Perhaps it was obscured by mountains of mucus from a recent cold, but I realized while writing this morning that 2009 was really one of the best—if not the—best year of my life. What really helped define it was that it was decidedly my year.
In February, I broke up with my then girlfriend. I’d stayed in this unhappy relationship because I thought I was doing this poor girl a favor. I thought that leading her to believe that she was going to get what she wanted (she saw us getting married) was more important than me pleasing myself. Of course, that’s only part of the equation—I also didn’t want to feel the discomfort of disappointing her.
So for some time I blithely went along, thinking that things would work themselves out, that perhaps our desires would match up—“maybe some day I’ll see things as she does,” I would foolishly tell myself.
But that day never came. The same reservations I’d had on our first or second dates were there a couple years later. The only question was whether I’d heed those reservations? Would I put my happiness on an equal footing to hers? Would I overcome my fear of feeling uncomfortable for the sake of saving her time and mine?
A couple years earlier, when I turned 30, I had a bit of an insight. At the time, I was finishing up my undergraduate degree and I was marginally employed as a head cater-waiter. On the surface, it wasn’t a glamorous time. Thirty, I thought, should have represented a watershed—a time when I would relinquish the immature antics of my post adolescent twenties; a time when the roots of a career and stable family life burrow themselves into the ground. But there I was with none of those things. In fact, in many ways, I was less stable than ten years before. When I was twenty, I had a job and girlfriend.
For my thirtieth birthday, I decided to have a party at my friend Jacqueline’s. In attendance were many other friends and family. It was a gorgeous May evening and we hung out chatting and making pizzas. I looked around the room and saw the sum of my life: a series of relationships and shared experiences. And I realized if that was all I’d ever amount to, I was okay with that. I saw that life wasn’t about achieving someone else’s ideal, but achieving my own. In that moment, I felt like I had achieved my ideal: In the words of Raymond Chandler, “To call myself beloved/to feel myself beloved on the earth.”
I thought I’d given up living into other people’s ideals—the career, the money, the propriety, etc. I felt at ease with who I was—nothing added, nothing taken away.
It turned out I wasn’t quite finished.
I met my ex later that year in an airport. She was cute, foreign (well Australian), well traveled, big-busted, had a spiritual path and a job.
When I met her, I had just finished school and I wasn’t sure what was next. In the absence of a clearly defined, universally recognized objective, I used this her as my what’s next. She proved I was an adult.
The problems were many. First one first: we had almost nothing in common. While there was some superficial common ground; we were both spiritually minded. Our first conversation was about the difference between compassion and empathy. But for the most part were polar opposites. I was a slow, deliberative intellectual. She was a kinetic, action-oriented doer. I liked Steely Dan and Radiohead. She liked late era Elton John. Even our takes on spirituality were opposed: I was an experience-driven polymath. She was a doctrinal, true believer. With nothing in common and nothing to talk about, the relationship was like a sustained bad date.
Next, I don’t know if I was all that keen on having a relationship at all. Upon meeting her, excepting a little existential floating, I was really happy. Not strangely, that happiness attracted her. One problem was I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be in any relationship, much less one with her. I may have liked the idea of being in a relationship, but the reality had little immediate appeal.
Unfortunately, my ambivalence was met with her certaintly. When two parties are negotiating and one party is sure and the other is not, the certain one will generally win out. Her certainty, combined with my ambivalence—“there was a chance it’d work out,” I thought—sustained the relationship for two years.
These two issues created a “Weekend at Bernie’s” type relationship, forever bolstering up something that was dead.
So when I broke up with her, I’d done something I would probably been better off doing early on: living for myself. I didn’t want to be in the relationship. Certainly not with her. And I’d given up any notion that the breakup was going to be easy. I didn’t care. I didn’t care if people thought I was immature for doing so. I didn’t care if I would be considered a layabout, ne’er-do-well, who couldn’t commit to an adult relationship or much else. I just wanted my life to resemble my volition in some small way, because it’d been a long time since I felt like I had some influence over my life.
Later in the year, some friends and I did something called the “Presence Process.” The backbone of the ten-week program was a twice-daily breathing mediation.
The author’s thesis was that most of live unconscious, reactive lives. Through bringing awareness to our breath, we can transform normally automatic and unconscious reactions into something that is deliberate and filled with awareness. From this nexus of awareness, we can bring consciousness to all of our thoughts and actions.
Unfortunately, I didn’t know this when I started going out with my ex. I was reacting to somebody else’s idea of how I should be living. I told myself that there was something wrong with me for only having one other long-term relationship (and that was with an ex stripper who was 11 years my senior and had an adolescent child). I told myself that something was wrong with me for never having lived with a woman. I told myself that a man in his thirties should start building a future.
God knows where I got these ideas, but I can tell you now that they weren’t mine. I just wanted to be happy like I’d been at my thirtieth birthday party. I just wanted to love and be loved. Those were the only things that seemed to make any difference in my life—not some relationship status or other signifier of doing-well.
If these borrowed ideas coincided with my happiness, there wouldn’t have been a problem. But there was a problem. They didn’t always coincide. And I adhered more to these ideas than my more immediate experience of misery. I was living for someone else. Every fucking night with my ex was excruciating, hearing about things that just didn’t matter to me, countenancing her love of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” and many other lowbrow atrocities. I even took her to an Elton John show in Atlantic City. I proved that the low can still fall.
So that moment in February, when I said what I felt, when I said, “No, we will not be together,” represented what will hopefully be the beginning of a new epoch in self-awareness. While I can’t say that I’ve completely divested myself from the specter of borrowed ideals, I do feel I have a much better awareness of their influence and impact. When engaging in an act that doesn’t feel right, I can ask, “Am I doing this because I want to or because I feel like this is what I’m supposed to do according to some other source,” whether that source is a parent, a peer, a TV character or even some outmoded ideal of myself.
I’m also able to witness my states, whether I’m depressed or anxious or excited. I’m able to see how these states are embodiments of my success or failure to live into these borrowed ideals. I get depressed if it doesn’t look like I’ll succeed in achieving these ideals. I get anxious if I don’t know. I get excited if it looks like I will succeed. Anyway you spin it, these states are setups. These states all hinge my happiness on specific outcomes, and those specific outcomes—i.e. expectations—are: A. often some sort of borrowed ideal. There is no fixed way I am supposed to be in the world; am I inherently a firefighter, a lover, an artist, etc? Why should I get pissed or excited in relationship to achieving some arbitrary expectation? B. They always lead to disappointment in the end. Whether I become elevated or depressed, the violence of the shift is disturbing. If I were to have a steady state, if I were to be cool with whatever came along, I wouldn’t be prey to the vicissitudes of met or unmet expectations.
One might think I’m advocating the relinquishment of desire. But the trouble is not having desires, it’s having specific, non-experience based desires. When it comes down to it, my only real desire is to love and be loved. Why? Because these are the only things I’ve experienced that really make me happy. I’ve skied big mountains, motorcycled, had great sex, made money, had great gourmet meals, traveled the world, bought the latest electronics, have had attention thrown my way, have been tall and handsome—none of these often-regarded objects of happiness make any difference. None. At best, they’re momentary distractions from my existential befuddlement. That experience I felt at my thirtieth birthday was it: I loved these people, and I felt loved (in that order). Everything else is just details.
Of course, this begs the question, “why couldn’t I love my ex?”
I did and do love her, but unfortunately my love for her had been corrupted by a need to fulfill my expectation of myself to be a grownup. In another lifetime, I would love her in all of our differences, but not felt the need to embark on an intimate relationship with her.
On the other hand, when I let go of specific expectations of how I will achieve happiness, when my primary desire is to be happy and to love regardless of specific modality, I become open to all things that contribute to my happiness.
Under such a motivation, the first thing I see is that I must be rid of that which directly compromises my happiness. Hinging my happiness on specific outcomes, particularly, but not limited to outcomes prescribed by others, always compromises my happiness. So to be happy, I need to let go of these expectations. And what’s left if not for these expectations? The answer is a continual interaction with the present moment. Rather than looking at the world through a lens that continually evaluates whether something does or does not live into my expectations and ideals, I can choose to accept the world as it is. And in the position of choice, I might choose to accept it (because it’s easier that way). If I choose to accept everything, I am at odds with nothing. Everything is exactly how it should be. I can’t be disappointed with being a single thirty-three year old without a real job, living in a cold, ramshackle apartment because there’s no friction with an expectation to live otherwise. What is so can therefore become my ideal. This is real freedom: to be completely accepting of the way things are.
Exercising this freedom takes practice though. I need to become aware of myself, of my choices and the aggregates forces—the familial, environmental, biological, etc.—that shape my perspectives. I need to tease these perspectives—things shaped by the past—from the present moment. Oftentimes, I am reacting to situations in a manner that has nothing to do with what is occurring in front of me. When I see this (and this one is the bitch) I need to respond to the present. It becomes sticky because oftentimes I throw myself into shitty situations because of unconscious behavior—e.g. I was working out unconscious issues with my mom with my ex. When I wake up out of my unconscious state, I am often too scared to move. All the self-awareness in the world doesn’t make a lick of difference unless it guides my choices. I knew fairly early on that I was playing out my mommy issues with my ex—my need to be a caretaker, my need to please, my need to be stable for another; hell she worked in the same industry and had a birthday one day apart from my mom’s—I knew I was playing out some ancient story. But it didn’t make a shits bit of difference. Without me choosing something else, without me enacting my volition, all that self-awareness just turned into suffering.
But the choice I made in February proved that all hope was not lost—that I still had choice in that matter and, as I’d find out, every other matter in my life. What a fucking awesome thing to learn: that I am the author of my life. It doesn’t mean that I don’t occasionally—or often—have contributing writers, but I know that I have ultimate editorial control. This was my lesson for 2009.