The Other Me

I realized this week that the person I most often compare myself to doesn’t exist. More importantly, she never will—at least not in this universe.

This is one of those moments to pause and appreciate the depth and complexity of one’s own psychoses. Comparing product reviews on Amazon: good idea. Comparing oneself to other people: bad idea. Comparing oneself to a fictional character: priceless.

This imaginary version of me really has the whole life thing figured out. She always goes to bed on time. She enjoys reviewing HOA bylaws, and she has much better fashion sense than I do. Whatever I have just done, she did it better. I’ve never known her to make a mistake.

Where did she come from, this other me? On the one hand, it’s not mysterious. Our culture markets discontent with impressive frequency and pervasiveness. On the other hand, it’s interesting that a being woven of “should have” and “if only” has such substance that, until now, it never occurred to me that she’s not real.

I think she convinces me of her existence by appearing to be possible, but she’s not. It’s like wanting every blossom on a tree to be in full and perfect bloom at the same time (yes, I do this) all year round (thankfully, I don’t do this). Not gonna happen. As the Tao Te Ching says, “Sometimes things are ahead, and sometimes they are behind.”

The tricky part comes a couple lines before that, though: “The universe is sacred. You cannot improve it.” That means the real me is the sacred one, even on days when I only get six hours of sleep, binge watch superhero shows on Netflix, and eat too many store-bought cookies while wearing pants that don’t fit right. Somehow, that was my best for the day—“You cannot improve it.”

I’m not suggesting we don’t put effort into learning and growing, but as Richard Rohr says, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Of course, we are advised to love our enemies, so perhaps I should take my imaginary perfect self out for a hot fudge sundae and corrupt her a bit.

Hanging in the Balance

It is RAINING on the Central Coast of California, and I have been thinking about water and how it brings both rejuvenation and destruction but not necessarily balance. You know, the lighter side of life.

I am wildly grateful for the rain; the state profoundly needs it and more. I love the sound of it falling on the roof. The hills will finally be green, and yet there are mudslides, flooding, power outages.

A good rainstorm doesn’t restore balance. It seems to me that, though nature always gets back to balance—overpopulated species run out of food and die off, for example—it doesn’t exist in what we would think of as balance all the time. We don’t get the perfect amount of rain every year. We have a drought, we have a storm, there is flooding.

There have always been droughts, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, locusts. There have always been times of plenty and times of not much. And since we were created into this world, it must be the world we’re asked to live in, a world with valleys and peaks, with easier times and harder ones. So the balance, apparently, is up to us.

I tend to approach my life with the assumption that if I could do everything perfectly, I could somehow avoid valleys and peaks, but that’s impossible. The rain will fall or it won’t; the question is how to exist in tune with what’s happening in times of plenty and times of less, whether that’s less rain, less financial stability or less emotional ease.

I’m afraid we’re back to the “a word”—acceptance. To live in balance, we have to live in tune with what’s happening right now, not what we wish were happening. And we have to recognize that what’s happening right now won’t always be happening.

I think this is really hard to do—to be truly present and truly hopeful—but I suspect that if we can get those two, being truly joyful comes along with them.

Should No More

Usually, if trying to weigh myself down, I will eat excess Ben and Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk, but when a friend wrote about unburdening herself this week, I realized I choose other weights as well.

My friend discussed both the physical clutter in her life and the time she spends mentally distracted from what she truly values. I don’t usually think of myself as burdened, much less self-burdened, but I certainly have my share of material and mental junk.

When I imagined myself as mentally unburdened, a number of the things I habitually feel I should do lost their urgency. Another friend told me recently she thinks of the word “should” as mental terrorism. You, too, can now feel guilty of mental terrorism and tell yourself you should stop.

I am really good at the shoulds. At any given moment, I could list off at least fifty things I should be doing.

I tend to think that without the shoulds, I wouldn’t do any of the things that make me a functional member of society. Assuming for a moment that functioning in society is desirable, here’s the thing: that ancient laptop I should have taken to the e-recycle years—yes years—ago is still sitting in my office. The shoulds aren’t causing action, they’re just making things heavier.

When I entertained the possibility that the world was not going to stop spinning on its axis if the pile of papers on my bedroom floor didn’t get sorted this week—it has been there for months—it actually felt more possible that the pile might disappear someday. It also made it easier to prioritize the bedroom pile over the office pile because neither one held dire consequences anymore.

We may never escape our sense of duty, and that may or may not be a good thing. But life is going to give us enough truly difficult things to deal with that we might consider cutting loose the ballast we don’t need.

On Big and Small Steps

Any sane person knows that “a.m.” shouldn’t really be combined with “5:30” in any sort of active sentence. Nonetheless, I sometimes run with friends around this time before work.

Some days are harder than others, not because we run farther—we don’t—just because they are. On these days, I talk us through the last few blocks about 20 meters at a time. It goes something like this, “Just make it to that car, now to that mailbox, now to the tree.” It’s amazing how much more possible it feels to finish these small chunks than to finish the whole run.

But do I replicate this practice in my day to day life? Not so much. I prefer to concentrate on the end product as a giant, overwhelming thing to freak out about.

Never mind that everyone from the Buddha to E.L. Doctorow to David Allen to bad ‘70s sitcoms have pointed out that it’s not actually possible to complete an entire journey, novel, project at once. They all subscribe to that one step at a time philosophy. When else have an enlightened being, an author, an efficiency expert, and Hollywood ever agreed on anything? I mean aside from the time they all shared a box of Trader Joe’s dark chocolate sea salt caramels.

In his book Getting Things Done, David Allen explains how you can’t actually do a project, say landscape a yard, you can only do the smaller actions that add up to some state you consider done—pull out the old plants, fertilize the soil, etc. So the idea of focusing on the journey instead of the destination may simply be practical advice instead of deep and mysterious spiritual direction.

And yet it’s usually my last resort, somewhere after pulling out my hair and before drinking. My resistance might have something to do with the previously discussed lack of patience or perhaps some slightly unrealistic expectations. If you have suggestions on how to join the ranks of the contented and well-organized step-by-steppers, leave them in the comments. In the meantime, pass the caramels.

Note: The blog and I will be on vacation next week. Merry Christmas, belated Happy Hanukkah, Happy Solstice—enjoy your various celebrations of the returning of light.

What We Need

You have everything you need was the theme of our church retreat this week. Apparently it’s going to take me more than one day to master that concept.

To find out how truly bad you are at knowing what you need, go to a buffet. I went to two very good ones in one fabulous day this week.

In case you’ve forgotten, at a buffet, all the food is infinitely replenished. You cannot run out. The person in front of you cannot take the last piece of Tandoori chicken because the kitchen will bring more. Because it is a buffet.

Is my reaction to this state of abundance relief, peace, and contentment? Do I think, wow, there is more food here than I and everyone else in the room could ever eat in one sitting, what a wonderful, relaxing, rare, and magical situation in which to find myself?

If you guessed that the answer to the above questions is yes, thank you. You must be new to reading the blog. Alas, you are also mistaken.

My first instinct is to load up my plate to ensure that I get my fair share. I worry that I won’t get enough when too much is guaranteed. I avoid painful overeating only by holding myself strictly in check, like Dr. Strangelove fighting down his arm as it tries to salute. (If you haven’t seen Dr. Strangelove, you’re leading a deprived life. You can find out how deprived by watching this clip.)

So my judgment of what I need may be a tiny bit off, say three or four stomach’s worth. I might try remembering the buffet problem when my mind is working to convince me I can’t live without the latest whizbang whoozewutsit.

Of course if it’s a chocolate whoozewutsit, bring on the buffet.

Not Going to Extremes

In my hometown, keeping up with the Joneses didn’t have anything to do with the brand of your car or the size of your house. It meant running an ultramarathon the day after your soccer tournament. At 10,000 feet elevation. In the snow. Backwards.

Being surrounded by people rock climbing, skiing avalanche chutes, and boating class five rapids made it easy to believe that these activities made you feel the most alive. I often thought I should be doing something more death defying, dangerous, or at least generally uncomfortable. If you’d asked me why, I would have said those things counted more, though I might not have been able to tell you what we were counting.

Now, I work with faculty members who are equally extreme but in a different way. The number of projects their jobs demand they juggle both impresses me and makes me dizzy. A hypothetical one-person sample: teaching three classes, running their own research—which includes supervising students—organizing a conference, preparing reams of documents for their professional review, being a mom/dad, not to mention those unexpected items life throws at you.

I used to feel like a slacker compared to people who run their lives this way. Recently, a new feeling has crept in—sanity. I worry a little bit (because after all, what’s life without at least some fretting?) that no longer expecting myself to keep up that pace means I’m getting old and complacent, but the amount of activity we expect ourselves to do in this culture is not reasonable or healthy.

A few people might thrive on constant motion. But no one I know rattles off impossibly long to-do lists with joy, and my colleagues so often look slightly harried.

As usual, someone else has already said it better than I can. This time it’s the Sufi poet Hafiz. He says,

When all your desires are distilled
You will cast just two votes:
To love more,
And be happy.
(translation by Daniel Ladinsky)

I don’t think a longer list will help us with either one of those.

Ode to Friends

To really milk your birthday to its utmost potential, don’t organize your own party. That way, multiple small groups of friends will take you out for a lot of individual birthday meals.

This lack of planning also gave me a lot of chances to think about how great my friends are—and not only because they were feeding me. Here are just a few of the ways they are awesome.

They are courageous. Whether traveling through a developing country in a wheelchair, caring for an elderly parent, or facing their own death, they complain little.

They don’t deny the difficulties of life but don’t dwell on them too much. They allow anger and grief and joy and love and can laugh at the ridiculous during good times and bad.

They work hard and care not only about the quality of their work but also about how they treat those they work with. They don’t spend much time blaming other people.

They are willing to change their minds after reflecting on something and regularly take the time for that reflection.

They are funny and kind and resilient and generous and they make me laugh. And the crowning achievement—they like to eat and cook really well.

To steal a few brilliant phrases from a graduation speech by a young woman named Rebekah Frumkin who is much smarter than I was at twenty-two, my friends “[square] the serious with the silly” and “[view] the world with humility and candor” (from a commencement address given at Carleton College).

All this helps me inch toward accepting that life is not about having everything work out well for everyone—as defined by me—but about how we react to the highs and lows. Not because I like it or it makes sense. Not because the highs and lows aren’t real but because they are and life is simply more enjoyable when we focus our mental and emotional energy on the things we’re grateful for, like amazing friends.