I asked Jimmy a few weeks ago if he wanted to join me in one of the PSPLife workshops (that I didn’t end up attending).
“I don’t know,” he said. “Is it going to be life-changing?”
“Is that your calculus?” I asked. “It’s either life-changing, or it’s a waste of time?”
He paused for a moment. “Yes,” he said. “I think that may be a good way to go through life.”
“But, isn’t it a choice, whether something is life-changing or a waste of time?” I asked. “Can’t I decide if a moment is ordinary or meaningful?”
“That’s true,” he said. “So maybe that’s the wrong question.”
Then, what’s the right one?
My commute = many podcasts.
I listened to “Serial” and nearly exploded at the end, incredulous that the series was suggesting that a man who was clearly guilty — like, we’re talking 100% guilty AF — of brutally murdering his former high school girlfriend might have been wrongly convicted (i.e., innocent, which at first I thought was harmless, it’s just some podcast, but then it turned out it was the most popular podcast of all time and has somehow resulted in this sick f*ck getting a new trial, which I find pretty alarming).
Over time, though, I forgave “Serial” (it WAS entertaining, I won’t deny that), and listened to “S-Town” (or “Shittown”), another podcast from the makers of “Serial.” I was relieved to discover that it was not another reopening of a solved case where the murderer had already been appropriately convicted and sentenced by a jury of his peers (that system we set up a long time ago, that yes has its flaws, but very often does exactly what it is supposed to do… okay, so maybe I’m not totally over my anger about “Serial”).
Anyway, “Shittown” was pretty thought-provoking, on many topics, and one of the main ones is time. I won’t give any spoilers (it’s better to go into it having very little idea of what it’s about), but at the end, it raises the question of what it means to live a meaningful life, through the main character’s manifesto (the one who thinks he lives in “Shittown”) in which he precisely calculates how many hours there are in an average life to infuse with meaning (he concludes that these hours constitute only 25% of one’s life, if you’re lucky).
I’m not sure how you calculate something like that; I know he deleted things like sleeping, for example, and working, and commuting to work, but that decision is not an objective one. In other words, to me it’s not a foregone conclusion that you would necessarily subtract those things as being lost hours that cannot be meaningful.
So I think the better question is, what would I personally subtract, if I were calculating how many hours I have to live a meaningful life?
At one point, five or six years ago, I’d probably have subtracted a lot. Sleeping would’ve taken up substantial time, and it would not have been productive sleep. The periods when I was hungover were not meaningful either — it was more about just “getting through the day.” The times when I was drinking were not meaningless, but I wouldn’t call them meaningful. There were entertaining things that happened, I have my share of drinking stories, but none of them advanced my life. And the relationships I had then didn’t last.
That leads me to another question — what does “meaningful” mean? Don’t you have to decide that first, before you can determine what to subtract to arrive at how many hours you’ve got to create a meaningful life?
These questions may sound abstract, and conceptual, but, I think they’re sort of important. I think one’s philosophy of life directly shapes what you do with your hours. For example, when I was drinking, my philosophy of life was, “fuck it.” Considering that, you can imagine why I might be so reckless and loose with how I was spending my time; in my mind, it didn’t matter what I did. That mindset was appealing because it felt free, but really, underneath “fuck it,” was “avoid pain.” I thus wasn’t living “free”; I was living under the shadow of an oppressive past that, while dead and gone, continued to control my actions from the grave.
I had a dream last night. I was with a crowd of people I did not recognize (though in the dream, they were my friends, but not close friends — loose acquaintances). We were at an outdoor spa at a hotel. I was watching intently to see if my friends would order drinks. When they did, I got excited, because I was feeling especially carefree and wanted to order one too (white wine, I wasn’t going to go crazy). I had no obligations at that moment, and I was with people who wouldn’t blink an eye if I drank. I wanted to seize the opportunity. Much of the dream then consisted of me watching my friends order various drinks, and hungrily watching the bartender pour them, waiting for my turn (which never came).
This may sound sort of narcissistic, but my own decision to stop drinking, which happened on a day that I didn’t really plan to make that kind of decision, fascinates me. It’s a somewhat big decision, and it especially was for me — drinking was a significant part of most of my social activities over the prior five years (hanging with friends, going to concerts, even going to plays or movies, it always involved ordering beer or wine and sometimes liquor — that was part of the experience for me, and an increasingly important part, unfortunately).
Jimmy asked me the other day if I thought I was an alcoholic, though he did it in a very roundabout way (he is too well-trained to simply come out and ask something like that). He asked if, having attended many AA meetings with him, I thought I could benefit from joining AA. I asked him in what way, and he said in any way at all. Of course, I told him, I enjoy those meetings very much. They’re interesting, they’re different, they feel “real.” But, to respond to his specific question — which was not if I could benefit from AA meetings, but if I could benefit from becoming PART of AA — I said I thought I could benefit, in one way in particular (that is not small). I said I think it would give me something I’ve been chasing a long time, that I feel I lack — a true, genuine sense of humility. The kind of humility that prevents me from so easily judging others and indulging in my superiority complex. That’s because AA would require me to acknowledge that I am not “above it all,” or someone who “has it together.” Who I am is someone with a “problem.”
A member of AA is a flawed person, right? I mean in terms of how people perceive members of AA. It’s called “AA” for a reason — it’s something you wouldn’t want to share with others (even as folks like Jimmy don’t really care, AA, and an alcoholic in recovery, are part and parcel of who he is, and not a source of shame).
Currently, I don’t think I’m willing to be that. I think it would be a crippling experience, walking to the front of one of those meetings, and saying: “I am an alcoholic.” It would probably also be pretty transformative.
Am I an alcoholic? I don’t know, but, why would I quit drinking? People who have no issues with alcohol don’t up and quit one day, 100%, for good.
My best explanation at this point — and to return to the topic of this post (yes, there was a topic) — is that my philosophy of life fundamentally changed when I quit drinking. I went from “fuck it” to “I want a meaningful life.” My time spent drinking was not meaningful, and for me, it was often harmful. I suppose that means the answer to if I have a problem with alcohol is probably yes, I do. It’s hard to know if it’s an “addiction” per se, but if you ever go to an AA meeting, you’ll see their definition of “alcoholic” is far more expansive than you may think. To paraphrase, it’s anyone who uses alcohol on a regular basis, in whatever quantity, in an unproductive manner (“regular” does not mean every day; some “alcoholics” at these meetings would abuse alcohol just once a month, or even only twice a year — and not every “alcoholic” gets fall-down drunk when they drink).
Jimmy brought it back to simplicity. He said AA is for people who want to stop drinking; that’s all. He said it seemed I fall into that category. I can’t deny that; I do. But if that’s truly the main criteria, the world “alcoholic” doesn’t fit to me. Couldn’t I just say that “I’m sober, and I intend to stay that way for the rest of my days?” This way I can avoid having a “problem” (and the humility, which is what I said would be the main value to me of joining AA).
Anyway that’s probably an issue for another post, or book, or series of therapy sessions. The point is, because my philosophy of life changed — from “fuck it,” or “avoid pain,” to pursuing a meaningful life — I realized I could no longer drink. It went against my philosophy, my new identity (who I had become and who I wanted to be).
But, again, what exactly does it mean, to have a meaningful life?
“Meaningful” to me means growing as a person, being in contribution, creating, building and enhancing my relationships, and experiencing joy (not alcohol or drug-induced, nor instant gratification, but actual, real joy).
So, if I were to dice up my day currently, how many hours go toward a “meaningful” life, as I have defined it?
I think, for the first time in a long time, I would count my hours at work as meaningful. Maybe not all of them, but, over 60% of them (it could be better). I am now consciously building relationships with my co-workers and boss, I am actively engaging with my cases, I am building my future.
I have also successfully made my hours in the car, on my commute, meaningful. I listen to podcasts that inspire me, make me think (even if they get me angry), and they’re beginning to awaken a strong desire in me to create (write and tell stories) again. I otherwise practice singing in the car, which is building toward performing in public and growing as a singer and performer, something that brings me joy.
My analysis therefore diverges from that of the main character in “S-Town.” He subtracted hours working and commuting. I think my hours spent doing those things are meaningful.
In the mornings before I go to work and when I get home, I care for the boys. I wake up to their smiles — and yes, sometimes their cries and whines — and at night I feed them their dinner and get them safely to sleep. Sometimes Jimmy and I have a couple of hours together of quiet time, just for us. I wish we had more, it’s a work in progress. But those hours too are meaningful.
On the weekends, the boys are my primary focus, but sometimes we get a dinner out (with or without the boys), and often we have plans of some kind (family parties, community events, etc.).
Are there any hours that are lost, falling through the cracks? I mean, there are hours spent doing human things — like peeing, pooping, sleeping. There are some hours (honestly not many) watching TV (but I kind of find those hours necessary, even if not particularly meaningful, just to relax a little). But if we’re talking about waking hours that are lost, currently, I don’t see many.
When I get into a certain mindset, suddenly my “meaningful hours” turn into dead time. I would mainly characterize this mindset as being one of overwhelm; I feel pressured, I feel heavy, I feel like nothing is working and everything is going wrong. I get very self-involved, and not in a good way (i.e., not in a self-care way, it’s more in a very victim-like, ‘poor me,’ way). I get whiney, about how I don’t like living on Long Island, or that we’re still in NY. I get impatient.
Generally, in this mindset, my routine feels overbearing, like it’s controlling my life.
But, by “routine,” I mean the same routine I described above: caring for the boys in the morning and in the evening, commuting two hours to work and two hours back, and then just being at work.
Didn’t I just finish describing all of those pieces of the day as meaningful?
I think this is the trouble with “arriving.” Part of me blames popular culture, and even religion. There’s this idea that once you arrive, everything stops. Like how fairy tales end once you get to the “happily ever after,” without telling you what happens next (it’s as if the existence of the characters in the story ends, or becomes fixed in time). Or the concept of “heaven” — toil away here on earth so you can then live in bliss for all of eternity, with no problems or pain or discomfort of any kind. Isn’t that what “arriving” is supposed to be?
Well, actual arrival is quite different. Nothing stops. You’ve got to maintain what you have, for one thing — it doesn’t maintain itself — and you also have to strive for the next thing (because we can’t be static and happy, it’s not in our nature).
We had a session with our marriage counselor yesterday. Because of traffic, I got there very late, and very stressed. We had only twenty minutes. I had been struggling with feelings of overwhelm, and a loss of identity. In the history of my life, Manhattan is the only place that ever made me feel like I belonged — now, very suddenly, I was living a drastically different life and my brain was having trouble keeping up. We were at our marriage counselor’s because I had lashed out at Jimmy when I was feeling this way, and we had gotten into a fight; I blamed him, in that moment, for how I was feeling, and for everything I felt was going wrong, even though it didn’t make sense.
Jimmy wasn’t at all compassionate toward me after this fight; he was irate. Just the week before, I had laid into him, about gratitude. I gave him harsh feedback, because he was acting beaten down, and depressed, and completely disconnected from the beautiful life we had. He heard me, big time. It wasn’t comfortable, he reacted strongly at first, but then he let it land — and he changed.
Now, he was watching me be a hypocrite, indulging in depressive feelings and devoid of gratitude for our life.
Knowing I’ve been having a hard time with this lately — and that Jimmy was right, as hard as that was to admit to myself — just before our appointment with our marriage counselor, I took steps to hire my own therapist, something I’ve never really considered before. It screams “I need help” to me, and I am not someone who needs help (that’s my ego talking).
But, I told our marriage counselor that I realized that a lot of the reason for our fight — perhaps the entire reason — was my own sense of unhappiness, as a result of feeling crushed by my routine. I said since it is an individual issue of mine, and actually doesn’t have much to do with Jimmy (aside from him being an undeserving victim), I decided to hire my own counselor, separate from here, though both Jimmy and I agreed we would continue to do work here together.
She said this in response (verbatim): “Oh, good. Yes, I think you need help, you’ve got some issues.”
Now, she said it in a tone that made clear she didn’t mean it how it might sound on paper (and how I wanted to take it). She meant to say that she was happy I was taking that step, that she felt it would support me, etc. The way she phrased it, though, was in this way that made me (the ego-driven non-transformed part of me) want to deck her in the face. I didn’t, though (this is a growth moment). I just nodded along, and agreed. Yes, I need help. Yes, I have issues.
I mean, I do — and, I do. Let’s call a spade a spade. I’ll never get anywhere until I can just admit to this, and not be so worried about how I will be perceived as a result.
She also pointed something out to me, that is like, painfully obvious — but apparently not, because if it were, then I would have been doing things differently. It also is not at all new (it never is).
She said, do you really think you would feel crushed by your routine, and have these moments were you feel dissatisfied with everything, if you were happy?
I said, well, no, obviously not.
She said, don’t you think that, if you were happy, you would do things that would mold everything to be however you want it to be? Isn’t that something that you’re capable of?
I said well, yes, I’m capable of doing that, I’ve done it many times. And yes, if I were happy, I would definitely feel motivated to do things to create what I want.
She said you would initiate more moments of intimacy with Jimmy, you would seek out projects and events you want to participate in, etc. (i.e., you would be responsible, though she didn’t use that word)?
I said yes, of course. I realize that in a negative mindset I am powerless to do any of those things.
She said, then being happy is a key thing for you, isn’t it?
I said yes, it seems so. But I’m not happy.
She let it hang there.
I realized later she had given me a basic lesson in “be, do, have.”
I have many things at this point. I have my sobriety, I have my husband, I have my babies, I have our “home” (not the house or the town, but just the “home” we have created together), I have a job I actually want that offers a future worth striving for, I have my parents, my sister, and if I were less antisocial, I would realize I have a lot of friends, and potential friends, too.
But, with a shit mindset, it all gets reduced to nothing (I’m living in “Shittown”).
Now, I don’t always have a shit mindset — but too frequently, I do, and when I do, it lasts, unfortunately, a week or more. Maybe even a month.
My calculation of the hours I have to lead a meaningful life would thus have to subtract “times when Kyla is in Shittown.” Currently, that would reduce my available meaningful hours by at least 35%, if not more. That figure is probably too generous (it’s probably higher, I just feel too ashamed to admit to myself how high it is), but even if it were accurate, 35% is substantial.
By the way, one of the recurring themes in Shittown is how the main character could simply move — but doesn’t. He stays there his whole life.
The solution, then, is simple. I need to be happy. And I need help sometimes, finding my way to that state of being — and staying there as often as I can.