And if you accept the comfort of a relationship that doesn’t serve to spark your passions (and not just sexual), dispel your fears, and help you realize your goodness as a person, while making you hunger to be an even better one, you won’t be able to see such an enriching relationship when it does come your way. And it will.
Get a better mirror; one that reflects more than your imperfections. One that also reflects the real beauty that others see, but that you don’t let yourself observe and acknowledge. Don’t rely so much on other people’s opinion of you, because they will often have their own agendas .For all your perceived flaws and shortcomings, there is a beauty in you that shines clearly for those who are capable of looking and seeing, and that far outshines any of those flaws. But you cannot show that beauty to those who don’t yet know you unless you begin to recognize its presence. Listen to those of us who truly love you, even though we seek nothing from you. We are there, all around you. Not looking to judge your fashion sense, but being touched by your heart. Open your eyes enough to consider that what we see must actually exist. We aren’t stupid, we aren’t blind, and we’re not trying to trick you or use you. We only want you to feel the joy that we know you deserve.
Life in general. Everyone’s life is a collection of countless details, some the products of our decisions, others existing by default. These include our geographical location, the hobbies and interests we pursue, and the many things we acquire as the years pass. Far too frequently, we simply accept without question or even much thought the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Just as frequently, we choose our circumstances based not upon what will make us better people, but rather upon what is simple, or worse, what helps us avoid things we find uncomfortable. Things that we fear.
I’ve learned – as always, the hard way – that personal security notwithstanding, fear is quite often a signpost that lets us know we’re going someplace new and unfamiliar. My own hard lessons have been the result of turning away from something new, only to later embrace the same experience and wish I hadn’t passed it up the first time around. On the other hand, I’ve found that the most wondrous times in my life came to pass when I faced my fears and followed a new path anyway. I stubbed some toes along the way, but learned that the bruises – even the worst of them – always heal, while the memories and lessons stay with me. And in retrospect, even situations that I found upsetting – even frightening – have more often than not turned out just fine.
Sometimes, the things we gather around us begin to define us. That’s not inherently bad, but we are best served if we recognize when that is happening, and consciously decide what to hold onto and what to set aside. My wife is admittedly obsessive about her huge collection of books. Where she has thousands of books, many of which she’s never read, she has a tough time bringing herself to get rid of any. I, on the other hand, have only a few that I keep, despite having bought many more throughout my life. Those that I particularly enjoyed, I passed along to others. Yet it is not my place to pass judgment on her decision to keep so many books. They are important to her, and besides, I have my own collectible fetishes, like the drawer full of knives I own, most of which I never carry, but enjoy nonetheless. In addition, I act on my own personal nature, which, while different than hers, is not necessarily better.
My core attitude toward things and circumstances in general is that everything in my life either serves me or is served by me. If something doesn’t really make me a better person or genuinely enrich my life in some way, I ask myself how much energy I use storing, protecting, and caring for it. If serving something in my life takes more energy than the pleasure it brings can justify, I set it aside or send it on its way to someone whom it will serve. This has definitely not been a wise investment strategy, but as anyone who knows me will attest, my preferred investments have always been in experiences, rather than things. I’d no doubt be better off financially now that I’m semi-retired, had I followed a more conventional strategy, but the experiences I’ve had are far more rewarding to me than a fat portfolio could ever be.
I’m not suggesting that anyone adopt my overly casual approach to circumstances and material things. Doing so would drive even some of my dearest friends crazy. That’s what happens when you try to do something that is contrary to your true nature. But once in awhile, it might be good to ask yourself whether the minutiae of your life is serving you, or if you’re serving it. Then give some thought to whom you’re in this life to serve. You might be surprised at the changes in your priorities..
The one way to break the good enough for now cycle is to realize that now is all you’ve got, and to stop wasting it. Repeat that phrase:
Your past is nothing but memories, and your future is a crap shoot. Learn from one, and consider (but don’t obsess upon) the other. Don’t let your future be defined and limited by your past. You are so much more than the sum of your mistakes or your victories. Stick enough of your Now into the Good Enough jar, and your future will be filled with so many regrets that there won’t be room for those most cherished memories. Better to devour and be nourished and thrilled by that Now, and add it to that store of moments you cherish. You’ll enjoy it more, especially when you grow so old that your memories are your most reliable companions.
The next time you find yourself saying the phrase “good enough” in describing some aspect of your life, realize that you may actually be prefacing it with the belief, if not the words, “I’m not.” Learn to accept that the people who truly know you and love you know better. You don’t have them fooled. So quit fooling yourself, especially with self-doubt and recrimination.
Well, that’s about all the advice I feel qualified to give. I don’t delude myself into believing that my advice is infallible, much less a guaranteed key to unlocking the joy that life has to offer you. Nobody has such a key, and besides, the door doesn’t even have a lock. All I can state with any conviction is that while I certainly haven’t found the path to enlightenment, I have spent enough time and energy on the path to sadness to ensure that I know it very well. My “advice,” then, is offered to help you avoid a path I followed for too many years, which brought me far more regret than happiness. To be better than I’ve been, with far fewer regrets. You deserve nothing less.
* – Tip of the hat to the delightful film, “Love, Actually.”