I hate to break it to you, but I haven’t got it figured out. I know you come to this blog to read pearls of wisdom to help you find your way to happiness and contentedness and better, whiter, teeth or at least wider smiles, but I’m afraid there’s very little of that here.

Featuring Apple's new product, the iCanDoItAll.

Featuring Apple’s new product, the iCanDoItAll.

You may be making the same mistake I almost made yesterday as I sat across from my Middle Daughter at the coffee shop. At the time I was writing a blog post for a client, against a deadline. I’d already tuned up my bike and ridden a few miles; the day before I’d laid out a book, ridden several miles, had a meeting with an app developer, and more, and yet by the end of the day I felt that I hadn’t really accomplished anything. It wasn’t FOMO – Fear of Missing Out – it was FOSO: Fear of Slacking Off.

I realize, on a rational level, that I had been extremely productive. That in fact I was likely doing more than I should, that simplifying my life would probably benefit everyone. But I couldn’t internalize it; I couldn’t actually believe my rational self when it said “OK, enough! Take a break!”

And I was about to ask my daughter her opinion on it. Maybe she had some idea for how to not push yourself beyond reasonable limits. Yes, that’s it – I would ask my daughter – my cross-fit enthusiastic studying-for-her-medical-boards daughter what the secret to personal leisure might be.

Then again, maybe not. And it was equally unlikely that my oldest daughter, whose son boasts of her three jobs, could help me. Or my youngest daughter, with two jobs (and four new job offers, apparently) and another of my grandsons to deal with day-to-day. Her twin, living and building a career as a performer in dance and the fire arts in Atlanta was also unlikely to really get the idea of “taking it easy.” Of “you’ve done enough.”

It occurred to me that maybe I owed those young women an apology for how I raised them. Well, as the Constable of Penzance would put it, too late now!

Maybe, instead, James Kavanaugh understands the issue – and lets us know it’s not, actually, a problem:

“I am one of the searchers. There are, I believe, mil­lions of us. We are not unhap­py, but nei­ther are we real­ly con­tent. We con­tin­ue to explore life, hop­ing to uncov­er its ulti­mate secret. We con­tin­ue to explore our­selves, hop­ing to under­stand. We like to walk along the beach, we are drawn by the ocean, taken by its power, its unceas­ing motion, its mys­tery and unspeak­able beau­ty. We like forests and mountains,, deserts and hid­den rivers, and the lone­ly cities as well. Our sad­ness is as much a part of our lives as is our laugh­ter. To share our sad­ness with one we love is per­haps as great a joy as we can know – unless it be to share our laugh­ter.

Because my partners and I are conscientious of each others’ moods, one of the common questions that we have for each other is “Are you alright?” That, or some other variation on the theme, because we want to be both aware of our states of mind and also not miss any opportunities to help each other work through the hard times.

Sometimes, though, that question might be asked a little too much. For example, one day I was especially concerned with finances, and Natasha knew it. The next morning I got a text from her: How are you feeling?

My response was good coffee, bike tuning, and cereal.

Her response was, of course, ??? . Because she’d been asking about my mood from the previous day. But that question hadn’t made sense to me, because nothing had changed in my financial situation overnight. Why would my mood be different?

Here’s the secret, though – I’m pretty sure my mood would have been the same if I was making a six-figure salary, worrying about whether to sink money into a new house in that other neighborhood or not. It’s not the amounts of money, it’s the attitude around it.

That’s money, and I’m very aware I have issues with it. But the same thing applies to the rest of life.

“Are You Done with Work?

There’s another question that just doesn’t make sense to me. How could I ever be done? There’s outlines of books to write, stacks of books to read, songs to learn, new income streams to generate, friends to re-connect with, dances to perform, grandsons to spoil, lovers to nibble, videos to stream, cigars to enjoy, and so much to do. How can I say that I am done?

I can’t. What’s more is that I can be ok with that. Back to you, James:

We searchers are ambi­tious only for life itself, for every­thing beau­ti­ful it can pro­vide. Most of all we love and want to be loved. We want to live in a rela­tion­ship that will not impede our wan­der­ing, nor pre­vent our search, nor lock us in prison walls; that will take us for what lit­tle we have to give. We do not want to prove our­selves to anoth­er or com­pete for love.
For wan­der­ers, dream­ers, and lovers, for lone­ly men and women who dare to ask of life every­thing good and beau­ti­ful. It is for those who are too gen­tle to live among wolves.”

— James Kavanaugh (There Are Men Too Gen­tle to Live Among Wolves)

This morning I went out to my bicycle with a small set of tools because I had some adjustments to make.

I turned the high screw on the front derailleur a turn and a half to the right. I lifted the seat about 3/4 of an inch higher. I checked the tension on the rear derailleur and tightened it slightly. All of this gave me an immense amount of satisfaction, because while I’ve been riding bikes for about four decades, for the first time I feel like I understand them.

Or, at least, this one. I built it.

By the Grease on Their Hands Shall Ye Know Them…

The crank and the chain had to be replaced. I did keep the fender and the rack, replacing only the screws...

The crank and the chain had to be replaced. I did keep the fender and the rack, replacing only the screws…

I spent about 9 hours total last weekend at the Freewheel Bicycle Collective, conveniently located a few blocks from my house. There a volunteer mechanic walked me and a few others through a “Build-a-Bike” workshop. First we picked out a frame – and I do mean just a frame, as you can see to the right – and then bit by bit we scrounged through parts that had been donated or discarded at the co-op.

As we went along, we also learned how to do things – the instructor wouldn’t just show us how to do what was needed on our own particular bike, he showed us the variations as well. There was a “learn one-do one-teach one” attitude as well, such as when I used a special tool to take off my crank and was immediately told to go help a fellow builder do the same.

By the end my knowledge of bicycle mechanics was increased exponentially – certainly enough to let me know how much I don’t know, but also enough to make me confident that I can build my grandsons’ bikes when they get a little older.

More to the point, there was an indescribable feeling of independence when I rode my bike across town. I was not dependent on gasoline. I wasn’t even dependent on the money it would usually cost to purchase a bike like this – no, I had created it with my own hands, out of things that foolish wastrels had considered detritus! I was a Thoreauvian Velocipede, visions of the Kevins (Bacon and Costner) dancing in my head as my grease-stained fingers shifted smoothly through the gears…

Then my chain fell off.

So I stopped, and put it back on, and adjusted the front derailleur so that it wouldn’t happen again.

Thoreau’s Donuts

Henry David Thoreau is famously held up as a rugged icon of independence, building a tiny cabin and spending a year out at Walden Pond reflecting on the solitary life. Amanda Palmer, in her book The Art of Asking, reminds people of a few truths inconvenient to that myth:

What he left out of Walden, though, was the fact that the land he built on was borrowed from his wealthy neighbor, that his pal Ralph Waldo Emerson had him over for dinner all the time, and that every Sunday, Thoreau’s mother and sister brought over a basket of freshly-baked goods for him, including donuts.

The idea of Thoreau gazing thoughtfully over the expanse of transcendental Walden Pond, a bluebird alighting onto his threadbare shoe, all the while eating donuts that his mom brought him just doesn’t jibe with most people’s picture of him of a self-reliant, noble, marrow-sucking back-to-the-woods folk-hero.

By the same token, that vision of building a bike from the sweat of my brow has a few other things to consider. There’s the fact that I live in a culture so rich that people can literally throw away enough parts of bicycles that I can assemble one. There’s the business that sponsors Freewheel by providing space, as well as the bike mechanic who gives away years worth of knowledge for nothing. There’s the precision tools and instruments that have been donated to the shop for use by anyone.

There’s the fact that I have a flexible schedule of work which lets me spend hours in a bike shop. There’s living in a city which spends lots of money maintaining bike paths. There’s my partner Natasha who brought me a protein shake in spite of the downpour outside. There’s the upper-middle-class family that raised me, with my parents giving me just enough motivation to figure stuff out myself while also often providing instruction for how things worked. That attitude of “I can figure this out…” is probably the single most valuable attitude they instilled.

In other words, yes, I assembled and fine-tuned the bike, and that knowledge is a powerful thing. But to pretend that I did it independent of a huge infrastructure of (yes, I know it’s a dirty word) privilege would be pretty hypocritical of me. It’s fine to feel more self-reliant, but people who are truly required to be self-reliant are usually in pretty dire circumstances – such as survivors of the Nepal earthquake.

I’m not sure what the phrase should be – “gratefully self-reliant”, perhaps? Maybe “realistically Libertarian” – acknowledging that yes, people should be responsible for their own lives as much as possible, which includes helping others when they need it. Like the folks at Freewheel, like my father when he was a volunteer EMT, like the Marines who gave their lives trying to help the Nepalese earthquake victims, a part of being self-reliant is recognizing that we are all connected to each other. Helping you helps me, even if indirectly, because it makes the world we both live in a better place.

The next day the derailleur had to be adjusted the other direction due to some other chain frictions, but it wasn’t too bad. There was a thrill to not just being aware of the problem but also knowing how to fix it. And knowing that at some point in the future there will be someone else’s bike with a problem that I might be able to fix. And I will do so happily.

You can rely on that.

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courtesy Andrés Nieto Porras via Flickr CCLet’s say you volunteer to be part of a study. It’s pretty simple; you’re told that you’ve been randomly paired with a person you don’t know and will never meet, who is waiting in another room. There are two simple tasks to be assigned, one to each of you. One task will result in a reward being given; the other task will not.

You, the subject, will decide which of you is rewarded, which of you is not. Your partner is already here, in another room, and the two of you will not meet. Your partner will be told that the decision was made by chance. You can make the decision in any way you like. Oh, and here is a coin: Most people in this study seem to think that flipping the coin is the fairest way to make the decision.

What do you do?

The Depressing Truth About People

If you’re like most people, given the hypothetical situation your answer to my question is that you would take out the coin and let random chance decide who got the reward. It’s only fair, right? And you want people to think you’re fair.

What if there’s no one around to know if you’ve been fair or not? When the study was done by C. Daniel Batson of the University of Kansas, the results were that only 50% of the people left in the room alone to make their decision actually chose to use the coin. Of those 50%, 85-90% of them chose to get the reward themselves.

But that’s not surprising, right? They’ve already shown that they aren’t interested in fairness; it follows that they’d be selfish and take what they could get, especially with no consequences for being selfish. We can take some comfort in the fact that 50% of the people did decide to take out the coin and flip it in order to decide fairly who got the reward.


Of the people who actually took out the coin and flipped it – even with it clearly marked as to who would get the reward on each face – 85-90% of them decided to take the rewards for themselves anyway.

Think about that for a second. Even with a set of rules in place – “whoever the coin says gets the reward will get it” – a set of rules that they had chosen voluntarily to follow – they ignored the result and took what they wanted anyway. 90% of the time, at least. They wanted the testing staff to think they’d been fair (by unwrapping the coin so it looked like it flipped) but they went ahead and did whatever they wanted anyway, because there were no consequences.

Even more disturbing:

To appear fair by flipping the coin, yet still serve self-interest by ignoring the coin and assigning oneself the positive-consequences task, seems to be evidence of moral hypocrisy. Ironically, this hypocrisy pattern was especially strong among persons scoring high on a self-report measure of moral responsibility.

– Why Don’t Moral People Act Morally? Motivational Considerations C. Daniel Batson and Elizabeth R. Thompson

The people who view themselves as the paragons of virtue are even more likely to fail when put face-to-face with temptation. Which brings me to the point of this post:

How to Be an Exceptional Person

I have no idea how to fix the problem of moral hypocrisy. In fact, as you read the chapter on hypocrisy in general in the excellent Happiness Hypothesis you realize that even trying to solve it is pretty hypocritical, since we are all, to one degree or another, hypocrites.

But I do understand basic statistics, and I know that if 90% of people ignore fairness and take what they can get anyway, then if you want to be exceptional – to fall in that 10% – all you have to do is be fair.

Even when – especially when – no one is watching. It’s as simple and as hard as that. It’s taking the crap job, not necessarily without complaint, not because you deserve it – but because it’s fair. Of course, you are at a disadvantage – because 90% of the other people out there are not doing that. All you have is one basic piece of knowledge that they don’t.

You are exceptional. 


This Love.Life.Practice Weekend Roundup podcast also contains readings of the following posts:

This podcast was produced by Gray Miller Creative LLC.

Special shout-out to Nora Dunn, the Professional Hobo, for turning me on to the StashBelt

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New Episode of the Love Life Practice Weekend Roundup Podcast!

blackbeltWEBSITE2I finally feel ready to give a qualified review of my StashBelt.

For those who don’t remember, I first heard about it via Nora Dunn, the Professional Hobo. Thanks to her site and a discount code I ordered my own belt. It was a great experience in customer service, and pretty soon I had a very nice piece of leather in my hands. Along with a “secret” zipper pouch “large enough to hold more than $1000 in folded bills” it also has a small pocket near the buckle big enough to hold a USB thumb drive. They proved it by providing a 4GB drive with the belt (my request that they prove their other assertion was, unfortunately, ignored).

The Bad

There’s not much bad to say about the stashbelt, so I’ll get it out of the way quickly:

  • You need to make sure the USB drive is securely in the little pouch, or it is likely to fall out when you take off the belt. It’s also easy to either pull off the cap or lose it in the pouch when pulling the drive out.
  • The belt is thinner and lighter than a lot of belts I’ve owned. While I do like the craftsmanship, I worry that the hole where the buckle fastens will wear out (the solution is not to pull it too tight, I know, but it’s a concern).
  • One of the selling features is that you can swap out your own buckle for the one provided. I have a beautiful glass buckle I like to wear for special occasions – but it adds 3″ to the length of the belt, which means I run out of holes to buckle it.
  • Speaking of running out of holes, while they did get me the right size, I’ve been losing weight…and I’m already at the furthest hole I can buckle at. I’m certain I can have a leather worker put in another, but a little more leeway would have been nice.

I realize that these are all minor – especially the last one, which is just as likely to go in the other direction. But they are all things I wished I’d known before I bought it, just to be prepared. So now that you know, you should go buy one, because of –

The Super-Amazing Fantastically Wonderful Super Power

Like any review, this lends itself to a bullet list:

  • Did I mention I admired the craftsmanship? They talk a lot on their site about their leatherworking quality. It’s all true. Believe it.
  • It holds money. You have to fold it pretty carefully, but the pocket zipper is quality stuff and it easily held three or more bills with no additional bulk.
  • It holds other stuff. I could put an “emergency stash” of meds in the belt and know that even if I lost my bags I would be ok. I could even put in something like a lockpick if I wanted to…
  • Feel like Jason Bourne. One of the initial reasons to look at this was Nora Dunn’s “USB Stick Trick“. I took it a little further using GizModo’s guide which led to the sexy experience of carrying around ID in three languages. If I’m ever lost in China, they’ll know who I am! Oh, and also a portable operating system.

But none of this is why you should buy a stashbelt and carry around extra cash. Here’s the real reason.

My Abundant Experience

During a recent trip I carried a few $20 bills in my belt, not expecting to use them at all (it’s hard to get stranded in Raleigh, N.C.).  My friend and I shared a shuttle to the airport and I realized too late that I’d forgotten to bring any small bills with which to tip the driver. In case you’re wondering (because I did, and looked it up) it is considered best practices to tip your driver, usually about $1 per bag. Since my bag was extra-heavy, I definitely felt he deserved it.

“Have you got any ones?” I asked my friend, and she frowned as she realized why I was asking. She shook her head and quickly darted back into the hotel to try and get some change for a $10, the smallest bill she had in her wallet. No luck at the front desk, and she sadly shook her head as we got in the shuttle.

I felt terrible, on a lot of levels. I’ve worked in the service industry before; I know how thankless it can be. I like to tip 20% at restaurants and make sure that people know in a material way that I appreciate the care they take in their work. Even if the service was bad, I try to remember the idea of compassion and assume that the person is having a really bad day – and me not tipping them is not going to improve it. I was sure that the driver was used to not being tipped by the majority of his passengers, and wouldn’t hold it against me – but would hold it against me.

On a deeper level, though, I was having a bit of a “scarcity attack.” I have friends who are well off, and they always have a wad of bills – sometimes several thousand dollars – in their pockets. They never run into the “don’t have enough to tip” problem. I, on the other hand, struggle to get out of the paycheck-to-paycheck experience, and when I realize I have no cash on me, I feel like a loser. That voice in my head says “You’re a white male in the most privileged society in the world and you don’t even have a few bucks for your driver? How pathetic is that?”

As I struggled with these internal voices, I suddenly realized there was an obvious solution. “Let’s give him the ten,” I told my friend. “I’ll pay you back when we get to the airport.”

I can’t tell you how good it felt to slip that ten into his hand. Generosity feels great, and that oxytocin was a-flowin’. Then, when we got through TSA, before I put on my belt I unzipped the secret pocket, pulled out a $20, and handed it to my friend. “Use the change to buy me lunch,” I told her.

I’m sure that I’ll have occasion to use the USB drive, and I’m sure that the stashbelt stash will at some point be used as actual “emergency” money. But in this case it was the key to flipping me from the scarcity to abundance mindset, and that makes it worth far more than the money I paid for it.

Two thumbs up and a big generous grin for Stashbelt.

A while back I announced an attempt at changing around my schedule. Specifically I was hoping to take advantage of the idea of “Maker Time”, a focused block of time without breaks when I would work on a single project.

Towards that end I blocked out four hours five days a week, with the following designations:

  1. Blogsday: Working on posts for this blog as well as other client work.
  2. Bookday: Steady progress on my Defining Moment book and the new e-book on meditation I’m creating.
  3. Bizday: When you work for yourself, you gotta be the boss sometimes.
  4. Talkday: Improving, creating, and booking presentation work.
  5. Podday: Creating and developing podcasts, both my own and for clients.

The rest of the day was scheduled for other projects – improving my sketching, an hour of writing (either for myself or for work as needed), time to do “urgent” tasks that might not have gotten done earlier in the week. Time to exercise. It was a full day, but on paper, at least, it looked like I’d have a relatively normal day between the hours of 8am and 5:30pm. Just like normal people! I thought, perhaps a bit wistfully.

So, did it work? Well…

The Hidden Cost of Maker Time

In terms of productivity, yes, it did, amazingly. In the first week I outlined and rough-drafted a new book, created a brand label, joined a virtual biz development group with weekly meetings, and booked two high-profile interviews for the podcast. And that’s just the highlights; I also had things done ahead of schedule for a change, which did wonders for my stress levels.


At the end of that four-hour flow? I was exhausted. Often I would end up feeling too tired to do the things in the rest of my schedule with any kind of enthusiasm. Far too often I fell into what Gretchen Rubin called “the Moral Licensing Loophole“: I worked for four straight hours this morning, and got all that stuff done! I can skip my workout…

It also was hard to keep the four-hour block sacred. I’m a grandpa, I’m an entrepreneur and a frequent traveler. Things come up. If I get back from a trip on Monday (often a travel day due to prices being lower) then I try to take Tuesday off as a recovery day – and that means I have to scramble to make the posts on time, and lose momentum on the books.

Don’t get me wrong: I did love the flow of those four hours. But doing them daily just didn’t feel sustainable.

Pomodoro to the Rescue

Il_pomodoro-2I’ve tried the Pomodoro Technique before. Basically it’s working in 20-minute focused spurts with an enforced 5-minute break in between. I haven’t liked it because I get into a flow and get annoyed at the idea of “taking a break”. I’m much more inclined to work myself into exhaustion or worse (which is why CrossFit is not for me).

However, by fitting Pomodoro into my maker time, I seem to have hit on a flow. It goes like this:

  • I set my Pomodoro timer for three twenty-minute intervals.
  • The first two are broken by five minute breaks
  • After the third, I take a fifteen-minute break.
  • I then set the timer for one hour and get into a deeper flow of work.
  • After another fifteen-minute break, I work the rest of the way to lunch (about 12:30). No work allowed during lunch.

This has seemed to work well. If my morning is interrupted, I can still slot in a few Pomodoros and feel like I’ve put in a decent day’s work. The breaks keep me from overworking so that the rest of the day feels doable, but the one-hour unbroken time gives me that lovely flow of getting deep into a project.

Don’t get me wrong: I still find Pomodoros annoying, especially since my computer keeps wanting to correct them to “Comodoro” (what the heck is a Comodoro?). When the buzzer goes off and I have to interrupt what I’m doing, I often swear and whine about having to stop.

But I do stop – well, ok, most of the time I stop – because it will help the rest of the day. It’s kind of like yoga. Don’t wanna, did it anyway.

How about you? Any tricks for getting good-quality flow into your workday?

A while back I mentioned the “Occupy Hand Signals” that I’d experienced during a Lean Coffee workshop. If you are a bit skeptical about it – as I was in the beginning – here’s a quick test-run you can do:

At the beginning of the meeting…

Start by introducing four concepts:


“If you have something to add to the current subject, hold up one finger. This will let us know that you’re ready to contribute to the conversation we’re having now.”
palm“If you have a new subject to bring up, hold up your palm – not like Horshack from Welcome Back Kotter, just so we can see it.”

Pointer horizontal

“When you see someone with their finger or palm raised, just point your finger – all casual-like – in their general direction. If you see someone else raise a hand after, you can always point with your other hand as well.”

snap“Finally, if you agree with what someone is saying and want to express it more than, say, just nodding your head, please snap a few times – that way we’ll be able to hear the great stuff they’re saying, instead of interrupting with Hell yeah! and the like.”

That’s it. You may be tempted to add more to the explanation, to try and have people practice, but in my experience it’s not needed. In fact, in my experience it’s startling to see how self-regulating this method will be. Things that you think would be an issue simply aren’t:

  • What if more than three people have their hands raised?” Pretty easy: the third person doesn’t have any fingers pointed towards them. Also, this happens far less than you’d expect.
  • “What if one person monopolizes the conversation?” What, like this never happens at regular meetings? But don’t underestimate the power of all those pointing fingers and the one person waiting patiently to contribute. It’s a visible reminder that you are not the only one in the room.
  • “Aha! But then you’ll be pressuring someone into not fully expressing themselves!” As if there’s some problem with encouraging people to be concise? However, while the pressure can be intimidating, this method tends to actually be more empowering for those whose voices are heard less often.
  • “That snapping feels weird and hippie-dippy.” Yep. You’re right. Feel free to use “spirit fingers” instead for a while; going back to snapping will feel amazingly conservative.

Communication is Addictive

Here’s the fun part you can prepare yourself for: it’s gonna feel weird. Try it out for one meeting; when it’s done and people are shaking their head saying “That was just strange; we’re just not like that.” You may be tempted to point out that it is a methodology backed by research into Systems Centered Theory by pioneers like Yvonne Agazarian; but resist. Just nod, thank them for trying it out, and inwardly rub your hands in anticipation for the next meeting.

Every time I’ve introduced this to a group – including the time it was introduced to me – I see it used afterwards. Sometimes unconsciously, which is pitifully amusing, since those not in the loop wonder why a couple of people are suddenly pointing at somebody holding up their hand like “We’re number one!” Sometimes it’s the grimaces of frustration as people get cut off by wisecracks or exclamations. For me it was watching a group of very intelligent, passionate people all talk over each other trying to make their points. I really wish they knew the hand signals, I thought.

Give it a try; let me know how it works. Feel free to steal those images above; I created them, and would be glad to donate them if you want to create “cheat sheets” or the like.

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New Episode of the Love Life Practice Weekend Roundup Podcast! Gray reads the posts from the previous week, along with a challenge: if you like this podcast, please recommend it to just one other person, either through this link or via iTunes. This one is personal, and it would be nice to see it go further towards those who may benefit from it.

Love and Suicide

“Shared pain is lessened.
Shared joy is increased.
Thus we refute entropy.”

– Spider Robinson

This is not going to be a very happy “Love” post.

I’m following Tim Ferriss’ lead and talking about something that often gets pushed under the rug by…well, everybody. In Tim’s post (which I recommend you read, if only for the sake of being able to point it out to those who might need it) he explains that he wrote it after finding out that one of his fans – an avid reader – had committed suicide.

It wasn’t his fault. But, still, he writes: “…I’d failed his brother by being such a coward in my writing. How many others had I failed? These questions swam in my mind.” At first I figured I’d simply re-tweet and facebook-link his article – after all, what could I say that hadn’t already been said (and better) by him and many, many more?

Love and Pain

courtesy Artūrs Gedvillo via Flickr CCRecently, though, I had a friend go through another bout of a recurring pain – the pain of a breakup with someone she loved deeply. The kind of love where, when it’s over, the recovery process is kind of “one step forward, two steps back, fall flat on your face, crawl through glass, set your teeth on fire, stand up, take another step forward.” Perhaps you can relate? That’s where she’s at. When we talked last, she seemed to be in the crawling-through-glass phase, and as we talked and I made rather inadequate attempts to be, if not consoling, supportive, I realized that like Tim, I’d never owned up to the darker side of Love on this blog.

Love sucks. In order to be deeply intimate, as Brené Brown has said, you have to be mutually vulnerable. And by definition vulnerable means you’re able to be hurt. Given the astronomical odds of finding a compatible partner the first time around, this means that you are most likely going to be hurt – badly – at some point.

Sometimes it’s often enough that you recognize the phases in yourself – such as when a poly partner of mine withdrew from our relationship almost a year ago. I’ve had various people come in and out of my life, and I could recognize the sad and the hurt and avoid the blame and know that eventually the good memories of us would outweigh both.

But not all love is like that. When you find a love that takes you to a deeper level of connection, when you start to have glimpses of wanting to create a future together – that’s when you get hurt the way my friend is hurting. That’s when the phrase “so much to live for” takes on a far more sinister meaning.

That’s when I seriously contemplated suicide.

The Pragmatic Instinct

I was a teenager, living in rural Wisconsin, in the midst of all the high-school angst and self-identity confusion that were common to nerds in the ’80’s. I came relatively late to dating – sophomore year – but I made up for it in quality and duration, having relationships that lasted months rather than the days or weeks of my peers.

And my girlfriend and I had broken up. It’s rather telling that now, so many decades later, I can’t remember which girlfriend it was. I can’t remember why we broke up, or if we got back together. That’s one of the strange things about this kind of mindset: things that, with perspective, are literally forgettable seem like the entirety of your reality at the time. That is what makes it so deadly, and why well-meaning but clueless advice like “just shake it off” or “maybe you should talk to someone” doesn’t really do much.

When you’re in that kind of place, you run into the kind of feeling like author Anne Sexton (who committed suicide) describes:

I don’t want to live. … Now listen, life is lovely, but I Can’t Live It. I can’t even explain. I know how silly it sounds … but if you knew how it Felt. To be alive, yes, alive, but not be able to live it. Ay that’s the rub. I am like a stone that lives … locked outside of all that’s real. … I wish, or think I wish, that I were dying of something for then I could be brave, but to be not dying, and yet …

And yet.” In my case, sitting there in my room with what felt like an inconsolable pain, I remember thinking about how I’d learned, in Boy Scouts, that an arterial cut could bleed one out in seven seconds. Not sure if that’s true, but that’s what I thought. And I also remember holding the skinning knife I’d made from a pre-fab kit, the smooth sanded wood and weight of blade comfortable in my hand.

And I remember thinking I could do it. I could be dead before anyone could do anything.

Somehow, knowing that was a very realistic option made me put the knife down. Made me turn to other things – I don’t remember what, probably music or some novel – to get through the time. As Jennifer Michael Hecht wrote in Stay, “If we can take suicide off the docket for the moment, that moment may turn out to be enough.” For me, somehow the knowledge that I had the power to end it was all I needed to move beyond that darkest of places.

I’ve never reached that point since. I’ve come to a better understanding of suicide – I remember being contemptuous of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, for example, feeling that he’d taken the coward’s way out when he had every success an artist could want. Years later I reached a level of success I’d never imagined – and felt a crushing weight of what if I disappoint everyone? I can’t possibly live up to what they expect. It wasn’t suicidal, but the dark mood (born of a micro-celebrity with only hundreds of people) helped me understand: what if millions of people were expecting me to inspire them?

Kurt, I was wrong; I wish you’d stayed, but I think I understand, a little, why you left.

Shared Pain

Hecht also wrote:

If you have any energy at all for participating in this world, perhaps live now only for those small kindnesses and consolations you can render. Perhaps seek to help those equally burdened by sadness. Confess your own sadness to those in sorrow. Your ability to console may be profound. The texts urge human beings to try to know that they are needed and loved. We all deserve each other’s gratitude for whatever optimism and joy we can hustle into this strange life by sheer force of personality, even by that most basic contribution, staying alive.

And that’s the reason for this post, and Tim’s, and perhaps your comment, should you choose to share. It’s not that we can solve things – but Anne Sexton and David Foster Wallace and Sylvia Plath and Hamlet and many others had to be alone – whether in reality or in their perception – in order to consider last step that forced us to live in a world bleaker and more painful for their absence. The only kind of love that they could see in that place is the kind that hurts.

It does. And it sucks that “the only way out is through”, as Frost wrote. It’s not remotely fair. It’s supremely difficult, and when you’re tired, it really may not seem worth it. That’s totally understandable; one of the only demonstrated effective treatments for suicidal tendencies, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, is predicated on the idea “…that people are doing the best they can but are either lacking the skills or influenced by positive or negative reinforcement that interfere with their ability to function appropriately.

That’s fine. When somebody is tired, that’s when they lean on someone else for a while. When you let them be the one to carry the optimism, or at least the resilience, for a while. We all get to take turns reminding each other that yes, love is excruciating – but that’s not the only kind of love there is. There is the simple love of a friend, of a smile, of a texted “(hug)” that might be that tiny bit that moves us all through the dark places together.

I’m not saying it’s easy. I’m just saying it’s worth it.

“…there’s nothing in the human heart or mind, no place no matter how twisted or secret, that can’t be endured – if you have someone to share it with.” – Spider Robinson

Remember when I was talking about how we all are part of our own narrative? About how we can write our own stories, and live our lives with a perspective of our own choosing – being the hero, the victim, the villain, even the comic relief if we want?

There’s a reason that trick works:

We’re making it all up.

The whole idea that “the world is out to get me” has to be founded on a completely ridiculous notion: that somehow “the world” is separate from “me.” It’s kind of like the silliness of “mind/body” type stuff – the “mind” is just a bunch of firing electrons, governed by genetics, hormones, environment, conditioning, all sorts of other things. It’s not “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak”, it’s more “the spirit is willing because the part of the flesh that creates the spirit is weak.” That’s why diets don’t work.

But that’s not what I wanted to talk about. Stop me if you’ve heard this one:

Wordsworth, David Whyte, Mark Manson, and Stuart Townsend Go Into a Bar…

…or, in a better version, they walk into my brain via a few different media.

In his book The Three Marriages: Love, Work, and Self, the poet David Whyte talks about a particular scene painted by an earlier poet, the aptly-named Wordsworth*:

The sea was laughing at a distance; all
The solid mountains were as bright as clouds,
Grain-tinctured, drenched
And in the meadows and the lower grounds
Was all the sweetness of a common dawn-
Dews, vapours, and the melody of birds

– Wordsworth: The Prelude 1805 Version Book IV

Whyte talks about how this tableau took the Victorian poet to a different kind of awareness, an acceptance of his place in the Big Picture of things and even further into his life’s calling as a poet. Whyte further stipulates that it is through this kind of understanding that you can better understand how best to find your fulfillment in life:

“Life can find you only if you are paying close attention to something other than your own concerns, if you can hear and see the essence of otherness in the world, if you can treat the world as if it is not just a backdrop to your own journey, if you can have a relationship with the world that is based not on triumphing over it or complaining about it. When something beautiful and overwhelming like a waterfall or the morning light on the moutainside takes us outside our worries we are put in a privileged position that is far more than the ability to appreciate a good view.”

– David Whyte, The Three Marriages (emphasis added)

The Confidence Man

When I heard that word “privilege” (as I was listening to the book read by the author, which I highly recommend) my brain took it in a less flattering direction: the constant arguments and reminders of the intersections of “privilege” that we all have to some degree. One of the uncomfortable aspects of examining your own privilege is that it can create a crisis of confidence – we no longer feel quite as sure of ourselves, and there’s this really sour feeling that life is not as fair as we’re taught it needs to be.

To combat this there are a zillion books and articles about how to boost your confidence, using affirmations and twisted logic (from Gamergate to Meghan Murphy**) and all manner of ideas. A solution that resonated with me comes from the blogger Mark Manson, who wrote:

No, the solution to the confidence conundrum is not to feel as though you lack nothing and delude yourself into believing you already possess everything you could ever dream. The solution is to simply become comfortable with what you potentially lack. – Mark Manson

It may be a stretch, but I believe that in a way you get both the lack and the completeness when you are able to find that place that Wordsworth and Whyte are talking about. When you look into a child’s smiling eyes, when you deliver that combo that takes down the Boss Level, when you really lose yourself in the flow of the writing or the feel of the dancing – when, as Stuart Townsend phrased it, “you don’t play the music, you play the song” – that’s when you are confident because you are not the center of the universe.

Instead, you realize there is no center – there’s just everything, and you’re a part of it.

Not that I think it’s terribly easy to do that for more than a split second. Then all the attachments you have to the rest of life come crashing back down, the dirty diapers, the bills, the problematic chapters and the confusing change to 5/4 meter.

But wow. That split second. That sure is something.

  • I really hope, when I have another grandchild, my daughter names them “Blogsworthy”

  • *Oh Great Blog-God, please protect me from the dangerous flames of mentioning both of these names in the same post!

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