The Joy of Breaking Down

You don't get strong pushing a functioning motorcycle.
  1. Eighteen years-old.  I had just spent three months sitting in my folks’ basement continuously high, working out, watching TV, in near-complete isolation, interacting only with parents and pot-dealer.  Bleakness prevailed.  I thought learning how to play my dad’s old guitar might help.  I just needed $30 for a book so I could learn some chords.  I asked my dad for money.  He said no.  I broke down crying like a baby.  It had nothing to do with the guitar book.  I needed help.  I realized I had never asked for help before.  I asked for help.  I got help.
  2. Twenty-three.  I was in Munich, Germany, debauching my way through Europe after two years spent more or less continuously drunk.  All my waking hours were dominated by drinking.  My mornings—if I could get up in the morning—were pervaded by hangover-induced physical violence.  My early afternoons were spent in regret and physical recovery.  My late afternoons/early evenings were spent thinking about how getting a drink might not be a bad idea.  My nights were spent drinking, repeating cycle.  By Munich, I couldn’t handle it anymore.  My body was shutting down.  The myth of drinking to have a good time was being demythologized sip-by-sip.  I couldn’t go on.  I stopped.  I asked for help.  I went home.  I got help.  I got well.
  3. Twenty-six.  I finally broke up with my ten-year-senior, ex-stripper, adolescent-child-toting girlfriend after five unsuccessful tries.  I couldn’t seem to do anything right, even break up.  I was bouncing from job-to-job.  I had no purpose in life, no direction.  I was desperate.  I needed help.  I asked for help.  I got help.  I found direction.
  4. Thirty-two.  I was in a very unsatisfying relationship with a satisfactory woman.  She was the picture of who I thought I should be with:  pretty, successful, spiritual, worldly, etc.  And I was totally fucking miserable.  I had spent two years trying to make a connection.  I moved in with her.  She was under the impression that we were going to get married.  I knew better.  The weight of my lie was like an anvil bearing down on my chest.  I distrusted everything I said.  I went to bed early and got up late.  One night, we had a fight—the same fight we always had.  I saw the opening to get honest.  I was honest.  The relationship ended.  I moved out within an hour.  I had to rebuild my life in an instant.  I asked for help.  I got it.

At an event I host, a programmer named Amit Pitaru gave a talk about designing the best motorcycle to travel through South America.  He said that when asked, most people said they would want the most reliable motorcycle they could find.  The prospect of getting caught in the middle of Nowhere, South America is not an enticing proposition.

But he described the worst thing that can happen on a trip to see South America on motorcycle:  not breaking down.  When you break down, you have to ask for help.  You get to know the locals.  You create bonds through your interactions that would have never been possible zipping by on a problem-free bike.  You might witness a beautiful sunset fixing your clutch.  You might meet a great family or friend fixing a flat.

He went on to say that on your never-break-down-bike, you zip past little towns never interacting with anyone you don’t pay to help you (restaurant, hotel and gas station attendants mostly).  You attract thieves because your fancy bike probably makes you look like an easy target.  You move through the country efficiently, but detached.  You have no problems, but you have no meaningful experiences either.

His point:  life is not interesting without breakdowns.

My past verifies this.  Each one of the aforementioned meltdowns were immediately followed by the most glorious periods of my life, when I was able access new power, develop new relationships, acquire new emotional resources, find peace.  Truth is, all of my life’s major breakthroughs were preceded by major breakdowns.

This is not to suggest that we need to design problems.  They seem inevitable.  But it should call into question our need for security and the management of contingencies.

Most of us are obsessed with contingencies—the great “what if” scenarios.  What if I get sick?  What if he/she leaves me?  What if I get fired?  What if they don’t like me?  But what if the “what ifs” were our greatest opportunities to grow and to know ourselves?

In  the #4 breakup, I was able to recall breakdowns #1-3, and it helped reassure me that I was on the eve of a breakthrough.  Unlike situation #3, there was no emotional hangover.

So what if the “what ifs” lost their meaning?  What if there was no such thing as a wrong move, of a misstep or mistake?

It should be stated that it may not have been so important that I broke down, but what I did when I broke down.  I asked for help.  And I asked until I got it.

Prior to the breakdowns, I would depend on the help of the same deficient resources that had gotten me into the jam in the first place.  I wanted help being more relaxed, so I depended on an 18” bong for help.  I wanted help being less fearful, so I depended on Jim Beam’s faithful service.  But these things weren’t helping solve my underlying problems—they just helped me forget to ask.  Repeatedly seeking the help from misplaced sources is like asking a hamburger for directions to the nearest McDonald’s.  You can ask, but it’s probably not going to tell you anything.  And it’s not the hamburger’s fault.  It’s your fault for continuing to ask.

It should also be said that we don’t need to be completely ruined to ask for help.   I’ve heard of some people who ask for help before being destroyed by their misbegotten ideas for salvation.  This is usually not my path.  I’ve historically annihilated myself and a few bystanders before I become willing to cry uncle (for the record, the extent of the annihilation is greatly reduced from days of yore).

But my main point is that we often don’t get the help we need, nor become receptive enough to accept help, without having royally fucked up, without completely exhausting our deficient resources.  It’s what they call hitting bottom.

Yet this is the situation I most often attempt to avoid:  being broke-down, bereft, without resources, not knowing what to do.  This is in spite of never having a breakthrough without a breakdown.  It’s never happened.

So what would happen if these two entities became inseparable?  What if we charged into breakdowns, rather than tried to avoid them?  And what if we saw the flip-side:  that a life without breakdowns is a series of predicable outcomes, as interesting as a bus tour of the main highways of Peru.

What if we gave up our need to know what if?  What if we saw the journey happens because of our failures and pitstops, not in spite of them?  If we believed that, what would be possible?

1 thought on “The Joy of Breaking Down”

  1. Yes! Of your two overarching points (#1 – many of our greatest breakthroughs result from our most spectacular breakdowns and #2 – many of us spend our lives avoiding such breakdowns), the second puzzles me (and afflicts me) the most. When experience shows inexorably that breakdowns, breakups, and other “unenticing” events often, if not always, lead to something interesting and new, why then do I persits in constructing a life path designed to avoid them? It brings to mind a cold shower – the anticipation is always worse than the reality. I’m so dreading it for the 10 seconds prior, and I’ve forgotten it within a second of getting out. Keep it up Dave!

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