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On my 17th visit to my therapist, marking nearly a year with her, she asks me, What do you think has changed?

I could truthfully answer:

No longer frantic and empty
Like a cat
Tied to a stick
That’s driven into
Frozen winter sh★t1

But I don’t listen to Radiohead very often anymore, and that’s part of the point. The question doesn’t really have to do with the ways in which I feel differently, but with what I’ve been doing differently. So I answer that I live my life now as if living my life were a skill, something that has to be learned and practiced consciously.

Because it is. It would be absurd to imagine that playing the piano, or doing Kung Fu, or coding in PHP, was supposed to be automatic. It would be ridiculous to tell yourself that, because you weren’t born knowing differential calculus, there must be something wrong with you.

But that’s exactly what I’m sometimes tempted to tell myself about living life and being happy, even though living life — a balancing act between action and passivity, relationship and independence, grieving and celebrating, surviving and enjoying, all requiring billions of on-the-fly adjustments and split-second decisions and, probably most importantly, failure after failure — is exponentially more complicated than any of those other things.

It’s true that some people do seem to have a natural talent for living, the way some people have a natural talent for dancing: while we’re mouthing a frantic onetwothreeonetwothree and focusing on not stepping on our partner’s feet, they’re the ones grooving along like they were on living rails, whirling off into arabesques and syncopations without seeming to think about anything at all.

Maybe it’s because they worked very, very hard for very, very long. Or maybe it’s because they were born with rhythm. Or maybe they grew up listening to Bach and Strauss and Glenn Miller and the Beach Boys, so it all seeped into their blood. Or maybe they are on some damn good rhythm-enhancing drugs.

But I can’t know those things. All I can know is what I do and how well it works, or doesn’t, for me. So I make a point of things like:

  • Planning out my Sunday morning so I don’t get to Sunday night without talking to at least one or two people that I love
  • Switching the radio if I’m feeling raw and something too melancholy comes on
  • Calling a friend before I start feeling abandoned and lonesome
  • Working out on a regular schedule, whether I want to or not

And so on. I do this stuff because I’ve found out that nothing else does the trick, and with the knowledge that I have friends who can spend seven hours by themselves watching The X-Files, fall asleep on the courch eating fried pork rinds, sleep for ten hours, and wake up not feeling substantially worse about themselves; whereas if I did those things, it’d take a week of recovery before I could stop feeling like crying.

That’s just how it is. I dunno if it’ll always be that way, and I’m certain that it’s better than it used to be. Some of these things do become second nature. You build momentum and it carries you; when you’re moving along at a good clip, you keep doing what you’re doing; when you come to a screeching halt, you look at how you got there, and you start methodically doing the opposite.

1 It’s from Fitter, Happier, off OK Computer, which yeah, is the best album of its decade, but definitely isn’t suitable for one’s daily bread.

17 thoughts on “Maintenance

  1. ARM

    I once heard a lecture by Jonathan Lear (an Aristotelian philosopher and practicing psychoanalyst) about irony. He argued that Socratic irony essentially boiled down to the fact that Socrates, among all the people of Athens, realized that living as a human being was not automatic, but a difficult aspiration, one where we’ll continually fall short. Lear argued that this kind of irony was extremely important for everybody’s mental health – besides allowing for a sense of humor, it lets us handle our own (and others’) failures with gentleness instead of anger and despair. Your thoughts here remind me of that.

    Reply
  2. allison

    once I was walking precariously on the edge, someone grabbed me and walked with me.

    We walked by a church
    and she pointed at the big picture window that looked into the ‘foyer’
    and commented at how expansive it was,
    how it allowed us to see in so easily
    and those inside to see out clearly …

    then she pointed to a large stained glass window
    and commented on how many shattered pieces of glass
    put together very carefully
    made it beautiful
    made it the window everyone looked at

    but that both were windows…

    somehow that helped me
    broken yet beautiful

    Reply
  3. Julie

    Steve- I always look forward to reading your new posts.

    I wondered if you’ve read about the work of Dr. Elaine Aron on high sensitivity? http://hsperson.com/index.html Many of the experiences you describe are classic HSP (highly sensitive person) issues. And on the Myers-Briggs spectrum, you would seem to identify with the Introverted Intuitive (infp, intp perhaps?) types. These resources have been so helpful for me and many people I know.

    Reply
  4. Rose

    Steve, I love this image of life–being fully human–as a skill. I think I’ve been unknowingly punishing myself for this need to learn. Thanks for helping me see more!

    Reply
  5. Briana

    This is incredibly helpful. I’m at the end of a train wreck of a semester here at college. I feel overwhelmed, so I don’t go to class, so I feel overwhelmed, ad infinitum. It’s nice to think of living as a skill, one that takes effort and practice. Here’s hoping I can make it out without failing, and that next semester I can keep my head above water.

    Reply
  6. Anna

    Julie–I have been wondering if Steve knows about the Myers-briggs types too! When I learned I myself was an INFP it helped me immensely. I was able to say, “wow, okay, so this is how people like me approach the world.” It was nice.

    This post was just what I needed today, thank you!

    Reply
    1. Julie

      Thanks, Anna :) I’m not sure what’s helped me more, the two things I mentioned or Keirsey’ s 4 Temperaments or the Enneagram. Coming from a family of introverted, introspective ‘sensitives’ and growing up in western culture that strongly favors extroverted athletic types, I benefited greatly from the wisdom of those discoveries.

      Reply
  7. Rivka

    I think you would understand people with aspergers very well. Even when we appear normal, unbeknownst to anyone except our very closest friends, we are going through the actions of everyday life with extreme consciousness, deliberation, and effort.

    When I start a sentence, the person I’m talking to doesn’t know there is an interior dialogue in which i am arguing with myself to convince myself that it is alright to finish the sentence.
    My best friend now knows that I carefully plan the words of each upcoming conversation with him.

    Reply
  8. mikell

    like rivka i rehearse everything I do in my mind before I do it. Even sitting in a chair or saying anything to anyone. I have always done this and for a long time I thought everyone else did to. O well that,s life, my life that is!

    Reply
  9. Josee

    Reading this makes me think of is, if we are paying attention, know yourself, get comfortable with who you are (not what you do, that is where we get into trouble) as best you can and know that you are madly loved by your Creator where you are. I have had to learn some of this as a stay at home mom who very much put her worth in what she accomplished intellectually, and who stills let that attitude creep in. All that is left if for us to grow in love for Him. You are an inspiration in how you are trying to return His love. I wish you blessing!

    Reply
  10. Rachel

    Julie-I am so excited to see someone mention the HSP trait. I’ve been reading Steve’s blog for over a year now and resonate with much of what he says. I knew I was different and couldn’t figure out what it was because I never met anyone like me.

    I love your analogy of the dance, Steve. Some people seem to just breeze through life and yet I have to think everything through and wonder why this is so hard.

    Reply
  11. deb gorton

    Thak you , you make me realise we are all the same, love your writing. You articulate what i feel so often and am unable to exress.

    Reply
  12. Jim

    Yes, not being miserable is something some of us just have to keep working on. I envy those people who just go through life taking happiness for granted, while I can’t seem to make my mind focus on all the great things that I have rather than all the problems. But comparing yourself to other people doesn’t get you anywhere.

    Keep working at it, Steve. And if you have a day you somehow just don’t get around to planning and find yourself on the couch eating fast food again, don’t beat yourself up, just remember that tomorrow is a new day.

    Reply
  13. Monica

    Hey Steve,

    Just wanted to post a note letting you know that this post has really guided my thoughts lately! There’s a certain sense of freedom that comes from knowing you can choose to receive good for yourself (not by yourself of course!) Just wanted to say, thanks!! I’m inspired :)

    Reply
  14. A Friend

    Hey you know. I didn’t read this blog very much at all. I stumbled upon it a few times, and liked what I read, but now that I know that is Joey!!!! I wanted to catch up. I missed reading your posts from Catholic Phoenix. The post on the after Easter blues helped me more than you can ever know. Keep writing my friend, and I will keep reading, and checking in more often, because I think you are a genius.

    Reply

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