Remember this song?
Hello, my name is Joe. I work in a button factory. I have a wife, a dog and a family. One day, my boss came up to me and said, “Hey Joe are you busy?” and I said “No.” He said “Ok, turn the button with your left hand.”
It goes on a few verses to add your right hand, left foot and right foot until in the fifth verse Joe answers “Yes” to his boss’s question.
Life is sort of like that. One day, you may wake up and find yourself asking “How in the hell did I get hoodwinked into turning all these fucking buttons?”
That happened to me a little while ago. After a long period of intense schooling and work that did not permit any life outside of my professional pursuits, including any care for the soul, I found a job that suddenly permitted me time outside of work. Far from being a welcome relief, this extra time simply became the floodplain into which years of dammed thoughts and emotions burst forth.
I began to feel constrained by my marriage and my family and my newly “safe” career – by my responsible, boring adult life. What the fuck happened? This is not what I signed up for; this is not what I wanted. What I woke up to wanting was to return to a passionate, fun-filled embrace of life where every moment was higher than the previous one. I wanted to be in a relationship of joyous acceptance with a fun, carefree woman who was consumed in her love for me as much as I was consumed in my love for her, where we had no other cares or concerns other than exploring the world and each other, together, with eyes and hearts wide open. Freedom and possibility loomed large.
But when I refocused my eyes from their farsighted dreaming to the wakeful reality of my life what I saw was a house with a few holes in the walls that sat unrepaired for years, the yard laid waste by my children, laundry a permanent fixture on the living room couch, dirty dishes the newest kitchen accessory, children begging for attention, an exhausted wife sitting on a chair lost in a game, a show or a book on an ipad just barely hanging on to her sanity with barely a bit of emotional energy left for me to spend an hour or two with me every couple of days. Yeah, it was grim.
The pain of seeing what I longed for compared with what I had was exquisite. Accepting the fact that the life I was leading was not the life that I wanted was extraordinarily difficult. There is so much fear and unknown wrapped up in facing our most difficult, and perhaps shameful, thoughts and feelings. Part of it is the feeling of not knowing what it all means. What does it mean that I’m living a life I didn’t think I’d be living? What does it mean that I don’t have what I want? This is likely why we avoid facing it for as long as possible.
I realized that I had made decisions that, in retrospect, were poorly approached and poorly executed. I married young when my wife and I were in love enough to want to be together but not loving (or mature) enough to refrain from hurting one another deeply. I also spent many of these early years in school, racking up a small (negative) fortune in student loans. I brought children into the world. In short, I spent the years of my life when I could have been doing whatever I wanted doing things that I thought “should” be done – things that went a long way to creating the obligations I now bear.
Unfortunately, time does not heal all wounds, but merely covers them with scar tissue. The bursting of the dam flooded me with these unresolved pains of years past. I began to think about whether I would be better off leaving my marriage and seeking my happiness in the wide world. I began to think what it would be like to start “meeting people” again, trying to develop new relationships. In my mind’s eye, I fleshed out the type of woman that I would seek – in addition to being fun, carefree, loving and accepting, I would want to be with someone that is passionate, beautiful, smart, athletic and outdoorsy. My fantasies were wonderfully freeing to explore – I lived entire episodes of life in my mind without any fear – of consequences at home or of rejection “out there”.
At the same time, I contemplated two contemporaneous real-life examples of men who had left their wives and families to seek their happiness with another woman – one with whom I have a close relationship and another whom I read about in an article online. Circumscribing their stories, the takeaway was succinctly put by the man in the online article. He described the crux of his situation to his newfound beau – “The choice is pain or more pain.” I felt for this man. I felt for my friend. I understood exactly how they felt, and I did not and do not fault them for trying to make the right decisions for them and their situations.
I decided to stay with my wife for two reasons. The first is that while I was imagining a wild and carefree life with “the woman of my dreams”, I carried my fantasy to its logical conclusion…the woman of my dreams would ultimately grow restless and say, “Ok. That’s enough. I want a house and kids and to move on to the next stage of life. I feel like I’m stagnating.” Call it a nesting instinct or what you will, but I guarantee you that no matter the relationship, the person you start out with will not long remain that person (and neither will you). In other words, I would end up in exactly the same scenario that I’m in now. And wouldn’t you know it? The woman I described as my “dream woman”? It described none other than my wife. The few characteristics that I felt were lacking were not lacking so much as prevented from expression. Once we began discussing our scabbed-over scars and let go of our pain, we freed ourselves to be for one another what we had always wanted and longed for. It also freed us to be able to say “this is what makes me happy; this is what I need” and to be able to meaningfully sacrifice for one another’s happiness.
The second reason is that I agreed with the man in the internet article: the choice really is between pain and more pain, but his phrasing lacks pronouns. Re-worded, it goes like this: “the choice is my pain or their pain.” Leaving my wife and kids to seek my own happiness at their expense was…unimaginably stupid, so I chose my own pain. And it’s not what you might think. My pain wasn’t begrudgingly accepting a life I didn’t want. It was allowing that part of me to die that mourned the mistakes of my past so that a love for the present could be given space to grow, like an old rotten tree crashing to the forest floor clearing room in the canopy for young shoots to bask in the sun’s radiance.
Hello, my name is Joe, and I work in a button factory. I have a wife, a dog and a family. One day I decided to embrace the pain of my past so that I could finally live in the present. I push the buttons I need to in order to enable my happiness and the happiness of my wife and family and friends. That is my life, and it is enough.