I (choose to) Believe It

Reincarnation is like being challenged with a puzzle. We are here to learn how to get out of the escape room, to recognize what we are, to transcend the limits it places upon us, to learn what we need to learn so we don’t need to return.

I feel this stress and depression because I put too much of an importance on things that don’t matter. The answer, for me, is to look around, notice the details of this holodeck we are trapped in, and marvel at where I find myself, recognizing that it is like a game. I ask myself, how is this different than the last time, and I remind myself that when we die, we  get another chance in different surroundings and circumstances.

When I travel, I feel out of sorts until I learn how the public transportation works, or find a particular cafe I like to return to, and then I can start pretending, at least, that I’m a local, that I know the ropes. Incarnations are like that. If we accept that this is just a temporary home, different, not who we are, and learn about it, we’ll function better. For now, this is who we’ve always been. That’s the game we should play. We may not like this life, but we’ll get another chance, unless we as a people destroy the entire planet. Then, I suppose our spirits can get in line to incarnate on some other planet, but we might have to step backwards. We won’t have the instincts developed over many incarnations. And I guess it would be fair if we had to wait in line behind those souls that didn’t destroy their own planet.

But that’s the thing. If we recognize that this is a game, that we don’t have to take any of it too seriously, our job preparing tax returns, for example  – seriously, how perfect does a tax return have to be – then we can start focusing on what really matters, like what can we do to help preserve the world for our own future?

I was sitting on my drums yesterday and looking around the basement, trying to notice all the particulars of this place I just woke up in. I was telling myself that I am a not limited by this particular circumstance. It is not who I am, and it’s ok that I feel out of place.  that’s normal. I always felt like my name didn’t fit, that it wasn’t really me. Maybe that’s why I used to feel that getting braces changed who I was, and imagined that if my teeth were left alone, maybe I would be more authentic. But, no, that wasn’t it. There was never anything I was supposed to be here. This is what it is. It doesn’t matter if I don’t like this particular incarnation, if I want to be someone else. It’s not permanent. It’s not my only chance. It’s not my first time. It’s not my last time.

Yes, I am constrained. Because incarnation is a prison, a maze, a puzzle. It’s a game. We have only one role to play here. We are missing out on all of the other roles. But if we recognize that we have many lives to live, doesn’t that make it so much easier to accept this one?

The belief passes my test for a good belief in every way. The test is to ask, “what if I were wrong?”  Does believing it encourage me to do the right thing, does it help me to embrace my experiences, does it help me to lead a better and happier life? If I die and then there is nothingness, did believing that there was something-ness help me to get more out of this life? Yes. And it inspires me to do right to better the world, for future incarnations.

The only counter to that is that bravery born out of the belief that I cannot actually die may lead me to embrace an early death in support of a good cause. But if I were to die for good, helping others to live, or live better, then I don’t mind. My life will be relatively short, no matter how long medical science can extend the lives of humans. And even if this is all I have, then I’d rather it be a life that I can die proud of, then a longer life that wasn’t worth anything. I may shortchange myself, if I am wrong, but my belief would still benefit others. There’s evidence, don’t get me wrong, plenty of it. And some of the greatest thinkers believed in it. But that’s not proof. So, I apply the test. What’s the downside? If I have a spiritual belief that encourages me to do wrong to others, in a misguided belief that I will get a reward, then that belief fails the test. But if the only potential harm is to myself, in sacrifice to the all, then no one should have any reason to contest my choice.

What is Happiness?

I had a discussion recently with a neighbor of mine who just happens to be a tenured professor of Philosophy at a college nearby.  He is taking an interest in defining and measuring happiness.  He says that there was a point, in the 1800’s sometime, when psychology and philosophy split, and happiness became the domain of psychology, even though, he feels, and philosophers in general feel, he said, that they have been getting it wrong.

To make it worse, it’s not just psychology that gets it wrong, because the guidance out there comes often from those wanting to make it a business, hacks, if you will, who write for the self help hashtag in the virtual bookstore.

The problem is, he told me, that our measures of happiness are subjective. “How happy are you, in a range of 1 to 5,” we ask, and people say. Then we study these people to determine what it takes for people to self describe as happy. We know only how happy they think they are. But how do we know that they even know what happiness is, or have ever been happy, or whether they equate happiness with what they have been told should make them happy? They may even be motivated to lie, if necessary, to avoid feeling guilty or ungrateful, because their families aren’t enough, or because they have a privilege that is denied to others. 

The philosophy professor wants to devise a better way to measure and define happiness. What if there were certain things that we could identify that make people happy? And then we could measure how happy they should be based on whether they have those things, and at least have some way to test what they think against reality.

This resonates with me. I don’t feel like I’ve really been happy since I was a toddler. Now I’ve had my moments, sometimes I think I can imagine what it’s like to be happy, or understand another person’s happiness, or believe I’m on the way, and that’s enough to share in it, to feel it, enough to know what it is. So I’m not unhappy 100% of the time, just more often than not. And I’ve always considered my unhappiness to be situational. In other words, I don’t believe, for the most part, that it is physiological, something that pills could solve, or diet, or even exercise. I believe that there is something about my life that I wish were different, that disappoints me.

That said, when I stop taking my thyroid medication, I can become convinced that my life actually sucks even worse than I previously thought, like I have uncloaked another layer of denial, and that things would have to be different, to change how I feel. And then I take my meds again, and suddenly I’m back to my normal level of unhappiness. So maybe it can be both.

But this idea that there can be certain things that make us happy, that if we want to have happiness, we should strive for those, whatever they are, is an idea that makes sense to me. Is it freedom? That misunderstood abstract idea that people so often confuse with power or safety, and so few of us have it, even, yes, in the US of A, slaves as we are to debt, or expectations, or discrimination or worse.   

Or do we derive happiness from understanding, knowledge, achievement. Is it from a sense of pride in ourselves? Is it because we do good?

Does it require us to be good people? My neighbor posits, a recent change in his thinking, he tells me, that you do not need to be good, and he is somewhat convincing, though people who devote their lives to service, like Jimmy Carter, and MLK, Jr. have argued that service is its own reward, and the key to happiness. Even George Washington had a quote equating service to happiness (happiness and moral duty are inseparably connected). The list of great people that make this claim is endless. I had started to believe in this, and regret, even, that I hadn’t seen it earlier. When I was young, and following the instincts typical of one to whom it was all new, I concluded, in my first run at the issue, that the purpose of life was to have fun. And I believed fervently in Thomas Jefferson’s right to “pursue happiness.” What I thought was ironic, however, and what I believed at the time, was that to devote myself to that cause, I would have to abdicate my own pursuit of happiness. I could be a musician, for example, which I thought would make me happy, or I could be an activist for the rights of others, but then I could not be a musician (or whatever) and I would not be as happy.

According to George Washington, the two were not mutually exclusive.

My neighbor, however, points out that some people are very happy, and not at all good people. Maybe they are proud of themselves for things they have achieved that do none any good but themselves or the few. They may believe that it’s fair, because that’s the game, and whoever wins has earned it.  They may even believe that they are doing good for the world, but be wrong. They could be happy in the knowledge of their own achievement, and greatness, and measure their worth in their own way.  

Examples:  

A Christian missionary believes he is helping a savage by converting him to be a believer in Christ.

A rich man believes he is making the world a better place by providing a product that advances the human race, even though he may take advantage of the poor to do it.

White supremacists who would rid the world of an inferior infestation that threatens those of us, that they believe, matter more. They can be happy in their sense of righteousness.

Is it certainty that makes us happy?  And how happy? I like to think that there a limit to how happy someone can be depending on how the happiness is achieved? Is there a greater happiness that comes from inclusion than can ever come from exclusion?

I don’t know!

But these are important questions. Because I think that happiness is the only thing any of us really want. Those of us who have empathy who care about the world, who want it to be a better place are unhappy to the extent it isn’t. They are made happy to see a small promise of Utopia in their lives and in the lives of others. But the bottom line is, it is ultimately their desire above all else to find happiness that motivates them. And it is failure in this regard that discourages them. And hopelessness, when they believe that what they want is too hard, which makes them give in to despair.

I personally believe that the way we find our calling, is to do what makes us feel good, ultimately, and in the long run, even if we don’t understand why it makes us feel good. I think this will lead us to our way of contributing to the hive, to what is, if there can be such a thing, our purpose. And it will make us happy. Sounds easy, but if it were, everyone would be doing it. Doing what will make you feel good, isn’t easy. 

That’s what I believe, but the professor’s question is, “is what makes people happy  different for everyone, or can we find some common thread, and measure, or ascertain how happy people are based on what their lives are like?”

I want to know the answer. I want to know and I am interested in taking this knowledge to the team I manage at work, to see it can help to fully engage and inspire them achieve their potential, in and outside of work. The professor is interested in that, and it is why he first engaged me in this topic to enlist my aid with an experiment, but first, I must admit, I want to be happy. I want to learn more about it. 

Because I have not done what I say we should. I have spent my life making decisions that were not based on what will make me feel good, and at this point, I feel like I have constructed walls, rules, habits, whatever you want to call them, that limit me. I don’t have the choices I had when I was young. And yet, I am writing this. I could be anywhere right now. I could do anything. I can still choose to spend time doing what I want, even despite the fact that I have obligations. I waste a lot of time.

I’ll tell you, I think I do know what will make me happy. I think the main reason I am not is that I’ve been inhibited and unmotivated. I lack faith, and I lack will. I have not believed in my heart, what I’m telling you today. 

I want knowledge and understanding, but I’ve never particularly liked to read. I’ve been shy about talking to people. There are things that make me feel a sense of achievement, a sense of pride. But I don’t do them. I wanted it to be easy, I expected talent to lead the way. I don’t even want to exercise on a regular basis, though I feel good after I do it. I don’t want to read, though I feel good having absorbed the contents of a book. I don’t want to pay attention to horrible things that are happening in the world, because it’s depressing, but how can I understand people, or change anyone’s mind, if I don’t know them.

I want to change someone’s mind. That would make me so happy.

I know more than a few who believe that it is unrealistic to think you can change anyone’s mind. And true, change is so slow that it’s not surprising that people give up on each other. But if we can’t change minds, then we are simply doomed. 

But people can change, it happens all the time. Great leaders inspire others to do their part. They don’t do it all themselves. Anyone who believes anything at all, good or bad, has gotten there in part by learning something. People can be taught. To believe otherwise seems reasonable, but it’s wrong.

I start with me.

An Optimist

I’m an optimist, though my wife thinks she’s the optimist. Now, it’s true that I often seem dissatisfied, with my career, my accomplishments, even who I am. I’ve wished I was someone else for most of my life, honestly, except when I was pretending to be someone else as an actor. When I was playing a role, I was someone else and I liked that. She accepts her lot, says she is happy, has much of what she wants and can live without the rest. It is what it is, to her, at least she says so, and I have no reason to disbelieve her. So she may be happy. But happiness and optimism are not the same thing. I may be unhappy, but I believe things will get better, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, despite years of trying, despite regrets and failures. That’s optimism. I’ve been learning Spanish for 40 years! A pessimist would have given up by now. 

I’m also a romantic. My wife would probably laugh at that, I’m guessing, but she doesn’t know me as well as she thinks she does. I don’t think we have the kind of relationship where it feels safe to be romantic, to tell you the truth. It’s my fault (of course). In seriousness, I don’t know who’s fault it is. Blame it on the cow. But neither one of us is particularly romantic with the other, at least not the way that I define it. She may think that a nice dinner out is romantic, or a trip. She may think that the time she packed a bag for me, and surprised me at work and swept me away to a bed and breakfast for my 30th birthday was romantic. Most people would probably agree with her. In fact, writing it down, it does sound like that.

But the kind of romance I wish I had isn’t defined by anything she’s done or I’ve done or even think to do. I consider myself a romantic because I want that fantasy kind of love that people who don’t have it say doesn’t exist, that honeymoon that lasts forever. I want to feel like I can’t live without her, that she makes me happy, all by herself, and that I want to be like her. And I want her to feel the same about me. I want to love her so much that I believe in her when she doesn’t even believe in herself, that I can convince her how great she is, and help her to be her best. And I want it back. I’m not saying I’m a romantic just because I want to do romantic things. I want to feel it.

Now, maybe they’re right, maybe this doesn’t exist. Being romantic may be like having faith in something that has no scientific support. I’m not saying that it’s rational. I’m just saying it’s what I am.

I don’t think that she has that kind of faith. But I could be wrong, Maybe she’s just given up. Maybe we just haven’t found that niche with each other.

We have good times. We laugh together. We have, over many years grown towards each other, become a bit more like each other, whether we originally wanted to or not. But after all these years I still feel like she doesn’t really know who I am, or doesn’t appreciate who I want to be, or doesn’t believe in me. She shouldn’t have to. I don’t want her to lie. I should believe in myself. Maybe I convince her. Or maybe I test her love by being who she doesn’t think I am, who she may think that she doesn’t want me to be, and give her the opportunity to love that… or not.

Now there’s an interesting standard, a way to measure love? Why not? Not all love is the same. Maybe the gold standard of love, the highest level, so to speak, is when you want to be the other person. If you really appreciate what it would feel like to be her, then when you’re with her, you would take it on, empathetically, like it’s contagious. Or him. And if you like how it feels, who you have become in that moment, then you want to spend more time together. And the other side of that is when she does that to you, you get to appreciate yourself through the eyes of another. She, or he, helps you to appreciate your own self. But you need to get each other right too. You don’t want someone appreciating you for something you aren’t, and don’t want to be. That’s expectation to be something you’re not and pressure to change. He needs to appreciate her for what she wants to be, and vice versa. She needs to show him who she really is, and vice versa. That’s our part. Two people who feel like that about each other will grow stronger individually and as a team. They would learn from each other’s strengths, and leave the weaknesses to stagnate. Oh, and they would love each other. A lot.

Faith

I try to keep my chin up, convince myself that if I get up early and write for two hours every morning that I can finish one of the many stories I’ve started over the years, maybe after whatever time I need to stretch or pee and after whatever time I spend keeping a journal to warm up to it, or to get past the despair that I write to outrun, or better yet, after whatever time I spend on the self-motivating completion of a blog post.

Maybe after that I can comb through the many different drafts, saved in google docs, of what I don’t even remember writing once, and can’t piece together into a cohesive complete work of fiction. Not without time and quiet. There are many different stories, with some good scenes, evidence of a potential we usually ascribe to teenagers (because they can be anything). Finishing anything longer than 1,500 words seems like climbing a mountain to me, the kind of thing you only do once, if at all, and so which one is my Everest? Which story? If there’s only going to be one? How do I chose?

Why does my first work have to be my life’s work?

I can’t work creatively at 5AM in the morning, tired, sober, the clock ticking. And I can’t do it at night more tired, depressed, waiting, this time, for the house to be quiet, for everyone to go to sleep before I can go to work, knowing that I have to get up in the morning and be sharp and alert enough to be productive (or look like it) at a job I hate. I go into work and sit at a desk all day checking numbers, working in a profession I never intended to stay in.

It’s my winter now
Cold so long my toes feel numb
My head swims in blood thick
And my bones have frozen
I keep thinking about my toes
And then I dream
About friends who don’t remember me
And wake to work done at a desk
My thick blooded head
And stiff neck and shoulders
Move in shudders only and yawns
And I can’t get warm

You are what you do. It’s never just a job. We write not to make money but to be writers. But in order to become writers, we have to spend time writing, and I don’t have the time. What I have the time to be is an accountant. It’s not what I do, it’s what I am. And when I do write, the more I write, the more I hate accounting, the more I hate myself.

I wake up early because it’s the only time the house is quiet, the only time I have to think. Then the house wakes up, sometimes earlier than expected cheating me of the peace, the small piece of that for which I sacrifice sleep (and exercise and whatever else I could be getting up early to do). Then in the evening there’s the TV, and dinner, and piano playing. There’s the dog barking and the people coming in and out of every room. Please stop looking at me.

I want to be someone else in so many ways.

I go to coffee shops sometimes on the weekend. They are noisy, playing music I don’t want to hear. I sit in uncomfortable seats. And all the fucking happy people. And the rent: coffee, the creativity limiting stimulant that only makes my mind race. 

So, what else am I to do but feel hopelessness? I have been running on fumes forever, relying on the fiction (ironic) that I can find time to do this, that I can carve out enough, that I can maintain a creative mindset when what I do all day is unimaginative except in the limited way that business people sometimes think of themselves as innovative.

I maintain hope by believing that I have a plan, despite that every plan I’ve ever had has failed. I make a new plan when it’s clear the old one isn’t going to work so that I can believe in something again. I know the new plan will fail too, I know it from the start, but it doesn’t seem to matter because it’s a mechanism I use to keep from drowning. It serves my denial, at least temporarily. I justify the farce, because I know that faith is my only chance, the only thing that will keep me going given the historical evidence that I will never do enough. I could be wrong about the new plan. Maybe this time it will work. Allowing that helps me to keep crawling, at least. If I stop completely, the game is over. But I still always lose.

That’s why I’m depressed.

But I have posted something every Friday for the last eight Fridays. Blog posts that may not be any good, maybe mildly entertaining at best. I’ll suspend judgement while they are fresh, because I may not have perspective and anyway it doesn’t matter. Thinking they suck will only lead to stagnation. I committed to myself, eight weeks ago, that I would post the best thing I could, weekly, that this would be my deadline, and I would embrace, in faith, that if I met this goal over the long term, I would improve, and that maybe the writing would even be better than I think it is. It’s an experiment, and I shouldn’t assume I know what the results will be before it runs its course. But I really expected the posts to be better than they are. I am hanging on by a fucking thread. Hanging on because I just don’t want to give up.