There’s certainly some frustration out there among people who don’t want to be told to be grateful on command. It’s a sort of privilege shaming. “You shouldn’t feel X because you have Y.” Nobody has to be grateful for anything. You don’t even have to be grateful for having an audience to listen to you complain and reject the pressure to be grateful. Pessimism and cynicism are there for the taking, free, in unlimited quantities, and you don’t have to be grateful for them, either. I say that gratitude is mandatory for two reasons. One, it’s a cultural trend, and if you can’t do it with genuine fervor, then you should at least know how to fake it. Two, gratitude is generally the logical choice. It makes more sense, and life is easier when it makes sense.
The case for gratitude.
Say you’re traveling to visit a group of people and you’re, at best, ambivalent about the trip. You have the option of being grateful for your mode of transportation. As bad as it is, presumably it isn’t an open-air horse cart. Presumably you aren’t being splattered with wet mud as you go along.
You also have the option of being grateful that all of the people at your shindig are currently alive. None of them have died of cancer and none of them have committed suicide. Maybe you know several people who fit that description. Given that truly sad set of circumstances, a person with that history would have even more cause to appreciate the continuing aliveness of those around the table.
You have the option of being grateful for the food. Oh, you don’t have to. There are plenty of terrible cooks out there, plenty of dried-out turkeys and boats of lumpy gravy and other horrors. I’m going to insist on this one, though, because I’ve gone hungry. If you can’t be grateful for a plate of hot food, get over it. Get over yourself and thank the cook.
You have the option of being ungrateful for anything I’ve mentioned so far. Of course! Nobody wants to be bludgeoned with the logical need to be impressed with the status quo. Can you be genuinely ungrateful for your literacy, though? For your ability to access the internet, use modern electronic equipment, and read these words?
I often use contrarian methods to remind myself to be grateful. I’m grateful I’m not in a coma. I’m grateful I can breathe without equipment. I’m grateful I can walk unaided. I’m grateful I have all of my fingers and toes. I’m grateful I don’t need a root canal. I’m grateful we aren’t having a power failure. I’m grateful the water in my building is turned on. I’m grateful my neighbors aren’t playing loud music (right now). I’m grateful my dog doesn’t need emergency veterinary surgery. I’m grateful we aren’t being audited by the IRS. I’m grateful not to be caught up in an addiction. I’m grateful I don’t have a misspelled tattoo.
There are better reasons. I’m grateful that my favorite authors have written my favorite books. I’m grateful that my favorite musicians made recordings of my favorite songs. I’m grateful for 24-hour grocery stores and pharmacies. I’m grateful for Wikipedia. I’m grateful for the public library and the fact that there’s a branch within walking distance of my apartment. I’m grateful we have a garbage disposal.
I’m grateful that spiders can’t fly. (Spiders are on my mind today, because one was crawling in my sheets this morning, and it was the first thing I saw when I woke up, and I have to be grateful that it didn’t bite me).
Gratitude comes easily to me, because my life was much tougher ten years ago than it is today. Gratitude is also easy after someone close to you has passed away, or at least I think so. I do a mental head count every day. Even when someone is annoying me, I’m still glad I’m not at their funeral. Gratitude is, in my case, born of great sadness and past disappointment. I’ve come to believe that anything I am not sufficiently grateful for will be taken from me, and quickly. I’d better appreciate it to the fullest while I still have it, while it still exists to be appreciated.
Gratitude also comes easily to me because I’m an optimist. I’ve found that allowing myself to give way to awe and wonder and curiosity makes for the most interesting possible life. It often seems to me that a lack of gratitude comes from a distinct lack of imagination and creativity. Maybe, when we aren’t able to force ourselves to feel gratitude for anything, maybe we should try to create something for which it is worth feeling grateful?
You might not be, but I am grateful for your continued existence and well-being, for the fellowship of your friends and family, for the blessings in your life. I wish you, dear reader, the happiest of seasons, and more bounty tomorrow than you have today.
Option B is a tough but necessary read. Sheryl Sandberg shares her experience of being a widow with young children, using her grief as an example of how to deal with adversity. It’s important to know this setting out, because the time isn’t always right to read about death. The book covers a wide variety of traumatic experiences, adding yet more depth to the perspective.
We learn that what makes trauma hard to overcome is the belief that it is personal, pervasive, and permanent. Whatever has happened, it happened to me, it has ruined everything, and I will never feel any way other than I feel right now. The work of grieving is the thankless task of earning wisdom. This happens, it just happens sometimes, it has happened to others just as it did to me, time will pass, and eventually I will learn to accept this terrible loss.
It’s hard to know what to say to someone who is going through grief or a major life crisis. Part of the reason is that the wounds can be so raw, there really isn’t anything anyone could say that wouldn’t rub wrong. I severed a friendship after my grandmother died because I was offended that he called her Nana. As though she were his! The temerity! I look back and realize that I repaid kindness with cruelty, and I’m shocked that it felt so justified at the time. We were young-ish, and neither of us had yet lost a close relative. Neither of us knew our way through the gauntlet. Hurt hurts.
One of the great strengths of Option B is its discussion of how to talk to people about their tragedies. It could serve as an instruction manual. How do you talk to someone without stumbling into one of the many, many pitfalls? How do you talk about your own loss with others? The next time I find myself in that situation (on either end), I believe I will pick up this book and seek some advice.
Getting what you want is to be distinguished from doing what you want. Often it’s possible to have both; the things we want to have and the things we want to do aren’t always related. Other times, though, doing what you want actively prevents you from getting what you want. Sometimes the reverse is true, when getting what you want gets in the way of doing what you want. All of that is a moot point if you don’t actually know what you want in the first place.
Figuring out what you want has to be specific, or you won’t know when you have it. For instance, if you want “shoes,” do you want to wear them? If so, then you have to ask for your size. Are we talking any and every pair of shoes in your size? Probably not. The more detailed your vision, the more likely you’re going to find yourself walking away in some great new shoes. Too broad, and you may find yourself knee-deep in a closet catastrophe, with piles of shoes that are pretty but too uncomfortable to ever actually wear. This is the first pitfall, of thinking you want something only to realize that the request was too broad. Getting what you want - the cute shoes - interferes with doing what you want, presumably walking or dancing or making it through the night without carrying them like a small dog.
Is it the shoes that you really wanted, though? Or was it the excitement of a new purchase? The desire to feel attractive to others, to draw admiration? Maybe it was something negative like insecurity, boredom, or envy? A feeling of obligation to buy something after spending time at that store? Every object serves both a practical and an emotional need. Acknowledgment of the emotional need tends to lead to much faster results.
Getting what you want works better when you think in terms beyond the material. Physical objects are so easy to come by in our culture that it’s usually harder to get rid of them than it is to bring them home. What are things you want that aren’t physical things?
Peace of mind
Time in nature
Being in “the zone” or a “flow state”
Maybe some things that are tangible while not being objects:
A safe neighborhood
Being “organized” and orderly
Physical strength and stamina
Doing what you want is usually interpreted as “feeling like it” or being “in the mood.” You’re doing what you want when nobody else is telling you what to do. You’re choosing how you spend your time and what you do, in what order. That’s the feeling of autonomy and agency that many of us aren’t finding at our jobs. We put so much importance on doing what we want in our free time because we’re quite tired of being ordered around and having to follow someone else’s schedule during the workday. Some of us come home to the extra job of managing a romantic partner, kids, and a home environment that reflects a lot of attempts at getting what we thought we wanted.
This is where doing what you want sometimes precludes getting what you want. The same leisure time that could be spent finding a more satisfying job or going on adventures tends to disappear somehow. So much of that precious free time tends to go to relatively unsatisfying time sucks like social media, games, or binge-watching something or other. On the list of Things You Want That Aren’t Things, is this activity leading toward any of them?
Power is not given; it’s taken. That’s agency. Initiative comes from within. It’s only when you decide that you’re going after something like a skill or a character trait or a credential or a job opening that you ever get to have it. Nobody comes knocking, asking, “Say, would you like to feel more competent today?” (People do come knocking to offer a few things, namely friendship, adventure, and romance, but only when you already seem like the kind of person who’d be up for it). The result of taking initiative and following through is that you expand your circle of influence. More people trust and rely on you to do more things. The more you take on, the more you execute well, the more it tends to turn into leverage. Money and autonomy! This is when going after what you want leads to doing what you want.
Self-discipline is freedom. That sounds like it came straight out of 1984 - it’s been a while since I read it; I’d have to check. What it means is that the more you create your own structures and guidelines, the more likely you are to get what you want. Since you’ve chosen it for yourself, it starts to feel more like you’re doing what you want, as well.
Pay off your consumer debt, and two things happen. Your credit improves, and the money you used to pay toward interest and finance charges is suddenly available for you to spend. The temporary self-discipline of restricting spending results in greater financial freedom and options.
Get fit, and all kinds of things happen. Your energy level goes up, your sleep improves, your posture improves, you don’t get sick as often, and all these weird little mystery aches and pains disappear. You stop having cravings for certain foods and start wanting more water. Suddenly you find that you have energy left over at the end of the day. You’re ready, willing, and able to do all sorts of interesting things you wouldn’t have been into in the past.
Master a character flaw, and everything happens. You stop annoying yourself. Your relationships improve. You start being the beneficiary of greater kindness and respect. You realize that self-control makes your life easier, and that this ripples outward.
Getting what you want tends to be the result of applied persistence. It takes learning the rules. How do people go about getting this? This job, this personality trait, this skill, this series of adventures and experiences? What do you have to do differently if you want this for yourself, whatever it is? Doing what you’ve been doing is getting you whatever you’re getting. Doing slightly less of what you want in the short term may be all that’s necessary to get what you want, and then go back to doing what you want, too.
Where is the dividing line between our responsibilities and the tidal wave of fate? Where does self-forgiveness meet abdication or rejection of accountability? When we aren’t able to follow through on something for one reason or another, when is it understandable and when is it a lapse of duty? In other words, when are we excused, when are we let off the hook, when can we blame others, and when is it really just our problem? A life of integrity absolutely demands strong policy choices around these matters.
The decision to accept total accountability is a radical and extremely powerful act. It’s scary and demanding. It requires a humble spirit to rip the dirty old bandages off our psychic wounds and look at them with a discerning eye. Like all decisions, though, it’s freeing. Accepting total responsibility for your life means an end to all manner of squirming and equivocating and waffling and whining. All that is left is clarity and resolute purpose.
What does total accountability mean?
It’s often said that we are supposedly 100% responsible for everything that happens in our lives. This is a wrong thought and a dumb one. Is an entire country responsible for a natural disaster like a typhoon? Are parents responsible for a murderer killing their child? If you say yes to either of those questions, you are a terrible person. I’ll look you straight in the eye and tell you that. Fate brings us completely unfair, unpredictable, unpreventable burdens. It’s destiny that we control. We’re not responsible for the volcanos or tornados or earthquakes or murders or mudslides. Where our responsibility becomes relevant is in our response to the terrible vagaries of fate.
Now that I’ve clarified this, I can in good conscience talk about where we are 100% responsible for what happens to us, and that’s when we are living out the results of our own choices and behaviors. Almost every time, when we’re deep in struggle, it’s the completely unintentional result of something we’ve done, sometimes for years on end, not truly realizing that this would be the result. These are the problems we encounter in our relationships, in our careers, in our finances, and in our health. The degree to which we resist accepting our responsibility in these areas reflects the degree to which we continue to live in struggle.
Accepting total responsibility is the only way out.
The year my divorce was finalized, I paid 80% of my earnings to legal and medical bills. It sucked. I’ve earned more in one freelance check than I earned in the entire year of 2000. Not only did I have to deal with the divorce, a lawsuit, and some extremely frustrating medical problems, not only did I have no income until the case was settled, but I was also erroneously hit up for taxes on someone else’s income. It felt like all I did the entire year was write letters and make phone calls trying to resolve one Category Five problem or another. Not my fault, still my problem.
What the experience of living through a year of constant bitchslaps from fate can teach us is that we have the power and the fortitude to deal with stuff. I’m no longer afraid of the IRS; their customer service is fantastic. For nearly twenty years I’ve carried the bone-deep certainty that I must always prioritize my savings account and keep my insurance payments in good standing. I’ve been through worse than a series of bills, injuries, illness, and relationship collapse. I know I can carry myself through the vale of tears and come out alive on the other side. Problems that I used to rate a 10 I now consider more like a 3 or 4. The year 2000 was hardly the last time I endured a bad breakup, an injury, a series of bills, a stretch of unemployment, or the urgent need to move to a new home. It’s not even the last time I got an erroneous tax bill in the $8000 range. Bad things are going to happen in life, over and over and over again, fair or unfair, to us and to our friends and loved ones. We just have to knuckle down and deal with them.
It’s possible to forgive gross unfairness. All forgiveness means is that you come to an emotional agreement with yourself and a storyline about past events that makes sense to you. It does not mean that you excuse someone else’s unjust or cruel or selfish behavior. It does not mean you endorse systemic injustice. It just means you understand what happened and how the same thing could have happened to someone else in the same situation.
Like this: I married a man when we were both young, nobody told me he was mentally ill, and when my life got too challenging, he asked for a divorce. It makes total sense that someone with serious problems of his own would not be ready, willing, or able to stand by me while life threw me simultaneous health, legal, financial, and career problems. I forgive him. I don’t really even think about it anymore; really it only comes up when I think about forgiveness. When I think about him now, like on his birthday, I just hope he’s okay. I can almost even forgive myself for ever being so young and dumb that I thought marriage at 22 was a good idea.
All this being said, if we can forgive unfairness and injustice wrought upon us by others, can we forgive ourselves for being screwups? Can we let go of the guilt and shame of our worst mistakes? I think we can only do it when we know we have accepted the complete burden of responsibility and cleaned up our end of whatever happened. For instance, if my roommates bounced their rent check, it’s not my fault but it’s still my problem. It certainly isn’t the landlord’s fault! If I get into a fender bender and the other party lies about what happened, (which has happened to several people in my acquaintance), it may be wrong, but it’s still up to me to pay whatever the insurer refuses, or my credit will take the hit. I owe what I owe. I have my part to play in all of my relationships, including those of a familial, romantic, business, or financial nature. Just because I walked in blindly and trusted other entities to be scrupulously fair and honest does not absolve me of the responsibility of looking out for my interests.
Past Self had a lot of expensive problems. Past Me spent a lot of time crying herself to sleep over unpaid bills and working side hustles when other people were having fun at music festivals or traveling through Europe. Some of those same specific individuals are now in struggle, not having had to learn the same lessons about financial peril at such a comparatively young age.
When I was young, I was clueless and naive and sometimes irresponsible and unreliable. I hurt people’s feelings unintentionally. I associated with people whose values did not match mine. I often expected other people to pay my way and solve my problems. These are pretty much universal failings of young people throughout time. Now that I’m a mature adult, I pull my weight. I try to stay in constant remembrance of all the times my behavior has unfairly burdened other people, so I can balance my accounts and be the giver instead of the taker. I’m allowed to forgive Past Me for being something of a loser because I’ve paid my debts and made amends where I could.
Integrity means your word is your bond. You keep your promises and follow through. No excuses, no complaints. It’s better to say no 99.999999998% of the time than to say ‘yes’ and bail at the last minute. You show up and do what you said you would do. You fulfill your end of a contract. People can depend on you. If this has not always been true Because of Reasons, you can forgive yourself for this by accepting accountability. Make amends, but more importantly, stop giving your word out like Halloween candy. Stop making commitments until you’re sure you are rock solid and you can keep them. Taking on the burden of total accountability is a clean life, not an easy one but an acceptable one.
I didn’t get the flu shot, but my husband did. That year, I got the flu and he didn’t. It was that simple. That was four years ago, and now I get the flu shot every year.
It wasn’t fun. Getting the flu never is. Of course, that’s why so many people are too afraid to go get the shot. Like me, we’re afraid that the shot itself will make us sick. That winter I didn’t have to imagine it. I got to spend a week and a half flat on my back, feeling like I was dissolving into the couch, while my husband whistled a merry tune and went about his business. I felt like I might die and he obviously felt totally fine. It only took me about an hour of feeling genuinely ill before the free flu shot clinic at his work crossed my mind. Every day that went by I thought about it some more.
I get the tetanus shot. I’ve been immunized against everything, including hepatitis A and B from my social services days. I really never had a problem signing up for other vaccinations, so why was I dragging my feet over the flu vaccine?
Needle reaction. I’m a big baby about getting shots or having my blood drawn. I always have to cover my eyes and put my head down, and I get dizzy afterward. I know it’s pure, 100% anxiety. It’s still not fun having my amygdala hijacked, when I strongly prefer having my neocortex in charge. Anxiety always drives terrible decisions.
I’ve learned to deal with anxiety in these types of situations by planning my actions and responses ahead of time, when I can think straight and use my rational mind. I Get the Flu Shot Every Year. I Will Plan to Go As Soon As the Flu Shot Clinic Opens. I Will Not Run Screaming Out the Door Like That Little Boy Just Did.
On the way to the clinic, I told the Lyft driver where we were going. She replied that she didn’t get the flu shot. On the course of the drive, it was clear that this driver was a highly intelligent, educated intellectual; in fact, I would have liked to make friends and invite her out for tea. The trouble is that educated women of our age group are exactly the type of people who are so skeptical about vaccination that we resist it. I shared my story about getting sick the year that my hubby got inoculated and I didn’t. He was sitting right there, so look. See? It didn’t kill him!
The process only took a couple of minutes. We barely had time to sign the form before we were called up, one after the other. I warned the nurses that I get needle reaction, because it’s only fair to tell them. They suggested I think about something else, and chuckled while I described what I was thinking about: pot pie with peas and carrots and potatoes and ALL DONE! I hadn’t even gotten to the crust yet.
I’d like to say that I get the flu shot as a tribute to my beautiful mother-in-law, who was taken after her fifth bout with lymphoma. People going through cancer treatments have compromised immune systems, and they rely on healthy people to provide herd immunity. I’d also like to say that I get the flu shot because of all the little newborn babies who are too young to get their shots, babies who also rely on herd immunity. I probably wouldn’t have a seizure from the flu, but a baby might. The truth is that I’m a coward, a physical coward, and I know it. When it’s my amygdala talking, I don’t care about any darn cancer patients or newborn infants, I care about ME. What convinced me was those ten days of flu. He got the shot, I didn’t; I got sick, he didn’t. I’m sold.
In my typical week, I ride 8-10 buses. I go to the grocery store at least twice and the public library at least once. I go to two meetings with 30-40 other people. I go to a movie theater with 500 seats, usually full, and I go to a coffee shop and possibly three restaurants. Probably I go to a bookstore or other retail establishment. At the end of the day, I come home to my apartment complex, where I have 1500 neighbors, 80 of whom live in my building and share my front door. I use our gym seven days a week, sometimes the business center. I touch a lot of door handles, is what I’m saying. My decision whether to get the flu shot, like a good citizen, or procrastinate on it, like the big chicken I usually am, affects literally thousands of individual people in my community. One year, I was at an international airport when I realized I was coming down with the flu, and I rode on two planes and passed through two additional international airports before I made it home. It makes me cry to think of all the other people who must have picked up what I had that day.
Thousands of people die of influenza every year, vulnerable people who wouldn’t necessarily have been able to get the shot beforehand. It doesn’t have to be that way. Vaccination is a modern miracle, one that we’re quite lucky to have. Every time I do it, I try to think about how it’s proof that we’re living in the future. One of these years, they’ll find a way to vaccinate us against the common cold, and when they do, I’ll be first in line. Well, maybe second. I might need a minute to think about pot pie.
Comfort is what we crave. The contradiction inherent in this drive is that almost everything we do in search of comfort actually destroys our chances of feeling comforted in both the short term and the long term. This can be demonstrated in all sorts of ways, but the most poisonous and destructive of these is the search for emotional validation.
Looking for validation is looking for someone to back us up. Tell me! Tell me I was right and everyone else was wrong! Tell me I didn’t deserve that! Tell me I DID deserve that! Tell me how great I am! Compliment me! FEED ME! I need more love! Approval! Compassion!
Oh, how sweet it would be. I think there’s soon going to be a cuddly AI robot-thing that can do this in natural speech. “Oh, honey, of course you deserved that promotion! Your boss is a big mean jerk.” You can choose it in pink or lavender or pale yellow, and you can select the celebrity voice of your choice. Soothing, sweet, delicious fantasy of nurturing and support.
I’ll get one and make a video of myself setting it on fire, beating it with a shovel, and then backing a truck over it.
Validation is death. The last thing we should ever want is someone to constantly yes-man our every word and deed. What a disaster. Please no! That’s the route in the maze that leads directly to a dead end. In fact, there’s only one single path in a maze that leads out; all the other options are false, distracting, routes to nowhere. The path that leads out is the path of truth. That truth by its nature has to include all the dark stuff, all the unsavory and embarrassing stuff we wouldn’t want to admit.
He broke up with me because I complained constantly and I wouldn’t take action or listen to his advice.
I didn’t get the promotion because I wasn’t ready, I didn’t look like I fit the role, I didn’t have the certifications, and I kept coming in late.
Other people talk smack about me because that’s what boring, small-minded people do, and it’ll never stop no matter what I do, so it’s my job to let it go and ignore it.
It’s my job to look for my own flaws and try to do something about them. Like most people, I’ll probably go through life unaware of my biggest and worst flaws, and I’ll chip away at the smallest, least consequential ones. Then I’ll immediately be distracted by something someone else said, or rather, my guesses and misinterpretations of what someone else said. I’ll spin my wheels over this. I’ll waste my time, always stuck on Level One, when I could be putting that energy toward making myself a slightly less obnoxious and useless human. It’s what I wish other people would do that I myself should do.
When I wish for validation, I should first ask whether it would actually help me reach my goals. Second, I should find someone else who deserves validation and give that person the praise and encouragement I wish someone would give me.
When I wish someone would listen to me with deep and heart-felt fascination, that’s my cue to find the fascination in someone else’s story. Deep listening teaches me about other people, and it also teaches me how to make my own story more compelling.
When I wish someone would hear me out, that’s my flag that maybe there’s a flaw in my reasoning or a hole in my rationale. Maybe my version of this story is bogus and self-serving. Maybe it’s boring to everyone in the world except me. This wish is my opportunity to work on it, on my writing or my performance or some other way of turning my frustrations into art.
If I wish someone else would stand up for me - have I stood up for others? If I wish someone else would speak up and praise me - have I promoted others and made them look good? If I wish for backup, have I been an ally to others? If I wish for deeper friendships, have I gone out of my way for others in ways that are inconvenient to me? Have I sought to learn what makes them feel befriended and cared for? Sometimes the validation I wish I had may come from one person, while I offer it to a different person. It’s not usually an even flow.
Validation given well can bring out the best in people. Unfortunately, we tend to want it most when we deserve it least. We ask for it at the exact moments that it could hold us back. We want to be comforted when we need to be challenged. We want someone to agree with us exactly when we should be questioned and confronted. Yes dear, yes dear, you’re right dear. Beware of validation, and instead cherish those friends (and enemies) who are brave enough to give you the cold cruel truth. You can always get one of those approval-bots and let it sing you to sleep later.
Where do people learn to say “Neener neener neener”? Who was the first person to actually say that to someone? It could so easily have gone the other way - someone looks at someone and says “neener neener neener” and the other person just looks back and says, “Huh? I don’t understand what you said.” Or, “Stop trying to make ‘neener neener neener’ a thing.” It spread so quickly because it’s just the most effective way to taunt people. There will probably be drone toys at some point that will play robot keep-away with us, while going ‘neener neener’ in a digital monotone. Anyway. There are a lot of flippant formulaic responses of this nature, phrases that are used to dismiss or refute what someone is saying. One of these phrases from my childhood was “How does it feel to want?”
Ice cream truck drives up the street
Child: Uh! I want ice cream!
Adult: How does it feel to want?
Child: I want ice cream!
Adult: Yeah, well, I want a million dollars.
Child: I wish I had some ice cream.
Adult: Wish in one hand, spit in the other, which one fills up first?
This is the demographic reality. For anyone below the economic median, one of the most vital lessons an adult can teach a child is how to deal with frustrated desires. Stoicism 101. You just have to learn to deal. Disappointment is your lot in life. Once you can learn that ice cream is for everyone but you, you can start to find inner strength and grit and the pride of being above that sort of thing. Right? This is why kids in my milieu got the “how does it feel to want?” message from random adults, not just parents or relatives.
While it’s true that chasing after every ice cream truck would be really distracting, and that deferred gratification is one of the fundamentals of adulting, let’s go into this a bit more.
How does it feel to want?
Usually when I think I want ice cream, what I really want is something else. Joy. Rewards. Validation. A shared social experience. Distraction. Escape. It’s not usually just that I want to stimulate my tongue. Surely I’ve realized by now that only the first three bites really taste like anything.
The other thing about ice cream as an example is that it’s something I can get 24 hours a day for about a dollar. I can keep ice cream in my freezer - I can fill my entire freezer with ice cream if I like - and I can get up and eat a bite of it every 20 minutes if I so please. So what?
What could possibly, possibly be more boring than a life of total hedonism?
We ought to be wanting more. Something bigger. Something that a six-year-old probably wouldn’t think of. Such as: I want to build my own sailboat, take sailing lessons, and sail around the world.
Actually, wait. That kind of does sound like something a six-year-old might want.
Kids are better at big dreams than we are. Another way to put that is that we start out with vast amazing dreams, and they’re trained out of us. We’re carefully taught to quit thinking that we could actually have that, live that, be that. It’s selfish and delusional! Give up already! Who do you think you are??
Aw, don’t cry. Have an ice cream.
The truth is that people’s dreams tend to be tragically under-wrought. We get stuck on “lose weight” and “get organized” and “pay off debt.” Yeah, and then what? You could do all three of those things in one calendar year if you wanted. You could completely empty a hoarded three-story house, lose a hundred pounds, and pay off $50,000 in debt if you decided to do it. What are you going to do the year after that?
What would you ask for if the fairies came and told you your wishes would all be granted?
So you want to lose weight. If you woke up tomorrow with the body of an Olympic gold medalist, what would you do?
So you want to get organized. If you woke up tomorrow and learned you had won an executive assistant, professional organizer, interior designer, chef, maid, and chauffeur for life, what would you do?
So you want to pay off your debts. If you woke up tomorrow and, instead of debt, that number was your cash balance, what would you do?
What would you do with unlimited strength, vitality, mental clarity, and financial wealth?
What a bummer it would be! Because what I really, really want most of all is for someone to listen raptly while I share the minute details of why I Am Annoyed or That Person Hurt My Feelings.
It’s even harder to image the possibilities there. What if I woke up tomorrow and people didn’t annoy me anymore? Not that they learned to behave themselves, because come on, that’s never going to happen. Just that when people got up to shenanigans, it didn’t bother me anymore. What if people kept saying rude things the way they do, refusing to keep their commitments the way they do, and it just rolled off my back? What if I found that I no longer reacted to emotional bombardment?
I’ve been practicing wanting more, and it’s really hard. It’s hard to come up with ideas. Basically right now I’m stuck on “buy new socks when I wear holes in the toes of my old socks without feeling guilty about it.” When I turn on the fantasy faucet and try out different images, I keep getting stuck on stuff that involves someone waiting on me, which I reject. Other people adore being waited on: getting manicures or spa treatments, breakfast in bed, having drinks brought to them. I have to train myself not to let my resistance to this feeling block my imagination from thinking of desirable things that don’t involve over-the-top service.
What would be some things I could want?
To be better at wildlife photography, which probably means buying a better camera and spending more time in nature
To be fluent in a foreign language, which means restructuring my schedule and giving myself half an hour a day. And then finding someone who doesn’t speak English and talking to them.
To spend time just staring at the ceiling and listening to music, the way I did quite naturally as a teenager
Yep. Those are things I can allow myself to want, things that are in my reach right now. To look at that list reminds me that I don’t direct my time toward my dreams. I spend so much of it in passive entertainment or rehashing the events of the day or grumbling about what is in my life that I don’t want. I can’t push myself to want things that I can’t imagine, things that would be so awesome that they would upend my entire sense of who I am.
What else could I want? To fit in and feel comfortable in a higher stratum than I ever had before? To feel more like myself in a stronger, more active body than I’ve ever experienced? To feel confident and powerful whenever I think about my finances? To feel the drive to move toward my goals and steamroll right over my anxiety and lack of assurance? To feel compassion or amusement instead of frustration with other people? Could I actually want to feel like I really have free will? The hardest thing to want is to want total accountability, the responsibility to create our own conditions. It’s hard to want the choice.
Cinderella never really fit in. She got her prince, but he liked her best when she was either singing or silent. She didn’t catch all the references and cultural allusions at state dinners. Graceful as she was, she never really nailed the protocol. Sometimes, when they were alone, she’d get moody and start reminiscing about her past, and though he tried to be sympathetic at first, it started to wear on him. It seemed that no matter what he said, no matter how many dazzling gowns and jewels he bought her, no matter how many servants she had to wait on her hand and foot, he could never really dispel her melancholy. He caught her chatting with a scullery maid one afternoon. She didn’t really have any friends in the palace. Cinderella, lovely, lonely, and bored.
Crossing socioeconomic boundaries, in either direction, is an under-explored emotional challenge. Oh, sure, there are always plenty of stories about people who formerly had money or nice homes, only to have the rug pulled out from under them after a financial setback. What we’re missing are the stories of those of us who have risen past our original level. Nobody tells us that it can be confusing or that we may have negative feelings about it.
Survivor guilt is a real thing. It holds us back. We feel guilty if we are more financially successful than our parents, if we go farther in school, if we wind up living in a nicer home. This can come from external sources as well, if siblings or extended family start calling and dropping by with their hands outstretched.
For the record, my brothers are both extremely hardworking, and neither of them has asked for a nickel since maybe the age of eight. Our parents did a stellar job of raising frugal, industrious kids. One of my main drivers toward success is the desire to compete with my brothers, who have in fact mocked me and laughed until they fell over sideways when I was underemployed and struggling. “Do you want a ride in the WAAAAAmbulance? How about a whaaaaburger and French cries?” Everyone should be so lucky.
Seriously, familial attitudes about money go bone deep. Most of us probably aren’t even aware of the messages we carry around about how money works, how the economy supposedly works, and what exactly constitutes a work ethic. The same is true about what marriage means, how to raise kids, how to eat, how to clean house, what are acceptable house rules for Monopoly, whether a gentleman may wear a short-sleeved button-down shirt to a wedding, and a million other things.
Scarcity mindset clamps on like the claws of a crab dragging another crab back into the crab pot. Have you seen this? A dog will help another dog get through a hole in the fence, but crabs will unite to drag a brave escapee back into the bucket. If you know what I mean by this, then you know what I mean.
It’s hard to go back to the old neighborhood. Everything looks so small and shabby. Then it gets into you. It gets in like an evil fog, that feeling of how things used to be, and then you have to go home and look at your new life with old eyes, the perspective of everyone else in your old stomping grounds.
I was at the DMV one day, coincidentally the same one where I got my first provisional driver’s permit (first of three). For some reason, someone in line said something positive about Californians, and the guy behind me in line said, “Yeah, but they’re arrogant though.” This was a mind-bending moment for me. I felt recognition and total sympathy with what the guy was saying, while also instantly judging his clothes, his personal hygiene, and his teeth. Arrogance is what happens when your car runs reliably, you can afford to go to the dentist, and none of your clothes or shoes have holes in them. I mean, yes, there is arrogance in that, and even as I say it, I feel the heartlessness of it. Having everything in your life work correctly without constant obstacles could be the baseline for everyone in the world, but instead, it’s pretty much upper-middle-class. (Middle class is the same thing, only with debt and no retirement savings).
I remember. Every appliance and piece of plumbing has a chip or a dent or a malfunction, or all three. Nothing matches. Everything is broken down. If it isn’t melted, scratched, or crooked, it’s held together with duct tape or JB Weld. You just keep your head down and make do the best you can. Eat it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.
Being the crab who crawls out of the crab pot isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. (See what I did there). You feel bad for the other crabs. You’re also outside of the crab pot, alone, with no crab friends to drag you down all the time.
The thing is, whatever compassion and guilt we may feel for anyone who gets left behind, sabotaging our own success won’t help them. Succeeding is what helps them. First off, we stop being the one who needs to be bailed out all the time. It’s worth doing anything that means you aren’t someone else’s problem. We set an example. We develop connections that we can exploit for the benefit of anyone we can help, which middle-class people do as easily as breathing. They call it “networking.” We take point, going ahead down the trail and figuring out how things work in this alien land called Notbrokeistan.
Class means two things: how much money we have, and what values we carry. It’s started changing recently, but most Americans will describe themselves as middle class, whether they earn $20,000 a year or $200,000. I believe this means that most of us mean “I value having a family and a house and a Puritan work ethic.” It’s funny that as I’ve risen up the ladder, I’ve started to see home ownership as a liability and credit as a useful tool, both attitudes that completely mystify almost everyone I know. I never saw myself as middle class when I was poor, so it wasn’t all that difficult to shake off what I always saw as a distinct package of ideas. I see upper-middle-class and upper-class ideas about money as other distinct packages, and poverty ideas, too. They come in sets.
Do you know what’s true about poor people? Poor-poor and homeless-poor? They’re much friendlier than everyone else. They know each other and they stop to say hello. Homeless people keep track of each other and look out for one another. This is part of what makes it difficult to climb out of the crab pot. You “think you’re too good for us” all of a sudden while also never quite figuring out the shibboleths and unwritten rules of the next level.
It’s your duty to rise as high as you can go, and do you know why? Because otherwise you’re taking someone else’s spot. The spot you are in right now IS the highest spot that someone else can reach, at least for now. The minute you jump for the next highest branch, they put out a Help Wanted sign and your successor reaches a hand up. The minute you give notice to your landlord that you’re moving out, they put out a Vacancy sign and the next tenant puts on their happy playlist and starts packing, ready to leave their old place, for which someone else is also waiting. So get out of the way already.
The problem is the problem. What do I mean by this? I mean that the more attention we give to a persistent problem, the more we start to think of it as a powerful force in its own right, the more we believe that we’re stuck with it, and the less able we feel to eliminate it. When we fixate on a problem, we forget that other people may not have this same problem, so it never occurs to us to ask what they might be doing differently. We see everything in terms of the paradigm of this particular problem.
Probably the most relatable example of the problem being the problem is the example of the bad romance. I once loved a boy who was a liar and a cheat. He would cheat and lie, and then I would find out, and I would cry and feel totally nauseated, but then I would forgive him, and he would do it again. I’d rather not admit how long it took for me to realize that he was never going to change and that being with him was a trap. There was nothing I could do in the context of that relationship to be happy and satisfied. Middle-aged me looks back at dumb young me and wonders why I ever wanted that guy in the first place.
When I was in debt, it felt like I would be in debt forever. I didn’t earn very much at my job, and it felt like that would last forever, too. From my current perspective and my current income, it’s almost laughable how long it took me to pay off $1000 on two credit cards and a personal loan of $600. (My debt burden mostly consisted of student loans and a car loan).
When I was in pain every day, it felt like that was just my new reality. My doctors told me that my thyroid disease was genetic (maybe) and there was nothing I could do about it (false). Everything I read said that fibromyalgia was incurable (also false). Nothing I read or heard indicated that I could escape chronic pain through strenuous exercise, nutrition, and improved sleep.
When I was obese, I didn’t think I was fat at all. I thought I was just average, and in my circle of acquaintance, that’s probably true. I knew no athletes or even anyone who went to a gym. I didn’t think my weight had anything to do with anything. Now it boggles my mind that I could be 35 pounds heavier and not think it was a problem. It also astonishes me that I never realized the connection between my weight and my migraines, something that is clear and obvious to me after three years without one.
Almost all problems are universal. If other people aren’t facing a particular problem right this minute, they probably have at some point in the past, or they’re going to. Death of loved ones, illness, injury, job loss of someone in the family, gossip, rudeness, betrayal, injustice. We all feel the same emotions of grief, loss, disappointment, confusion, and hurt. As hard as it is to be crushed under the wheel of fate from time to time, it makes life even harder to tolerate the persistent problems in the background.
Follow the default lifestyle, get the default results. Complain and do nothing, hang out with other people who complain and do nothing, and ten years from now you’ll have the exact same problems. Hate your job, hate your boss, hate your coworkers, hate your customers, have constant power struggles with everyone close to you, and you are at the mercy of other people who control your happiness. That’s default. Complaining is a distraction. We seek out comfort, validation, and proof of personal loyalty, none of which are effective ways to eliminate persistent problems.
The real problem is that resolving problems takes 1. Decisions and 2. Actions, both of which will most likely be difficult and challenging. It’s the willingness to do difficult things that eliminates problems. But it will be HARD! It will take A REALLY LONG TIME! I’m NOT IN THE MOOD! A solution-oriented person understands that living with a persistent problem is harder in the long run than taking difficult action today.
Breaking up with the cheating boyfriend was hard, but it wasn’t as hard as living with the hurt and the indecision. Paying off my consumer debt was hard, but only for about three years, and from my current perspective I believe I should have done it faster with the resources available to me. Losing 35 pounds was hard, but if I’d known I could do it in a few months and be migraine-free forevermore, I would have done it years earlier. Living with chronic pain and fatigue was, well, it was dreadful really. It was complicated and it had multiple sources. If I knew then what I know now about picking apart my persistent problems and methodically eliminating them, I believe I could have beat it years sooner as well.
Root cause analysis is an engineering term that refers to the process of figuring out what is going wrong. It’s something that should be taught in every discipline.
Why does my foot hurt/oh, I stepped on a nail/because I walked through a pile of construction debris/and now I need to update my tetanus shot/and not walk there anymore/and look where I’m going.
I dated a cheater/because I never knew to set boundaries about exclusivity/or negotiate for my needs.
I’m late all the time/because I don’t know how long it takes me to get ready/and my stuff is disorganized.
I’m overweight/because I sit down with three cans of Pepsi and a can of Pringles when I study at night/and I have no idea what is the right amount for me to eat.
The first step to overcoming a persistent problem is to find someone who doesn’t have that problem, preferably someone who had the problem at some point in the past and found a way to solve it. I solved my cheating boyfriend problem after a conversation with a friend who said, “It sounds like he’s just being mean to you!” Ding! Why would I date someone who was mean to me? Dismissed. I solved my weight problem after talking to another friend who suggested that I keep a food log. Getting rid of problems means being willing to be wrong, being willing to receive annoying and unwelcome advice, and being determined to figure out a better way. The problem is only the problem if you believe the problem has power over you.
Does jumping over open flame, climbing a rope, running a marathon, backpacking thirty miles off grid into the wilderness, hugging strangers, or entering a public speaking competition count as confidence? If so, then I guess I’m confident. Technically. I want to talk a bit about where confidence comes from and how many people are faking it.
I’m small. I was always one of the very smallest kids in my class due to my summer birthday. As an adult, I have a small frame, I wear a child-size bike helmet, bracelets won’t stay on my hands, and I even wear B-width narrow shoes. I’m a double-extra small person with a high, small voice. I feel my small size constantly, when I can’t reach cabinets, when I stand next to anyone, when I can’t reach stuff on the top shelf at the grocery store, when I fit comfortably in the middle seat on an airplane. (Okay, being tiny has its advantages). I sometimes wonder whether a large bird of prey could physically grab me by the shoulders and carry me off. I suspect yes.
It’s not just that I’m small and have always been small. I have some physical frailties and a history of chronic illness. I am by no means a robust person; I would never claim to have stamina. What I do have is mega-quantities of grit. I know my physical limits, and thus I’m willing to go without sleep, carry heavy weights, climb steep inclines, cover miles on foot, and venture into relatively dangerous terrain. I can push myself into certain scary situations because they are known quantities. Understanding what to expect helps bring experiences from the realm of danger into the realm of challenge, perhaps even over that boundary into adventure. Others feel the same activities as thrills or routine. I don’t have to be where they are to go where they go, if that makes sense.
Confidence, to me, means that I have a pretty good idea of what to do. It does not mean that I don’t feel nervous or downright frightened. Case in point. The day I wrote this, I was accosted by a large, angry, insane shirtless man while I was trying to catch a bus. Freak magnet, that’s me… I assessed the situation and determined that there was a greater than thirty percent chance that this man would physically interfere with me. This did not fit my plans for the day. I pulled out my phone and started mapping out the next bus stop up the street, from whence I could place calls without being obvious. Before I could finish, two police vehicles pulled up, caging us in. I found myself in the midst of an arrest; the large, angry, insane shirtless man had evidently been threatening passersby with a screwdriver shortly before I walked up. A cop shouted at me. (It’s okay; later he apologized quite sweetly and I thanked him for doing his work). Was I afraid for my personal safety during that five-minute window? Yes, of course I was. I’ve worked with insane people in a variety of contexts. Most crazy people aren’t really scary, just unpredictable. This particular guy was predictably dangerous, looming into my space, shouting at me, staring at me from no more than four inches away, gradually ratcheting up his behavior. My confidence came from experience; I knew not to engage, respond, or make eye contact. If this man did grab me or touch me in any way, I was prepared to escalate. I was already implementing my exit strategy. The element of surprise is on my side, because anyone who is threatening me has assumed that he will prevail.
What actually happened at that bus stop? What happened was a typical urban encounter. We were surrounded by dozens of people (in cars and buildings; on the sidewalk across the street) with space-age communications devices. They handled it. I had no idea that help was already on its way. (We were also literally across the street from the Supreme Court building). Was I really ever unsafe? Probably not. I even caught my bus on time.
Most situations that make us nervous are not physically threatening at all. They just feel that way. We feel the same physiological responses that we would if we saw a saber-tooth tiger sauntering up the street. We’re afraid to flirt, we’re afraid to go on job interviews, we’re afraid to go to parties where we don’t know anyone, we’re afraid to negotiate for raises and promotions, we’re afraid to ask people on dates, we’re afraid to try new foods, we’re afraid to start our own businesses, we’re afraid to wear two-piece swimsuits, we’re afraid to try new dance steps. What we’re really afraid of is not physical danger at all; it’s social danger! We usually only lack confidence when it comes to interacting with other humans. Think about it again. How many times is someone in a job interview or on the dance floor going to act like the large, angry, insane shirtless man?
I was bullied pretty intensively as a child. I grew up feeling like a social pariah, which is sad and tough on a little kid. All I wanted was to have friends and people who liked me. Then I got a little older. I figured, if people were going to be mean to me no matter what I did, then why should I care anymore what they thought of me? I learned to steel myself against taunts and just do what I wanted to do. As an adult, I give zero fox. If you don’t like me, neat. Go… go Netflix and chill or something. I have things to do. There are seven billion people in this world, and the number of fellow humans who are going to appreciate me is a statistical anomaly. My real friends know that I’m a funny and sweet person who will cook for you when you’re sick, help you move, fly across country for your wedding, and show up when you really need me. I have nothing to prove to anyone else. And that’s why I get to do what I want, all the time.
I feel physiologically anxious and nervous all the time. I mean, speaking as a person with a tendency toward night terrors, most people probably have not felt as anxious as me! Try waking up shaking and crying in your living room with no idea how you got there. When I walk down a flight of stairs, I always worry that I’ll fall headlong. When I go hiking, I always worry that there will be a cougar or a bear. When I give speeches, my feet sweat and my hands shake. These feel like reasonable responses to me, the same feelings that almost anyone would have in the same situation. Feeling anxious and worried is just like being impatient in a long line or being annoyed when someone bumps into you. Universal human response. Being confident doesn’t mean that you don’t feel those feelings; it means you expect them and you believe you can handle it anyway.
If you’re reading this, you’re alive right now. (Well, um, I assume so!). That means you’ve survived literally every single thing that has ever happened to you. It also means you have survived every random thought you ever had, wondering about all the million and five possible calamities that never befell you. Chances are pretty good that you’ll continue to survive all of your worries and anxieties and concerns and what-ifs. I think it helps to just tell yourself, Eh, I can handle this. Because you most likely can, and besides, that’s what everyone else is doing.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.