Rough and Rowdy Ways

I love music. It can be so beautiful and so powerful. I particularly love songs that capture pieces of my soul, that reflect my thoughts or emotions or that give voice to what I have heretofore found to be inexpressible.

At one point in my life, I have been religiously Christian – a true believer, performing the outward ordinances and keeping the observances that kept me “in the fold” of the religious community of which I was a part. I am no longer part of that religious fold, having undertaken a journey marked by three wayposts.

The first was the day that I decided guilt was a worthless emotion and to which I would no longer pay any attention. Before then, I had always felt guilty – even before I was religious. I always fell short of someone else’s standard, be it my father’s or my religion’s. I simply became tired of feeling guilty, always worried that what I was doing, or even what I was, was not good enough or what it “should” be. Why spend my entire life ashamed that I am not something that I simply am not? Why, indeed, would God create me the way I am, and then spend every resource trying to convince me to be something else?

The second was the day I learned that the opposite of love is not hate; it is shame. The problem when you feel ashamed of being different from a social construct is that it is very difficult to question the social construct. Ingrained in a young child is the law that a child must conform to his surroundings and not the other way around. How is it that as this child grows that he would question this most fundamental of laws? However, I finally began to accept that my problem of being ashamed wasn’t because there was something wrong with me. It was the authority figures that had surrounded me – first, my father and later, my religion. I physically left my father when I could and emotionally broke free somewhere along the way (normal boyish yearning for what can never be aside).

As to my religion, and despite the use of terms such as “authority” and “leader”, I realized that such people were neither. They neither had “authority” over me; nor did they “lead” me, unless I chose to follow, unless I gave them control. Putting aside uniquely religious doctrines and observances, fealty to which is required to be embraced in the religion and which in my mind have little real import, what authority is required to love God, to love your neighbor or to care for the widows and orphans? If this is true religion, what place does authority take, other than the position that it wrests for itself? A sad discussion for another day.

Having broken the spell of being a “subject” to this “authority”, I realized that if something makes me feel ashamed, I can correct that problem, not by “repenting” and better conforming myself to the thing that makes me feel ashamed, but by jettisoning the thing that makes me feel ashamed. Reject that which evokes shame and embrace that which kindles love! I am what I am. If God made me, and I am this way, who am I to be ashamed of it? I used to think that life was about “growth” and “development” in the sense of changing “bad” things about me and becoming “better”. Now, I think that’s largely bullshit – life is about discovery and acceptance. What others term “growth” is what I think occurs when you discover who you are and you learn to accept it. This is not a cop-out to excuse “bad” or hurtful behavior, either – my point is simply that love is much more powerful and motivating than shame. In particular, when someone uses shame to try to control or force change, examining their self-interested motivations becomes much more important than when “constructive criticism” is motivated by love. In the latter you can trust, in the former you can’t.

The third was some years later as I was running on the treadmill in my company’s gym and a familiar song played over my ipod. The song is “Down in the Valley” by The Head and the Heart. The opening lines are these:

I wish I was a slave to an age-old trade
Like ridin’ around on railcars and workin’ long days
Lord have mercy on my rough and rowdy ways
Lord have mercy on my rough and rowdy ways

Acceptance requires humility since all of us eventually find out that what we are includes things of which we are not proud – tempers, jealousies, desires, fears, weaknesses. For whatever reason, this day these lines cleaved my shell and sank deep into my soul. I felt peace, and I felt prepared to stand before God, exposed, without shame, simply asking “Lord have mercy on my rough and rowdy ways.” I no longer felt any desire to mask these parts of me, to pretend that they didn’t exist or that they weren’t so bad or that I could overcome them by just choosing to act differently. Always acting, ever acting, forever – well, no more.

Few songs have the ability to capture so much of what I am in so few words and with such an exquisite arrangement combining music and song and silence and wonderful pacing changes and hauntingly beautiful exclamations:

Down in the valley with
Whiskey rivers
These are the places you will find me hidin’
These are the places I will always go
These are the places I will always go
I am on my way
I am on my way
I am on my way back to where I started
Oh-oh…

This journey, as chagrined as I am that it has taken me so long to come so short a distance, has brought me to me. Or to paraphrase T.S. Eliot:

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know [ourselves] for the first time.

Thou mayest

Rules are for the obedience of fools, and the guidance of wise men.” – Douglas Bader

Unfortunately, I have succumbed to my own rule against intellectual porn in running across this quote somewhere (it wasn’t Pinterest!), and I can’t seem to find any context other than that the guy was a bit of a rule-breaker. In any event, I shall borrow the phrase and try to provide my own context as I try to tie together the long-winded journey I have taken through should, s’pose’da, the democratization of selfishness and embracing responsibility.

The world is full of people with opinions of what is right and good. Put all that aside to focus on one simple truth – you are the one who chooses what path your life takes and you are the one who will bear the consequences of your choices. Others may try to deceive, flatter, assuage, persuade or reason with you into behaving in ways they feel most appropriate, but you ultimately must choose and act, perhaps sometimes in accordance with external pressure and perhaps sometimes against.

No matter what you choose, you will be able to find people who are more or less like-minded and you will be able to join with them. However, if your beliefs and values are important to you, you may never find a perfect match once all the nuances are considered, but you can probably get close. As for that final yard of difference…well, the cost of holding on to your beliefs and values may be isolation and loneliness and whether that is a price worth paying is what you will have to consider.

Choosing is a process and a journey, one that is much more important than the result of any particular choice. Any particular poor choice can be learned from and potentially even corrected in subsequent choices. What is so important about the process is that it is the process by which we explore the most important life that will ever exist for us and the only one over which we have any semblance of control – our own.  Perhaps this journey is what the poet T.S. Eliot meant when he wrote these words about exploration:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
– Little Gidding, section V

Applying these final thoughts to a trio of characters from East of Eden, let’s follow the way certain verses of the Old Testament impact the life and journey of Sam, Adam and Lee. At first, Lee, a Chinese thinker and servant, describes the process of trying to understand the verses when he took them to the Chinese wise men to ponder them:

“The questions, the inspection, oh, the lovely thinking – the beautiful thinking.” Page 301.

What they were trying to understand was whether the English translations of a verse in the Cain and Abel story meant that man is ordered to triumph over sin or promised that he will triumph over sin.  After this beautiful thinking, they came to the conclusion that the correct interpretation of the verse is that man may triumph over sin – that the choice is his. The importance of the distinction? 

“’Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice…And I feel that I am a man. And I feel that a man is a very important thing – maybe more important than a star. This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed – because ‘Thou mayest.’” Page 301-302.

This was a revelation to the three men. Sam, embracing the possibility of the human soul for growth and for being able to handle more than others might think possible, decides to no longer shield Adam from a potentially devastating piece of information. He decides to let Adam choose whether to take “a medicine that might cure you and also might kill you,” regardless of the fact that he is not certain whether Adam can handle it. Sam is ready to take whatever blame may come if the “medicine” destroys Adam. The information ultimately is proven to be a medicine, and Adam is able to recover from the shock of this new knowledge and to re-start his life as a result of it.

Finally, Lee and Adam discussed the importance of this concept ‘Thou mayest’ to Sam after Sam had died:

“[The concept of ‘Thou mayest’] set him free,” said Lee. “It gave him the right to be a man, separate from every other man.”
“That’s lonely.”
“All great and precious things are lonely.”  Page 520

Your soul is too important to just give it over without thought in obedience to any system. It is foolish to do so. Apply some beautiful thinking to your life. Examine what is uniquely important to you, and live your life accordingly. Upon reflection, some of the rules you currently find yourself under may provide you useful direction, but if those rules, created by some authority figure via some unknown process influenced by unknown factors for an unknown purpose, conflict with what you feel is right, whose side will you choose?

Responsibility vs Blame

If you look up the definitions of “responsibility” and “blame”, you’ll find that they can be somewhat circular.  “Responsibility” can be defined as “the fact of being to blame for something” while “blame” can be defined as “the responsibility for a fault or wrong”.  However, responsibility has additional definitions indicating that it has broader usage.

Responsibility can be used both pre-decision, as in, “I’ll take responsibility for making the decision” and post-consequence, as in, “I’ll take responsibility for the fall-out.”  It can also be used affirmatively, as in, “I accept responsibility” or negatively, as in, “I shirk responsibility.”  As a result, responsibility is a fairly neutral word and requires additional context to understand which flavor of responsibility is connoted.  On the other hand, blame deals exclusively with the fall-out from negative consequences.  No one accepts blame for a job well done or a good decision, and it is therefore much less subtle than responsibility.

Recalling a couple of prior posts, embracing should and s’pose’da brings with it a certain safety – the safety of belonging to the selfsame herd from which should and s’pose’da gain their meaning. Maybe the desire to belong to the herd is the desire to avoid the fear of being alone – of being singled out, separate and alone, having to hang in the wind by yourself, or of stepping away from the known and comfortable (no hell is more comfortable than the one you know).

In nature documentaries, the narration of a wolf or lion hunt inevitable contains the phrase “the predators work together to single out the weak or young or old from the protection of the herd.”  Perhaps we humans, being social animals after all, have an instinctive fear of being singled out because it means instant death.

In modern times in the developed world, however, the danger is not from wolves or lions that separate, attack and kill those cut from the herd, the danger comes from the herd itself.  Consider this description of sheepthink, as applied to the army, in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden:

“After a while, you’ll think no thought the others do not think. You’ll know no word the others can’t say. And you’ll do things because the others do them. You’ll feel the danger in any difference whatever – a danger to the whole crowd of like-thinking, like-acting men…Once in a while there is a man who won’t do what is demanded of him, and do you know what happens? The whole machine devotes itself coldly to the destruction of his difference. They’ll beat your spirit and your nerves, your body and your mind, with iron rods until the dangerous difference goes out of you.”  Page 25.

Or this description of how the herd protects itself from internal attack from page 131:

“I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind, for that is the one thing which can by inspection destroy such a system.”

One way the herd beats you into submission is heaping blame on you for rejecting their should and s’pose’da. This is regardless of whether your separateness results in greater or lesser happiness or success.  The result is inconsequential; you are blameworthy simply for being different. Ironically, at the same time, the herd allows you to shirk responsibility for the consequences of your actions.  Whatever the herd’s faults, it is an enabling herd. When the herd’s wisdom is wrong, blame is softened and responsibility is obscured because failing according to the rules can be waved away with “it was just bad luck” or “it comes with the territory” or “it’s a rite of passage” or “it’s just the way things were supposed to happen”.

However, when you separate yourself from the herd, the opposite happens – responsibility falls heavily on your lonesome shoulders, and it may be lesser or greater depending on the wisdom of the decision made or action taken.  But the former herd will mercilessly heap scorn and blame, whether deserved or undeserved. As a result, cutting oneself from the herd requires extraordinary strength and belief in oneself, for when “men do not trust themselves any more…there is nothing left except perhaps to find some strong sure man, even though he may be wrong, and to dangle from his coattails.” (East of Eden, Page 12). For a more modern bent on the concept, Alison Wood Brooks, a professor at Harvard Business School is quoted here as saying, “[A]nxious individuals seek out and rely more heavily on advice, even when the advice is obviously bad, because they do not feel confident in their own ability to make good judgments.”

This may be a harsh way to frame the issue – to suggest that followers are simply weak and that only the strong are truly independent. However, as I’ve stated before, what really happens is not that an individual cuts off all belonging, but only that an individual is able to choose to which group to belong. It is the act of affirmatively choosing that is important – of considering, of weighing, of thinking and of embracing the heavy responsibility and the breathtaking opportunity contained therein– this is what constitutes living.

It may very well be that the result you come to is what your (former) group would consider “coming to your senses” or “coming home”, but the important thing to remember if you do decide to “come home” is that the decision will be yours for the first time. It will not have been a mere blind acceptance of “what is and always has been and always will be” but an eyes-wide-open deliberate choice. How the group embraces you upon your return is much more a reflection on them than on you.

In East of Eden, one of the characters, Sam, makes a decision to reveal a potentially devastating piece of information to another character, Adam, based on his (Sam’s) own judgment that revealing the information was “a medicine that might cure you and also might kill you.” Sam says, “I think for once I will not be careful. Lee [a third character], if I am wrong – listen – if I am mistaken, I accept the responsibility and I will take what blame there is to take.”  Lee responds “Are you sure you’re right?”  Sam replies, “Of course I’m not sure. Adam do you want the medicine?” Adam says yes and off they go.  (See page 304.)

No one is ever sure that they’re right. No one CAN ever be sure they’re right because the future cannot be known ex ante. Everyone makes choices based on the best information available at the time. The question is, are you willing to stand on your own and take the blame or do you stand, unquestioning yet protected, in the group?

The Democratization of Selfishness

I’m no anthropologist, but I like to think that the genesis of should and s’pose’da in many cases is accumulated wisdom passed along through generations like an oral tradition.  Unfortunately, this is not without its pitfalls, even if it were to account for all of the shoulds and s’pose’das out there.

But humor me for a moment and take a completely unsubstantiated trip down memory lane with me. Back in the day, when human social groups were smaller family groups or tribes, I imagine that any human group followed a fairly strict set of survival rules. Individuality for tribe members never really entered the equation since individuals on their own would simply die without the support and protection afforded by the social group. As a result, while you might have power struggles over who would be the leader, I don’t imagine there was a ton of fighting over what the survival rules (i.e., stick together) were. Even as a mere guess, I think this is probably right since humans are described as “the social animal” (I’m sure the phrase has been used somewhere, but I’m too lazy to cite it, much less research it).

Consider the structure of these pre-modern groups or tribes in more detail.  An elite person or group of people probably made the rules.  Perhaps they were bound by certain historical rules, which seemed to have worked fine for generations, or perhaps new societies and new rules were created out of whole cloth.  In either case, the group making the rules is the leaders. Probably some rulers were “good” and some were not so good, but I think it’s fair to say that each of these were “selfish” in the sense that they made the ultimate determination as to not only the rules, but what considerations were important or definitive in making those rules. In short, they determined what was “right”. As noted above, survival dictated that differences of opinion were sharply limited – your choices were to leave the group and probably die, to hew the party line even if it chaffed, or to lead a probably bloody revolution. Consider the prototypical ancient government (other than Athens for a brief period) being that of a monarchy or oligarchy.

In contrast, in modern times, in the developed world, increased freedom from government and economic forces has broken these traditional bands. We are no longer limited to the family, community or nation in which we were born. If we feel different and want to find a new tribe, with the proper motivation, there’s not much problem in moving to a new place (either physically or socially) to try. As a result, traditional definitional lines have become much more amorphous than in the past. No longer is last name or race or nationality or ethnicity enough to fully define a group of like-minded people.

New-age groups are defined by commonality of thought, belief and value – things that we control and that can change.  What this means is that you no longer have to conform your opinions, thoughts, beliefs and values to remain part of a group. Instead, you have the freedom to leave a group that chaffs or ostracizes and to find a group suitable for you. In this day and age, there seems to be a lid for every pot.

Some bemoan this new ability to cut ties as a “waning of belonging”, as described in this passage:

“But in these days of the liberation movements, some voices say that we are not really free until we break loose from all binding relationships and commitments. Belonging seems to them enslaving rather than enriching. Yet those who break loose from the bonds of commitment are likely to replace their previous sense of belonging only with a sense of longing. Then this age of apparent liberation also becomes an age of isolation and loneliness. Ours is the age of the waning of belonging.”

Such attitudes fail to take account of the distinction between who gets to decide what it means to belong. In the old days, leaders were able to impose their own (selfish) definition of what the rules were and everyone was more or less forced to abide by those rules; therefore everyone forever “belonged” to the group they started in. Today, followers can choose which leader to follow. It’s not that people wish to belong to nothing; it’s that they want to choose to whom and to what they belong. Existing leaders have lost power over those born into their systems. Mobility among competing philosophical and familial systems has increased; selfishness has become democratized.

The irony, of course, is that even thought-groups are not free from the assumption that if you belong to the group you have the same group of thoughts and beliefs as the leader has defined for the group. It is as if you have freedom of choice, but only the first time – once you choose to join the group on the basis of commonality over certain beliefs, then you’re locked in to the nuance that hadn’t previously been explored by or explained to you. In essence, you’ve given up your freedom to choose the interpretation or the implementation of your choice. In that sense it is true that the cost of democratized selfishness may include increased isolation and loneliness, but that may be an appropriate price to pay to be true to yourself. Of course, maybe it was a feeling of isolation and loneliness, not belonging, that caused you to want to leave a group in the first place.

As a final note, this is not to say that it is wise, or kind, to abandon the newly selfish (particularly teenagers) to their choices or their freedom to choose. But what it does mean is that we provide our children the tools to make good choices without providing the answers of what we think the right answers are.

Sounds to me like someone’s got a case of the “s’pose’das”

I recently shared my views of the word “should”.  Its close cousin is “s’pose’da” (supposed to).  I often hear this used in the expression, “everything will happen as it’s supposed to” or “everything happens for a reason” or “that’s not how it’s supposed to be” or variations thereon.  The context where these types of expressions are used is typically when faced with a difficult or ambiguous choice or scenario. 

The reason the diction is interesting to me is that it attempts to shift responsibility entirely to some force outside of oneself.  It betrays an underlying belief in fatalism and rejection of your responsibility for the consequences of your choices or of your responsibility for the situation you find yourself in. It fails to consider the complexity of the situation, but rather summarily dismisses the complexity as if it did not exist at all.

I understand the urge to simplify when you begin to feel overwhelmed. To be able to summarize a series of ambiguous or complex actions, choices or scenarios can be hugely relieving.  But it cheapens human experience when, like with s’pose’da, the summary overshoots, and simplification veers to willful ignorance of reality or abdication of one’s will.

As a fairly simple example, I recently replaced the front door to my house.  I had watched some videos online to ensure that what would be required would be within my carpentry skills, and I was fairly confident that I could do what was shown in the videos.  However, my confidence waned slightly as I considered the actual dimensions and construction of my door and its framing. 

Nevertheless, we went to the local home center and purchased a door.  Upon returning home, we began to tear out the old door and ran into a snag – the construction of the exterior molding would necessitate far more removal of material than any of the videos we had reviewed anticipated.  “This is going to be a big job,” I sighed to my wife, as I considered how many layers of material we were removing and how each would need to be replaced. 

My fear of getting in over our heads was palpable, and I could have let myself become overwhelmed at the complexity of what needed to be done or even started to cast about for something to blame.  At a certain point, we passed the point of no return – there was no way the old door could be salvaged, and if we wanted a door to our home that night, we would need to figure it out and no amount of “this wasn’t how it was supposed to go” would help.  At that point, the point of no return, the fear vanished, replaced with determination.  “Well, there’s nothing to do now but get it fixed,” I remarked to my wife.   And so we did, step by step, layer by layer, until, a few hours later, the new door opened and closed beautifully. 

People are remarkably adept at adjusting to their circumstances, no matter how difficult or ambiguous, once those circumstances are accepted, provided that they also embrace the opportunity and responsibility to change those circumstances.  Conversely, humans function remarkably poorly when that responsibility is viewed as a burden unfairly placed on them by life or God or fate.  But this is what many do.  For some reason, it seems easier for many to abdicate responsibility for choices and/or their outcome into the ether, like blowing on a dandelion and letting the wind take the seeds where they’re “supposed to” go. 

However, the blowing wind does not rend the responsibility for our choices from the responsibility for the consequences of our choices. Yes, the wind may blow the seeds of our choices to fertile valleys or to barren deserts, but consequences sprout from those choices and from nowhere else. S’pose’da obfuscates this view of reality.  It reinforces a belief that you are weak or incapable – that you can’t deal with difficult situations, whether brought about by your own poor choices or not, that you are merely a victim of an (clearly callous) external force.  What must necessarily follow from this belief is that if you are not responsible for the consequences of your choices or situation, then there’s no ability to make new, better choices or to improve your situation. You are trapped by the whims of fate. There’s no point in learning, no potential for growth, so you remain like a rat in an electrified maze, unable to change and cowering in fear awaiting the next shock.

If, however, you accept responsibility for the consequences of your choices, including that of a situation not entirely of your own making, you always retain the power and ability and confidence to make new, perhaps better, choices.  Like my door, if you break it, you can fix it; if someone else breaks it, you can fix it.  We are responsible for our choices because we and we alone will bear the full brunt of the consequences of our choices. We are responsible for our situations because we and we alone must live in the situation we find ourselves in and in which we choose to remain.  

This is not some motivational speech either. Princes obviously have a different set of choices than paupers. You can’t just positive-think your way from poverty to riches, from paraplegic to marathoner, from Nazi death camp prisoner to free man.  If your situation is truly such that it cannot be changed, your array of choices to influence the external world may be incredibly narrow, and that sucks.  But regardless of your situation, options exist, and you have the opportunity and responsibility to choose among whatever limited set of options you may be given. No matter your situation, you still choose how you treat the people you come in contact with, what you think about, what you love.

A final note – this post does not remotely address the issue of a person’s responsibility to another or the appropriate manner of relating to “the unfortunate”. As a result, it is not intended as a speech a rich person reads to a poor one with the “advice” to “lift yourself up by your bootstraps, you lazy bum”. It is solely a discussion of a person’s relationship to herself – the idea that personal responsibility leads to personal freedom, within the confines of each person’s unique sphere of possibility. 

 Title from an episode of the Simpsons. 

Should

should /shood/

verb.  1) used to indicate obligation, duty or correctness, typically when criticizing someone’s actions.  (Google result for searching “should definition”; accessed at the time of writing).

I despise the word “should”.  It’s bullshit.  Ok, maybe that’s not fair.  It’s just a word.  But it’s the concept that I despise, and it is everywhere.  The most appropriate response when someone tells you what you should do (pre-decision or action) or that you shouldn’t have done something (post-decision or action) is: “Fuck you.”

“Should” works on layers of hidden insinuation. When anyone uses the word “should”, two things are happening: 1) they are elevating themselves above you, and 2) they are thinking more about themselves than about you. And if you countenance it, you will have no one to blame but yourself for what will follow.

“Should” may be convenient shorthand when teaching a 5-year old to look both ways before crossing the street, but it’s application becomes less appropriate the longer into life it is used. “Should”, by implicating an “obligation, duty or correctness”, insinuates that the speaker knows something about you or about life that you don’t. After all, if you already knew what was right, why would you need to be told or reminded of it?

Of course, in the scenario where you want to learn some new knowledge or a new skill, seeking a teacher who shows you how to correctly achieve what you want is clearly a wise direction. But what about life questions: With whom should I become friends? Should I go to that party? What should I read, watch, or do tonight? What should I study at university? Where should I work? Should I go for that big promotion? Where should I live? Whom should I date? Marry? When should I have kids? How should I raise them? From where should I seek my happiness? What should I believe? How should I vote? Or most fundamentally – who am I or who should I be? What are the right answers here? The interwebs (those of a world-wide interconnected nature, almost like a net) are replete with stories about overbearing parents making just these types of decisions for their children because the decisions are “too important” to allow a lesser being (such as an adult child) to attempt them. However, none of these questions are appropriately answered by anyone other than he who seeks the answer.

There are no “right” answers to these questions (if there were, by what standard would you be able to measure their rightness?). The answers to these questions are found in you – what you want, what you believe, what you value. Who knows these things? More importantly, who determines these things? Why would you believe that anyone other than you is better situated to know or determine these things? If you rely on someone other than you to answer these questions and things go sideways (as they inevitably will at some point), who will bear the consequences? Will they? They say that you really find out who your friends are when the shit hits the fan; this must be especially true when they’re the ones who counseled you to start throwing shit.

Moreover, whether or not anyone knows more than you or not is irrelevant because when they “should” you, they are not thinking about you – they are thinking about themselves. It may be direct manipulation; it may be direct or passive-aggressive controlling; it may simply be rote recitation of thoughtless, “safe”, trite advice. In any case, their focus is on their own narrow opinion– a case of “what I would do in your position”.

This neuters you, whether intended or not. It transforms your opportunity to approach a choice from an attitude of “what could be” to “what might happen”. It insinuates that you lack the knowledge or skills to make the “right” decision as discussed above. Ironically, those who see themselves as teachers are not teaching you how to live; those who see themselves as friends are not permitting you to live. Life requires the ability to deal with ambiguity, to deal with loss, to deal with fuck-ups and when someone is willing to rob you of that, carefully consider of what else they will rob you.

No one is more invested in the outcome than you. No one will reap the benefits or bear the pain of the outcome more so than you. As a result, no one is better suited to bear the responsibility for the decision than you.

Reject “should”. There is no “should”. There is no mysterious duty or obligation or right answer in response to many of life’s questions. What life gives you is choice and consequence.  Instead of asking, “What should I do?” or “What’s best for me?” ask, “What do I want? What do I think? What do I feel? What do I value? What are the implications of choosing various options?” and make a choice.  If you’re wrong, if you don’t like the consequences of your choice, so be it. Deal with it. Life will go on. Make another, different, choice. Sometimes, you have to follow what you want, even though it is “wrong” by some measures, in order to learn what it is right. 

“Should” implies some great offence if you go against the grain, if you make a mistake, if you try to do something in your own way.  But that’s the thing – the price of failure is always limited. Failure is an opportunity to learn, to grow, to try again and to find your own way.  There is nothing – NOTHING, from which recovery is impossible (well, that’s not true – I suppose suicide pretty much kills your chances).

Should-ers would not have you believe that; they instead implicitly say, “you can’t do it, you can’t figure it out, and you never will; if you try you’ll just fail and ruin your life; better rely on me.” Ever heard of eternal damnation as the price for breaking tradition?  Ever been threatened that your decision to go against a parent’s wishes will destroy the family? I have. Don’t believe it. It’s bullshit.

To paraphrase a friend of mine, what other people think of you is none of your business. Certainly other people can offer their experience, their thoughts and their wisdom, if that’s what you seek, but ultimately, they will not have to live with the consequences of your choices. You will. So don’t defer to them. It’s your life. Live it.

P.S. To those who genuinely wish for the best but fear missteps or who thoughtlessly deal in “should”, consider providing relevant advice or experience, but rather than telling WHAT the right decision is, show the process of HOW to make a good decision. Allow the person the dignity of struggling. Allow them to own it. Trust that they can figure it out even if they meander into forbidden paths. They will not be lost so long as they have someone waiting and watching for them if and when they choose to return. There are fathers such as these, who set their children free and who will see their children return while they are yet afar off.

P.P.S. To those who maliciously castrate their “loved” ones with “should”: go to hell.

Hello, my name is Joe

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.