Monthly Archives: May 2014

What do I want?

What do I want?

That’s a hard question for me to answer. I’m not used to thinking that way. For the past eleven years, I’ve been in a career that I don’t have any interest in pursuing. Eleven years ago, I had lost what in retrospect was a short-lived job as a music minister in the church. Nevertheless, that job had represented the culmination of all my career aspirations to that point. And really, it had represented the culmination of all my life aspirations as well. Ministry has a way of becoming both.

But it was gone, and I had to find something else quickly. So I found a headhunter, did a job search, and ended up at the company that I’m still working for today.

I have told that story many times to illustrate how my life is fucked right now, and why everyone should feel sorry for me. This was something that happened to me. Life (circumstances, other people, whatever) conspired against me. All I could do was react to it, as best I could. The ship had gone down, and I had survived by clinging to a life preserver.

I’ll be honest; I still don’t think I’ve gotten over that loss. Even my choice of phrasing—”right now”—shows you just how present this still is for me, even after all this time. I still think of my current career as a temp job, and that any day now I’ll get to switch to something else. I’ve been telling myself this for a very long time.

But I don’t think that this tells the entire story. “Eleven years ago” wasn’t the first time that I decided that my own needs or desires weren’t important. I had already been in the habit of thinking that way. The job I left in order to start working at the church was itself born out of necessity, as was the job I had before that. I had no real interest in either one, but we needed the money.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with getting a job and making money, but I didn’t take the time to consider how I might try to match up “we need the money” with something I might actually enjoy doing. I saw both of those jobs as interruptions of a dream that I was pursuing (namely, to be a musician). But I did what I had to do. And I hated it, and resented the situation that had created this necessity.

Prior to that point, I had been enrolled in a post-graduate program at a nearby seminary. It was in fact the reason why I had moved to the area in the first place. I was going to get a master’s degree (focusing on “Christianity and contemporary culture”) to help me with music ministry. Because I had felt that that was my calling in life.

This “calling” had first started to coalesce in my mind when I was a junior in college. At the time, I was struggling with a psychology major and was looking for a way out of it. I had no interest in psychology as a career, but I had initially chosen it as a major because I didn’t know what else to do. But since becoming a Christian at the end of my first year in college, a new path had opened up to me. I could be a Christian musician. That sounded a lot better to me than psychology.

Because I already knew that I wanted to be a musician. I had known it since I first started playing guitar when I was seventeen. I hadn’t really wanted to go to college at all (because what did that have to do with being a musician?), but I felt that I had to, because that’s just what you did after highschool. It was time to pursue a career and make money.

It’s been “time to pursue a career” for a long time. And I’ve allowed fear, insecurity and obligation to keep me in that place. So what do I do? Quit my job? Honestly, that sounds like a great idea to me right now. As I sit here and read over this, I see patterns that I’d never put together before. A constant battle between what I want to do, and what is expected of me. I don’t think I’ve ever resolved it.

At this point I have to sigh and roll my eyes a little. Of course my dream couldn’t be something like “being an accountant”. There’s a clearly defined career path for that. Not to mention my own career, which seems to have become something related to information technology and compliance. There’s a clearly defined path for that as well. And if I may say so, I’ve actually done pretty well for myself at it.

But I don’t care. Oh my God, I don’t care. I could leave my job tomorrow and never look back. But then what? The abyss of uncertainty that would lie before me is the same thing that I have always faced whenever I start to seriously consider a career switch to “musician”. Because there is no clearly defined path for that. Most musicians have day jobs, and never quit them. It’s not something you do for money. And we still need money.

But I do know that music is the only thing that has made me happy.

This is where I’m going to leave it, because the fact is that there is no neat or easy resolution to this. When I was a Christian, one of the biggest things that annoyed me about Christian music was how a song would introduce a problem, and then resolve it by the final chorus. That’s not how life is. It’s not how my life is. I don’t have an answer.

But I would like a final chorus.

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Clocking in.

It’s going to be a long weekend.

Three days off from work might seem like a good thing, but when you’ve been avoiding dealing with difficult situations at home, it feels more like purgatory. Because I don’t have the distraction of work to keep me occupied. It’s just me and the family. And everything that that entails.

My thought right now is that I want to get out of the house, while everyone is still asleep. Rather than sit here at the computer, writing. I know that my time is limited. And already, as I type this, one of the kids is waking up. The stillness, the silence—like the surface of a lake in the early morning—is starting to break apart, as focus and concentration now start to become more difficult.

I’ve been around long enough to recognize the symptoms of depression. I’ve been dealing with it for about twenty years. And I know that “inability to focus or concentrate” is one of the symptoms. I can feel it inside, too. The rising levels of stress hormones, the shallower breathing. Life is awakening, and I must soon report for duty.

It occurred to me a while back that we need three adults in order to effectively manage everything at home. Last night, however, I realized that we actually need four. But we don’t have four; we have two. We are understaffed. And overworked.

In the midst of this, not much time remains for… well, me. I don’t even know that I could define myself to another person without mentioning my family. The lives of these five other people are intertwined with my own. Though that is a more poetic word than I might choose, if I were to be honest. “Fused in an unholy melding of flesh and bone” seems more fitting.

Even as I write, I feel the judgment. “Time for you? How selfish can you be?” Well, the fact is, it wasn’t too long ago that I found myself at the door of a depression treatment facility. Am I all better now? Well, I’m better. I can say that much. I’ve learned more about how to manage myself. And it’s been helpful.

But managing the situations around me? I don’t have many answers there. I know that I would definitely be capable of living on my own. Taking care of everything that needed to be done. Wouldn’t be a problem. But as you add more people to the mix… well, that’s when things start to become shaky. And I’m not sure if it’s just the fact of more people, or if it’s my sense of responsibility for them. Probably both.

I think I’m just sick of people needing me. And that may sound even more selfish. But it’s the truth. I don’t have enough to give, every day. The tank is empty. And I’ve seen what happens when I take a step back. My absence is missed. Things—and people—fall through the cracks.

So here I sit, at the beginning of Memorial Day weekend, looking forward to going back to work again on Tuesday. Because “work” is the least stressful part of my day. At work, everyone has their own area of responsibility. We have job titles! I know what I have to do, and what others have to do. The boundaries are clear. And the work is manageable. The fact that I’m not emotionally invested in my work seems almost beside the point.

Or perhaps that is the point. It’s easier to shut down the computer at the end of the day than it is to tuck your family in at night. Because if there’s something that I miss at work, I can always get to it the next day. But for these five other people in my house, it doesn’t work that way. I am emotionally invested in them, and the work day never truly ends. It is with me from the moment I wake up in the morning, to the moment I fall asleep at night. And as I wrote last week, it isn’t getting easier.

Am I wrong to say that I want a new job?

The thing nobody tells you.

When I was 25 years old, I became responsible for another person’s life. This person started out very small, and looked a lot like his mother. Or did he look a lot like me? It depended on the angle.

When it came time to name him, my head was filled with the names of Bible heroes of the past. Which one would it be? From the outset I was attaching mythic significance to the birth of my first child. As if he were Simba, to be displayed before all the other animals while stirring music played in the background.

Our second son was born four years later. Again the names of Bible heroes came to mind, but we settled on the name of a beloved family member. It was still Biblical in origin, but to us the name was meaningful for the person it represented.

Our third son came along two years later. Perhaps representative of the changing focus of our lives, the idea for his name came not from the Bible or a family member, but his oldest brother, who used the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as a source of inspiration.

Finally, we had our daughter. Once again, two years after the last. We picked her name because …we just liked it. It was a strong name; not too girlie.

By this point our oldest was eight years old. Then four, then two. Plus the newborn. I’m not gonna lie; it was easier back then. Yes, we had four kids. (Four!) But they were kids. They weren’t really people yet.

And that’s the thing nobody tells you.

Sooner or later, everything you know of raising children will get upended and dumped on the floor. You will find that whatever parenting skills you had before, are now irrelevant. Because eventually, your child will cease to be a child. They will become a person.

As in, a fully-functional, autonomous human being with their own opinions and thoughts, prejudices and passions, worries and hopes. Go pluck a random person off the street and start raising them in your house. Tell them what to do and when to do it, and see how they respond. This is what parenting is now like for you.

It’s what parenting is now like for us.

Am I complaining? Not really. It’s more shock than anything else. The shock of realizing that I am almost literally back to square one as a parent. I thought I had learned something. And sure, I have. I’ve learned how to raise children. But I haven’t learned how to raise adults.

My mom used to tell me, during my teenage years, that there was no manual for being a parent. I imagine that she said this with some measure of frustration or perhaps bewilderment. Because that’s how I feel now. Utterly clueless. And utterly unprepared.

I had always believed that children somehow just magically morphed into adults, the way caterpillars turn into butterflies. They would go inside the cocoon of puberty, and emerge in dazzling color, soaring off into the sky as people oohed and aahed.

Yeah, it’s not like that.

How do you navigate “parenthood” when your job as a parent is simultaneously to provide structure and encourage independence? And I mean real independence, not “he can ride his bike by himself now”. Decision-making. Managing emotional well-being. All of the things that are part of the adult experience.

I have no idea. That’s my answer to that question. I really don’t know. I am an authority figure at a time when peer relationships are of much greater importance to my son, developmentally speaking. I’m “the man”. The establishment. The system against which my son must naturally rebel.

I feel powerless, essentially. My oldest child is growing up, and the others are quickly following behind. I’m not often nostalgic for earlier times as a parent, but I sometimes feel that if I could only speak to my children in that language—the language of yesteryear, when they were toddlers, or preschoolers—then I could make them understand. I could make them see.

See what?

That I just want to protect them. I want to hold them and keep them safe from the big bad world, which is practically at our doorstep now. But I have no language with which to communicate this. I feel like my hands are tied, because my children are growing up, and that is as it should be. They are distancing themselves from me, because that is part of the separation.

What I never realized is that I would be inside the cocoon as the butterfly was being formed. That I would have a front row seat to all the change and mutation, the uncertainty and confusion, and that I would be changed just as much by the process.

In a way, it’s like going through adolescence all over again. And I know that no one told me that.

Life is hard.

“You mock my pain!”

“Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.”

I didn’t get that line at the time.

This exchange comes, of course, from The Princess BrideButtercup and Westley begin their story as innocent young lovers, who are then painfully separated for the next five years. Each believes the other to be lost to them—Buttercup believes that Westley has been murdered, and Westley believes that Buttercup has abandoned him for another man.

When they reunite, they aren’t the same people anymore. Buttercup looks like she’s still at Westley’s funeral, and Westley has disguised himself in order to learn the truth about his former lover. Grief and mistrust have replaced innocence.

I saw that movie when I was fifteen years old. At the time, I didn’t know shit about life. That’s why I didn’t understand what Westley was saying. “Life is pain” sounded pretty emo to me. (Or whatever word I would have used for “emo” in 1987.) And the bit about salesmen? That went over my head as well.

But I get what he’s saying now.

I’m not going to chronicle all of the stuff that has happened in my life since I was fifteen. There’s no need. If you’ve lived long enough, you don’t need someone else to tell you that life is hard. You already know that it is. You have your own stuff. Everybody does.

We are all Buttercups and Westleys, in our own way. We aren’t the people who still smile out at us from our highschool yearbook pictures; not anymore. Things change. Our hopes and dreams don’t always come to fruition. Or sometimes they do, then are lost. We hope for resolution to our problems that never comes, or at least not in the way that we want.

The term I have heard for dealing with all of this is “acceptance”. That’s what we’re meant to do. Accept. Accept that things aren’t what we wanted them to be. That’s how we find inner peace. Let go of our outdated or false expectations of life, and learn to embrace what we have.

The only problem is, that sucks.

And even that is supposed to be part of acceptance. Accept the suckiness. But I can’t do that. I really can’t. Maybe I’m emotionally immature, maybe I’m delusional or still buying in to some myth of happiness, but to me that feels like defeat.

Which, I suppose, means that life will continue to be hard for me. Because I will still be struggling between what is, and what should be.

Maybe that’s what I need to accept. Accept that there is this tension. That I will wake up every morning feeling dissatisfied. Not intolerably so, but enough to affect me. But that sucks too.

The only thing that feels like a way forward for me, which I have written about before, is to start prioritizing myself. Because I can accept difficulties if I’m doing what I can to make my life better for myself. But to sit around passively and watch the rest of life go by is unacceptable.

People are shitheads.

As mammals, we carry two basic competing instincts regarding other people. The first is to embrace and protect other people, if we consider them to be part of our group. The second is to be suspicious of other people and keep them at bay, if we mistrust their intentions toward us. Both are valid; both have helped us to survive as a species.

But what happens when we are taught otherwise?

“Love your enemies.” Have you heard that before? I have. I spent years “loving” people who did not have good intentions toward me, because I felt that that’s what I should do. I had been taught to turn the other cheek.

(For those of you who may not be familiar with the original context of that phrase, “turn the other cheek” means to offer the other side of your face to someone who has already hit you on one side. Let them hit you again.)

I had trained myself to lower my defenses, and to keep them lowered. This made me vulnerable to manipulation and control by others. Because even if I felt wrong about it (and I did at times), I told myself that this was how it should be.

I trusted people not according to their trustworthiness—according to how it felt to interact with them—but according to a mental framework that I had stuck in my brain.

But beyond that, I also found it very hard to comprehend that there could be people out there who didn’t have my best interests at heart. My reflexive thought had always been “who would be that much of a dick?” Surely no one could be that manipulative or cruel.

And yet, I have been a manipulative person. have been cruel. But that’s me; nobody else would be like that. So I told myself. I believed that while I was capable of evil intent toward others, everybody else—normal people—would never act that way.

So even when I witnessed others being that much of a dick toward me, part of me believed that they were only doing what was right and proper. That the problem was with me. That I deserved it.

It took me a long time to recognize this. When I left the church world, I struggled for years to believe that any of my thoughts or feelings concerning my experience were valid. I was doing this to myself through a combination of insecurity and self-judgment, but I also had the “assistance” of people who were still in that world. People who were not looking out for my best interests, but were more concerned with maintaining the narrative.

I allowed their words and actions to influence my view of myself. My defenses were still lowered. I believed them to be right, and “let them in”. I let them tell me who and what I was. My foolish confusion between friend and foe (and how to react to each) led to even greater harm to myself.

But over time, I’ve come to realize that people are shitheads.

Some people really don’t have my best interests at heart, for whatever reason. I don’t need to spend a lot of time trying to figure out how or why. I can just learn to recognize it when I see it, and to begin to trust myself when I feel that something is off.

And for my own sake, I need to stop treating these people as if they were trusted friends. I need to stop believing them. I need to stop giving them authority to speak to my experience.

To me, this is about clarity. About listening to myself. About once again learning to differentiate between friend and foe. About raising the defenses again. Not as an impermeable barrier, but as a checkpoint. So I can evaluate how it makes me feel to interact with a given person, and judge accordingly.

But ultimately, it’s about believing that I deserve to be protected from harm in the first place.