Getting Friendly

You will have to forgive me if this post occasionally slips into a not-as-funny-as-Tina-Fey imitation of Tina Fey. I read Bossypants over the weekend. Well, OK, I read Bossypants until 2 a.m. Sunday morning.

All Americans should read this book. (It is strongly grounded in U.S. culture and so may not be funny to non-Americans.) Both my cat and I were disturbed by how hard I could laugh sitting in a room by myself.

After finishing the book, I decided that clearly the best way to appreciate the experience was to go straight into “oh my God what have I done by ignoring all my really important tasks to read this book” mode. This mode leads not to any action that might improve the situation but rather to a really good reason not to get up in the morning. I decided to feel sorry for myself for five minutes before beginning the day.

In those ten minutes (I needed an extension.), a rare thing happened: I recognized that I was feeling inadequate. My usual reaction to any emotion except happiness or peacefulness is, “La, la, la, I’m not listening.” The really top notch reasoning behind that reaction goes something like this: if I feel inadequate, maybe I am, and that’s too scary to actually be conscious of.

“Bad” emotions are not nearly so unpleasant when we stop being afraid of them. Years ago, in China, I spent a lot of time feeling lonely, enough time that loneliness shrank from a giant ogre to a small gnome. We became buddies. I’d open the door and say, “Oh, loneliness, it’s you, come on in,” similar to what Rumi describes in his poem, “The Guesthouse.”

It is not a newsflash to say we are afraid of our emotions in this country. One tiny illustration: perhaps more than anything else, we value and spend time being professionals. Expressing feelings, other than pride in a job well done, is generally considered unprofessional.

I find it mildly disturbing that it took me thirty-seven years to recognize feeling inadequate. I’m sure we’ve spent some time together; I’m sure we’ll spend some more, but maybe the next visit will be more friendly.

Going Down?

As with economies, so with emotions—what goes up is generally followed by something decidedly less enjoyable. So after a rather extended adrenaline rush finishing the infamous report, there followed a week of exhaustion and then … the crash.

Almost. You may know these moments, the times when the world, which had been sunny an hour or a day before, suddenly turns to complete crap. These moments are very convincing. I’m usually somewhere in the middle of one before realizing nothing has changed from the time when everything was not crap. By then it is often too late.

Contrary to my usual practice, I anticipated this downturn; I knew the end of an intense project would eventually lead to withdrawal. The early stages of the crash had clearly arrived when my mind started to play a “you really suck” advertisement: I would never catch up with the details of my life—financial, household, relational, you name it—never send another query letter to an agent, and certainly never get married. “Never” is a good clue that you’re losing altitude.

I watched myself totter on the edge, contemplating the descent. The poet David Whyte says sometimes he sees himself walk up to the edge of the pit of feeling deeply sorry for himself and jump in and on the way down he thinks, this is going to be a good one.

I couldn’t quite decide whether I needed to wallow in self-pity for a while or whether a more pleasant route might be available. Of course if you’re asking that question, you’re already climbing down the well. Despite having multiple tools at my disposal for turning around—gratitude, exercise, chocolate—I was apparently going to refuse to use any of them.

Then somewhere in the middle of making breakfast, the universe shifted. By the time my eggs were fried, the urge to indulge in “poor me” had passed, like those times on the highway when things are inches away from going bad and everyone sails on through as if there had been no danger. It wasn’t my doing. It was grace or good fortune, depending on your world view.

I’m grateful to have survived unscathed this time. I have no illusions that every encounter with the abyss will end so well, but I am cheered by the memory of thinking, “Feeling miserable is really not going to be much fun.” That’s the beginning of sanity.