Last year I went to see my doctor for something. I cannot for the life of me remember what it was about specifically but as is the way with him, we chatted a little about life and how I was feeling about things. I answered his questions truthfully because that is what my role was, based on my most recent reading of the “Big Book Of Social Conventions” that doesn’t exist.
I remember now why I went to see him. It was to get a prescription renewed but it also had something to do with the fact that I had started to realize that life is tough and it remains kind of hard even though I am getting better at it. While I am not as physically fit as I used to be, I have no trouble putting in a full days labor if that is what the day calls for. The toughness that I was noticing was not of a physical nature – I think on some level the brain has come to terms with gravity, the mass of things, and the practical implications of the stuff Newton was ranting about after that apple hit him on the head. We have dealt with momentum, inertia, and the tendency for everything to try and drop into the center of the earth for so long that we just sort of accept that. Even if we concede the loss to physics, we still have to play the game and constantly hold things up.
The challenge that I was relating to him was more of the existential struggle that some measure of people will notice, think about, and share with their doctors. It is the struggle that I think those without children will become more aware of because there is nothing in their life that fills them with blind hope and dogmatic optimism about the future of the planet. My saying this as a lot to do with the feeling I get when I watch a parent interact with their child and celebrate the days tiny successes – like the drawing of a stick figure family that includes the correct number of people is a solid indication that the child’s intellectual horsepower will result in them curing some awful disease. They have to be optimistic because who really wants to be responsible for teaching a young person what the world is all about? Plus, they get to see first hand the magical power of the human brain taking in, making sense of, and then interacting with the real world. All of the little benchmarks in their child’s development are actually something truly remarkable. But having no children, my days are filled with interactions with once children who afford other people no reason to be optimistic that tomorrow will be any different than today or that their parents optimism was ever anything but misguided. I deal with grown-ups and if I was forced to describe us all in one word that word would be “average.”
Average is not very good, and it is certainly no reason to be optimistic about anything other than the continuation of mediocre. I am a data point in all of this so no part of me is honestly suggesting that my contribution to “average” is doing anything to lift the score. Life is not easy, talent is rare, and becoming good at something requires consistent and frequent hard work. Being average at something takes just slightly more effort than being utterly useless so it should not be surprising that the world just kind of sucks, mostly completely.
Now I have been aware of this fact for a long time; at least my brain has been aware of it simply because it has been the thing that has had to deal with it in much the same way as it has had to come to terms with gravity. The transformation recently has been that I have become consciously aware of this fact and it has started to grind me down and make me kind of realistic about today and the future. Today is going to be a lot like yesterday and tomorrow is going to be a lot like today. Very little changes other than the coat of paint, even if it seems like so much is changing. It is years of nothing, then a moment of shifting to the left, followed by more years of nothing. Repeat, but with the occasional jog to the right, or backwards, and a new iPhone that requires a different cable so your charging problem is back, rebranded but it’s the same problem you solved three years ago.
When I was talking to him, I didn’t take a moment to consider just how unsympathetic he could have been. He’s seen more than I have, and what he has seen is about as raw and unvarnished as anything can be. So while I was dealing with there being too many people in line or some store worker just hating me because they hate their job and me showing-up serves only to remind them that they are at work, he has been dealing with rot and decay, and the eventual end of each individual person. But he’s a grown-up, knows full well what the world is all about, and still asked me how I was doing.
I said something like life was kind of a drag and that if I had any advice to give it would be to not start it. This caused him to ask about self harm and I honestly replied “no, I’m going to see it through to a natural ending, whenever that is. It’s just that every day is more or less the same – wake-up, eat, go to work, work, eat, leave work, go to the store, shop for food, go home, make dinner, eat, watch some TV, feel like I’m wasting my life, feel stupid for feeling like I have it bad when I have it really good, go to bed, dream, wake-up and do it over again. It’s life, it’s what it is. It continues long after you get good at it and start to lose interest. I just wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, but that isn’t really how things go.”
He kind of laughed because he’s a doctor and it was a true statement. Maybe it was a little funny too, I don’t really know, but I know my life is easy compared to almost everyone else who is alive right now, and better than EVERYONE who had lived before 1950.
But the brain doesn’t work that way, which is a bug and not a feature if you were to ask me. It seems nearly powerless to hold in mind just how crappy things used to be and instead chooses to track in on just how crappy things are right now. While we should be smiling because we know NO ONE who died from lockjaw or from blood poisoning when the compound femur fracture they got when their horse threw them ended-up getting infected, we choose anger instead because our selfie from the Kiss concert only got 87 likes or because McDonald’s now serves some breakfast items all day.
Sure, we can force ourselves to think about the good stuff and to generate a sense of gratitude, but that requires effort and tends to earn us the label of Pollyanna.
He didn’t offer me any advice or criticism and just kind of nodded in agreement with what I was saying. It was as though he was saying “yeah, life, it’s the worst” followed by the rhetorical question “but what are you gonna do” having asked and found out that I wasn’t depressed and was willing to keep going for as long as it lasts. Killing myself was never on the table as I’m not even unhappy that I am alive. It was as though he was just checking in to make sure that my sudden realization that the living of life is a very different experience than thinking about “life” had not been so destabilizing as to render me unwilling to keep at it. And once he got that confirmation, the potentially very serious health crisis evaporated and it was just two people in a room talking about the primary disincentive for stasis. Life has to suck most of the time or else we won’t do anything. Even when it doesn’t suck, we have to find things to complain about in order to create the motivation to do something different.
Of course, we didn’t talk about that part of it. He has a job to do and I have a role to play, and neither of these include tracking in on the fundamental reason why being chronically unsatisfied might be the only reason why our species has survived as long as it has. My role is to get my prescription renewed and to answer his questions as honestly as I can, and his job is to know what questions to ask and make an educated guess about how my life will unfold over the next six months based on the content of my answers.
And in fairness to him and to the medical profession in general, there isn’t anything that he can say about the topic. So long as I am fine with continuing my life, any realization that life is hard, thankless, and effectively exactly the same every day once you hit 35, is not grounds for concern. Just because I didn’t realize it before doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been this way forever. Their job is not to help me come to terms with being alive, it is to make sure I stay alive and to offer assistance and help when something starts to go wrong that can be corrected. Me waking up is not something going wrong, or that can or should be corrected.
This is the wisdom of his questions. People tell their doctors all kinds of stuff that they probably wouldn’t tell other people. My dispassionate soliloquy serves two purposes. The first is straight forward enough, it’s to let him get a handle on what is going through my mind at that moment in time to make sure there isn’t something serious bubbling just below the surface. The second is to give me the chance to say out loud what has been going through my mind recently in an attempt to make it more than just some thought. This second part is for me, and it’s a small piece of therapy because those things need to be said out loud in order to be understood and interrogated for accuracy and meaning.
By giving me the opportunity to say “life, I wouldn’t recommend it” the doctor is making sure that I listen to, hear, and process the bulk of these thoughts. So long as there is no pathology, he’s not going to be able to do much about it because he’s not an expert on me or my life. But by giving me a chance to say out loud and to another person my thoughts, he’s kind of forcing these ideas back into my brain to be reprocessed for meaning as they apply to me. While he didn’t ask the question “if what you are saying is true, is there something troubling about it or what do you find troubling about it?” these are the questions someone should consider because people talk about things that matter to them or things that they believe are important. I was reporting what I believed was significant to me at that moment in time, so I as trying to shine a light on the fact that my life had become less enjoyable and less significant than it had been. My pointing out that each day is more or less the same as yesterday or today, is an indication that my brain was no longer getting the stimulation it needed to ignore the fact that life can be really boring when you are not doing anything or are not doing enough things of value to distract you for the mundane nature of being alive. His questions are posed in an effort to get me to voice any dramatic contrasts I have been experiencing and to then try and figure out what has changed.
Related, but not exactly relevant here, is my tendency towards the thought “if I wasn’t alive I wouldn’t need to deal with this anymore.” This thought has come to my mind about five times in my life. At my absolute worst, when I was in the grips of a deep depression, I never thought about not being alive anymore. Death wasn’t a solution, I was just depressed and I made no judgment about the validity of the feelings I was having. Depression sucks, it taints everything a particularly dark color of pessimism that leaves you so certain that everything is going to suck that your motivation is capped at empty. Yet I never considered ending my life to get out of having to live another day of bedridden depression. It was as though I knew there wasn’t much that I could do about it and therefore felt no shame or responsibility for what was going on. Time, rest, a good diet, exercise, and medication would take care of things and I set about correcting the mental trajectory of my emotional system.
The five times I thought “if I was dead I wouldn’t have to do this anymore” all surrounded decisions that I was making that were causing my life to be something that I wasn’t looking forward to. For example, I had a job managing a gym in a small town about 3 hours away from Milton (my home town). It wasn’t a bad job at all, it was actually a fairly good one. I had the support of my boss, my team knew that I believed in them, and work was about 95% great. In fact, I preferred being at work than living in the apartment that I rented; I was happy to wake-up in the morning because I got to go to work and sad as hell nine or ten hours later when it was time to call it a day. It was during one of these drives home that I heard myself think “if I was dead I wouldn’t have to do this anymore.”
My problem was that I didn’t like the majority of my life. The 40 to 55 hours a week I spend at work were great, as was the 3 hour drive back to Milton and the time I spent there every other weekend. The rest of it was not all that enjoyable and as time moved along, I became more and more aware of just how little I was getting out of being alive. When I heard myself say “if I was dead…” it caused me to take a look at my life and to try and figure out how I could think something like that.
Well, for one thing, it is a factual statement. When you are dead you do not have to repeat yesterday and pretend that it is a new day. Ending life is a very extreme way to solve the problem of having to do something that you don’t want to do. It is very effective but has the side effective of being completely limiting in terms of future options.
This begs the question “was it life that I wanted to stop or was it what I was doing within my life that I wanted to stop?” given my tendency to never want to stop my life. Any time a thought about ending my life pops into my head it is ALWAYS going to be the second part of the question – because I was doing something in my life that I wanted to stop doing. But it will include something even more important, that I am the one who is choosing to do the thing that I want to stop doing. In the case of the job, I knew I needed to move on to a different opportunity and realized that doing so was going to cause some waves and consume a lot of energy. In two or three months everything would have come to pass, but the time between now and then would be tumultuous. The thought was basically an avoidance fantasy like “imagine how amazing it would be to not have to go through any of that stuff.” Whatever that stuff is, the choice I have to make is between going through it now or going through it later, and not whether or not I have to go through it at all. The eventual outcome is clear, I will have moved on, I just need to decide when that will be and announce the beginning of the end.
The other four times I have had this thought were very similar. They were about something that I was choosing to do, that was making me unhappy, and that I was free to stop doing the moment I call it as being over and I put in the effort to deal with the fall out of that decision. It is always better a few months later and never as bad as the worst case prediction before the choice is made.
Another property these experiences share is they are moments of decision between two bad options mainly because of what I chose before. When given the choice between a good option and a bad option I picked the bad option. From there the quality of the options dropped until we arrive at this bad thing and that bad thing. For a lot longer than I’d like to admit, I choose to do nothing, kicking the decision down the road raising the stakes a little higher.
This is like “The Book Of Questions” but instead of the one that is written by a normal person, it is written by a psycho or sociopath. The question “would you rather drown or burn to death?” is asked. Instead of learning something about yourself or gaining some insight about an action that you must take, your brain gets curious and you begin to wonder what life choices would have led you to a situation that has only “burn” or “drown” as the answers. There are a few back stories, and all of them begin with making a bad choice when when presented with a better option. And once it’s on, a series of bad choices lead you having to pick between two things that are, for all practical purposes, the same thing.
Fortunately it isn’t very much like the psychopath’s book of questions. The main similarity is that, at the core of it all, it is ME having been the one who made the choices that lead me to the moment. I am responsible for my place in life so I am therefore responsible for finding a new place or creating my peace with this one. My thought that it would be great to not be alive anymore was 100% caused by my brains unconscious realization that I caused it all to happen. The idea was manufactured by some mental process fantasizing about an existence that freed me of having to take responsibility for what was in order to navigate my way out of it and one that allowed me to continue to keep my head in the sand about what was actually going on. Once I learned what the thought indicated, I came to accept what was going on. The internal conscious reality instantly matched the internal unconscious reality, which had come to match external reality.
There’s a funny thing about life that all people share. The moment we accept things for how they are, much of the difficulty simply evaporates as we stop resisting or wasting effort trying to make them different and channel that effort onto dealing with the reality. When we see clearly, we stop pretending and get round to doing something about what we have seen. My doctor was right to make sure I was going to keep going and then say nothing more about it. He probably could have said something that reflect some of his wisdom, but he left the opening open for me to fill-in. “Yeah, life is tough, and you are going to have to figure it out because it is going to continue.”
He was also correct to laugh at my recommendation that no one should start life. Whether or not it is true is irrelevant, it just isn’t a recommendation that anyone can ever follow. I interpreted what he said as him saying “yes, it is better to not begin, but once begun, it is better to finish.”