The Arbitrariness of Life
I am not convinced that it is easy to be who we really are. Our identity scripts seem to have already been written, or are being written, by forces over which we don’t have much control.
No one, to my knowledge, has ever chosen their parents or the color of their eyes inside the womb. And no one would argue with the reality that if someone were born in a New York City condo, they have a better chance of entering Harvard or Yale than someone born in poverty.
And who can say, in middle age, they would have actually gotten married? If the answer is “yes,” who can say they know, for sure, that would be the right answer for them now? And, knowing what I now know, would I marry the person I did when I was in my twenties.
Daily Rituals and Real Intent
On a more general level, how do I know who the real me is?
I get up in the morning, take my meds, go to the bathroom, put the coffee on, cut a banana in a bowl, scan the cereals on top of the refrigerator, choose one that appeals to me that morning and pour my choice into the bowl with the cut-up banana.
That’s my morning ritual. But is that the authentic me?
I can’t do the process of elimination here. My ritual, after all, emanates from no one else but me. Its genuineness can’t be questioned, unless, of course, I wake up resenting it.
Ah, resenting it. There’s the rub.
What if I decided, one morning, that I really don’t like eating breakfast by myself, that I feel the full weight of my aloneness when I first wake up. Or that I’ve really not been true to my feelings of loneliness because I’m too afraid to admit that I don’t have the inner strength to be by myself?
This domestic narrative tells me something: I can exist on two levels.
There’s a repeated action, like washing the car, taking a shower, preparing dinner, driving to work on the Interstate. These repeated actions have a kind of inner strength to survive on their own momentum and energy. And each of these actions contain smaller actions, one leading to another, until they accumulate to a completed act.
And then there’s another kind of inner energy that accompanies these actions. Let’s give them several names: contentment, anger, resentment, frenzy, groundedness, even neutrality.
If I’m feeling content or even neutral in performing my morning ritual, I don’t question the habit I’ve developed. But if I wake up with anxiety about my ritual, maybe, just maybe, I’m in denial about its efficacy.
Maybe I really want to go out for breakfast. Maybe I really want to hang out with people in the morning. Maybe, I’m lonely. But the ritual of eating alone in the morning keeps me tied to a false self, one that is denial of his need to be with others, to be in some kind of community, not to isolate.
Am I Real With My Big Decisions
This anecdote, as trivial as it may seem, is one example of what it’s like to live a life of inauthenticity—-doing habitual rituals which I may not like but keep doing them because…..well, because they’re the known. And they’re safe…..well, because they are predictable.
What if I extend this example out to some of the bigger decisions most of us make in life—-like marriage, getting a job, owning a home, buying a car, living in the right neighborhood. Aside from the practical reasons for some of these decisions, I would venture to say, many of us make them because they seem like the “right” decisions to make at the time.
But what if there’s a voice inside of me that says I’m being “forced” or that I’m too afraid not to make these decisions, believing, “what will people think if I don’t?”
I truly believe there are millions of Americans who live inside rituals they seldom, if ever, question. And, all too often, in my judgment, these rituals become a kind of virtual reality, a parallel universe they live in because they are unable, out of habit, to pursue any other alternative.
In fact, for many, even the “desire” to make a dramatic change never arrives because any change, all too often, seems inaccessible or too disruptive. And steeped in the habits of their daily activities, many Americans would feel that any epic shift away from embedded behaviors would be just too traumatic.
Face-Changing is Not Fatal, An Inauthentic Career or Marriage
All of us know what it’s like to put on a different face for different audiences. We certainly don’t share our most intimate secrets with a bus driver on the way to Toronto. And we don’t give our opinion about freedom of speech to a two year old.
But, what happens when I get this rush that something’s not right about my life? That something about the choices I make aren’t good fits. That taking a job as an accountant doesn’t match my real desire to be a writer. That landing a job in a prestigious law firm seems dishonest when I wanted to represent immigrants. Or that I got married because all my friends did.
And what happens when a job I hate becomes an inescapable reality? Not because I recognize the mistake I made but because the security of a paycheck overshadows any self-reflection about the job I’ve been resenting for years.
I am convinced most people know the mistakes they’ve made about the big, but wrong choices they make in life. They may not realize it on a honeymoon or in the first job interview, but, down the road, reality has a way of kicking all of us in the ass.
As I look back at some of the choices I made, here were the clues I didn’t realize,
at the time, hints telling me I was stuck in my unhappy life of wrong choices, that it was time to make a tectonic change:
- My anger and resentment were becoming more intense
- I was choosing more opportunities to get drunk
- It was taking me longer to finish things
- I was having more bouts of boredom
- My energy level was becoming low
- I found myself censoring much of what I said
- I had large blocks of silence
- I was avoiding any conversations with my wife and partners about what I was really feeling. Perpetuating the illusion that “everything’s fine” was a lot easier than admitting my own grief about feeling alienated or unfulfilled
In my more intense moments of identity anxiety, I distinctly remember feeling a vague sense of not knowing who I really was or sensing that there was some other person inside of me who would be honed, over time, or eventually discovered.
I conditioned myself to believe, out of habit, that routine would slide me through the pain of my loneliness, that doing some repeated action would annihilate any sense that I was suffering from my own inauthenticity.
Authenticity did not come easy for me. Seven years of therapy helped. Belonging to several communities continues to help me realize how much I need others to give me clues about my own identity.
By isolating in my own cave, I only continue the voices inside my head, never questioning my own narratives about my family, my friends, about politics, about my own feelings. Interacting with others on a personal level (I don’t mean cocktail party or barroom conversations) is absolutely essential in finding out what makes me tick, especially if I hang out with a group over an extended period of time.
Ever Do a Self-Inventory List?
So, what is it like to be me?
Well, here is what I have discovered about John over the years, a kind of personal inventory of what it is to be me:
- I have fears about financial insecurity, sickness, disabling old age, loneliness, psychological implosion
- I have never like owning a home
- I genuinely like people
- I love my adult children and grandchildren
- I am discovering this abiding affection I have for my sister and sisters-in-law
- I love my friends, especially those who are close to me
- I love a good conversation
- I love language
- I am curious
- I have bouts of sadness; my latest bouts have to do with what the Latin poet, Vergil, once described as the “tears of things,” the essential sadness that exists in life’s quick passing, its fleeting nature, its tragedies, its failure to live up to any grand expectations, and the failure of many humans to feel into other people’s pain.
- I love good food
- I love movies about relationships
- I used to love to find new places and things to do in other cities, particularly Toronto, New York City, and Montreal. As I grow older, big cities intimidate me.
- I am impatient with braggarts and controllers
- I miss my father, the “artful dodger” and a man who avoided conflict most of his adult life. And my step-mother, who nurtured me through my teen-age and college years.
- Over the years, I have learned to understand my biological mother and even forgive her for abandoning me when I was a teenager. That forgiveness I worked out by putting her as a character in my novel (I definitely took liberties with her character, allowing me to have some kind of of catharsis)
- I have evolved into a non-theistic spiritual journey buttressed by my active involvement in a twelve-step program and the Unitarian Universalist church. I still love reading about, and discussing Christianity and the role that Christ played in the early formation of the church. Christian theology, at all levels, still fascinates me
- I remain grateful to my Roman Catholic education at the elementary, high-school, and college levels, all of which gave me a strong foundation in ethical values, service, social justice, and critical thinking
- I love reading about other people’s spiritual journeys, especially those based on personal experience.
- I avoid comments and statements which have evolved out of clerical soundbites, dogma, theological formulas, rigid interpretations of sacred texts, and out of the mouths of motivational speakers.
- I need sleep and exercise
- I need to get out of my apartment, daily and go to a familiar coffee shop
- I need to exercise, especially now, in my senior years
- I need artistic and creative nourishment
- I need to learn more patience with dogmatic theists
- I need to do service work to get out of myself
- I tend to be guilt-ridden about making mistakes, especially if I have offended someone. And I have come to realize that my guilt is often a form of pride because I don’t want to look bad.
- I struggle to balance my intellectual life and my nurturing life.
- I need to limit my time on Twitter and Facebook
- I genuinely like living alone
- I have high anxiety in filling out forms. I will do anything to avoid completing information on anything that is lengthy or requiring detailed information.
- I have panic attacks that often result from my not paying attention to what I’m feeling. Sometimes those attacks occur at the existential level from a fear of not being able to handle my life. Many times those panic attacks result in ocular migraines.
- Beautiful people can still take my breath away.
- I find chronic cynics toxic to be around
It Ain’t Over
I was sharing with my sister that I just finished this self-inventory and found that writing this self-evaluation made me actually look at myself in ways I had either forgotten or overlooked.
My other thought is that my list contains issues about myself that I might have written off as trivial. By actually writing them down, I realized that even the banal things about myself say something about me that would have been silenced by my own self-censoring because I wanted to think of my life as a collection of peak
experiences. In reality, my daily routines take up more of my time than any walking-on-water behavior. And they are part of the catalog of who I am.
Have I reached a plateau of authenticity? No, I don’t think so. The journey continues.