I’m told there are lots of people in the world whose main problems have to do with forces outside their control: poor health, poverty, governmental collapse, natural disaster, drought, famine, anarchy, etc.
But I am not one of those people. I–and I think this is also the case for many readers of this blog–am mostly concerned with things that are very partly inside my control: my writing career; my various current and former addictions; and my various social and romantic entanglements.
And with issues like that, you mostly need to: a) make sure you’re using the right approach; and b) emotionally prepare yourself for the low points that will inevitably hit you.
With regards to a), I always find that there’s usually surprisingly little disagreement about the right approach. For instance, if you’re an alcoholic, you should stop drinking, forever. And if you want to make a writing career, you should write alot, and submit your writing. If you want to make friends, you should become part of an environment where you’ll be repeatedly exposed to the same people without planning to meet them. There’s no disagreement here! There’s really only one right answer.
No, the most difficult thing, I find, is managing the emotional fallout of that course of action. Because there’s a reason people don’t do the above. There is a reason that they search for shortcuts or, more often, simply fail to act. It’s because doing all of those things will sometimes make you feel really, really bad. And not doing them will usually not feel quite as bad. For instance, you might feel pretty unfulfilled if you want to be a writer and you never write anything. But you’ll never experience that sharp drop into the abyss that comes when you realize your masterpiece is never going to be published.
What’s worse is that with regards to managing your emotions, there is much more disagreement as to the correct course of action.
Generally, when you’re feeling really really bad (on a subclinical level), you’ll get four kinds of advice:
1. Suck it up and soldier on.
2. See a therapist.
3. Alleviate negative emotions using temporary palliatives: exercise, socializing with loved ones; going easy on yourself; etc
4. Engage in some sort of spiritual practice (here in the Bay Area, it’s normally meditation) that will elevate you above the negative emotions.
The problem is that all of these recommendations sort of work. But none of them really work. Like, there’s nothing there to which you could confidently say, “Oh, just stick with that, and you’ll get sorted out!”
Because while there are very few people who write and submit their work for ten years and don’t get anywhere, there’re plenty of people who meditate extensively and are still terrified and anxious. There are plenty of people who exercise every day and still lose it whenever something bad happens. There are plenty of people who go to therapy for ages and still don’t have their heads straight.
There’s a feeling I’ve experienced so many times in my life that I can’t believe it still surprises me. It’s the feeling of hitting a really low point and trying something new that seems like it might be work, only to realize, “Oh my god, this is completely useless.”
Before I quit drinking, I remember getting up all this energy and rolling into so many AA meetings and thinking, “Alright, I’m here. Help me do this!” and then having this sinking feeling where I realized that this actually didn’t help at all. That none of this talking and community support actually put me one step closer to my goal, because the change I needed to make was a change inside my own soul, and there was no one in the world who could make it for me.
With meditation and therapy, too, I’ve had that same realization at various times. And there is a temptation to stick with it. A temptation to put your trust in an authority figure who says, “Oh, this is going to help.” And I’ve done that too. But in the end, it always feels like a false God, because there’s never a point at which someone who is supposed to help you is going to say, “Well…you’re actually on your own.”
But that’s what I’ve found to be the truth. Other people can sympathize, and they can offer knowledge and advice. But ultimately, you’re on your own with your problems. And the way forward is never clear.
It’s tempting to say, “Just suck it up and soldier on,” because at least that gets you closer to whatever it is that you want, but even that’s not the right advice. There’s too much friction there. Too much blindness. Soldiering on is worthwhile when there’s nothing else to do. But what you really need to do is to vanquish your enemy.
Oh, not completely. Loneliness can never die. The feeling of inadequacy can never die. Envy can never die. But there is a way to suck the poison from those feelings.
The problem, though, is that the way is different for everyone, and I don’t know a reliable way to find it.
I will say, though, that in my experience, it is not particularly useful to sit around and think about your problem. There’s no thought you’re going to think which is going to shed fundamentally new light on any emotional problem you have. It’s hard to avoid brooding, though, because it feels so much like action. I’ve brooded on my problems for hours upon hours, and each time felt I’d found an answer, only to see that answer evaporate with the rising of the sun.
The only worthwhile thing, I’ve found, is to confront the problem. To experience it. To not allow it to slip away. To keep it in the back of your mind for months or years, until finally the answer comes in a flash of white light.
That’s probably not useful for other people, because if you’ve never experienced the flash of white light, as I have, then it’s difficult to believe it will come. But for me, I’ve found that the answer always arrives sooner or later. And it usually arrives in the form of some relatively trite piece of wisdom that is, suddenly, imbued with new meaning.
For instance, I remember once I was feeling a little down, and I was walking around Lake Merritt, and I suddenly realized that this was it. This was life, and there was nothing else to life other than days like this. And with that in mind, I realized that I had no idea how to have a happy and contented life, but I did know how to have a happy and contented day, and that I should simply focus on making each day as happy as possible. And ever since then (this must, be wow, three years ago?) that has served as an organizing principle for my life.