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You Do the Math

When writing for this blog I typically start with the kernel of an idea in my mind that I trust will carry enough discursive and imaginative heft to justify the thousand or so words that follow. What I have discovered though is that by the time I press ‘publish’ that kernel may not be in evidence at all. In other words, my point of departure is no more than intention allied with faith and there is no guarantee I will arrive where I thought I was going, which I suppose is a neat little metaphor for life in general.

I mention this pattern with a particular post in mind. A couple of months back I wrote about anger where I shared some thoughts on anger and its various faces, offering possible responses that have been at least partly informed by my martial arts experience. In this post I would like to add something else to the discussion. Caitlin Kelly at Broadside recently wrote a lovely piece about personal expectations and that feeling of not quite ending up where you thought you’d be. I suspect a lot of us succumb to angry feelings when we reflect on the destinations we have yet to reach that once seemed a certainty in our life plan. As a teenager I can remember thinking I would have everything sorted out by the time I was 26. When you are fourteen or fifteen someone in their mid-twenties is truly a person of the world and I had no reason to expect I would be any different.

And to be fair, my twenty-seventh year was a very fulfilling period. It was my first year to genuinely pursue a professional acting career. It was the first year I set foot in a classroom masquerading as a teacher. It was my first year back in the dojo (karate training hall) after a little hiatus. It was a year of emotional rebuilding after coming out of my first real relationship where I’d finally opened myself up to the breathless possibilities of love, and lost. My two goddaughters were born this year. I was getting to know my family better. Simply put, it was a time of great excitement and growth and there was nothing I was doing that I didn’t want to be doing. In many ways my teenage prediction was extremely accurate except for one thing – life doesn’t end at 26 and Fate’s dice had plenty of tumbling to do yet.

Almost fourteen years on I laugh as I look back and think “of course life felt good, it’s called being in your twenties!” My teenage self didn’t have a vision for now. Sitting with the chirpy guidance counsellor I wasn’t wondering where I would be when on the cusp of forty; that was a bridge too far. But if I’d had a little crystal ball that allowed me a glimpse of the unimaginably distant 2013 I would have been looking at an alleged adult who had failed to sustain the stratospheric trajectory of his imagination. A man somewhat flummoxed by life and living within himself. Someone susceptible to black, black moods and occasional fiery rages. Someone who, for all his sangfroid, often struggled to follow his own advice. Someone negotiating a tricky passage through life’s wetlands, mired in bogs of anguish and consternation.

Now, I know that’s only part of the picture but I’m sure the teenage me would be wondering what the hell the problem was. (He’d also be questioning the melodramatic turn of phrase and solipsistic bent of my prose.) He might advise the future me to relax and not get so het up about things. As for the anger, I don’t know if he’d be worried or frightened but he would definitely be concerned. Back to the present and I can acknowledge that concern in myself. When I get angry, I am concerned. I interpret it as unhappiness. But maybe that’s a misnomer, something I will elaborate on shortly. My anger mostly has only two targets – inanimate objects that fail to do what they’re supposed to do (like that damned Lego of my childhood!), and myself. When I do an existential stock-take and find I’m top heavy with stock relating to unfulfilled desires and unrealised ambitions, I get angry with myself. I consider everything a result of my own indolence and self-doubt. I am not in the habit of blaming life, or the world or the universe. I don’t lay my perceived failures at other people’s doorsteps and I don’t begrudge anyone else their success. So far, so balanced but I still feel frustrated when anger I thought was dormant surges forth and lays waste to my peace of mind. What to do?

My first two thoughts are that I am not in control and that I am allowing my anger to exert too much power over me. I have no problem with people (and by ‘people’ I mean me) being ‘flawed’ or ‘dysfunctional’ or ‘imperfect’. I put those words in inverted commas because they are loaded terms and imply that there are people out there who are blissfully, one-dimensionally happy, an idea I reject with no malice or judgement but rather with a questioning of its usefulness in defining the full range of human experience and emotion. In today’s first world there seems to be an obsession with happiness and entire industries of pop psychology and self-help rhetoric are dedicated to its mythologising. The insistence that one is happy and nothing else is imbalanced and in my opinion, dishonest. I much prefer the idea that we are all things and therefore, no thing. I am happy but I am also sad. I am calm but I am also angry. I hate and I love. I seethe and I chill.

And there is nothing to say everything has to be understood in dichotomous terms. The absence of happiness is not necessarily unhappiness. It might simply be the presence of something else – reflection, industry, anxiety, hope, exercise, disdain, horror, admiration, jealousy and who knows what else. I refuse to hide from myself and pretend that I am not enduring a frustrating time in my life at the moment and I am in no doubt that most of my current anger relates directly to that but that doesn’t mean that there haven’t been moments of exhilarating joy and deep satisfaction at many points throughout this difficult spell. Being alive to those moments so they can be fully appreciated is key to sane onward movement.

Less than three weeks ago I was squashed into a packed music venue where I watched and listened to my very pregnant wife sing three sets of great songs with The Justin Yap Band for the launch of their debut album. Before getting to the gig I had spent the entire day helping out and coaching at a karate competition where my karate club had a great day out and distinguished itself with a haul of medals and a display of fantastic spirit and sportsmanship. Buoyed by that experience I arrived at the album launch in terrific form and was delighted to be joined by several of our Melbourne friends. An unexpected highlight was the presence and birthday celebration of a 96-year old grandmother of a former member of the band who was front and centre for the entire performance and got up and boogied when the opportunity came. It was a brilliant night, electrified by the frisson of communal experience, elevated by the evident joie de vivre of an almost-centenarian and a timely reminder to me to not lose sight of the plus column. In the middle of it all I became acutely aware of all that I had and in that moment I was euphoric with gratitude. And I think that’s the moral of the story – be grateful for what you’ve got. Give thanks and mean it, because that stuff is no less valid than what you believe you’re missing.

I may not be where I thought I’d be, but I’m not in a bad place.

How’s your gratitude doing? When was the last time you said ‘thank you’ and meant it?

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20 thoughts on “You do the math

  1. Thanks for the link!

    It’s difficult to be satisfied sometimes. We all set such a high bar for ourselves (and congrats on iminent Dad-hood!!!) and it’s hard to re-set it to a different level — on others’ joy (your karate kids) and let it be our own, even for a while.

    I mentor younger writers and get real pleasure and excitement from their triumphs as well. I wish there were more of my own, but it’s not all fireworks all the time.

    I’m fortunate to have a husband who is much more grateful than I tend to be: as long as we have fresh food in our home, a clean, safe home and savings (and work), we are very very very blessed indeed. Millions of people do not.

    • You’re welcome although your method of actually quoting from the referred blog is I’m sure a more effective way of encouraging crosstown traffic – next time.

      I’m typically quite good at appreciating what’s working for me but as confessed in this post and across my blog in general, the last four to five years have been consistently challenging to the extent of everything becoming a drag at times. My desire to speak honestly and publicly about the tension resulting from the constant counterweight swinging off my positivity has been one of the prime motivators for blogging at all and in true self-help style I try to feel the fear and do it anyway.

      The result? I feel more satisfied and optimistic than I have in quite a while. And so the game continues…

  2. It is very hard work to be “happy” ….I’m glad that you found that euphoria & gratitude!! Somebody sent me a quote that they use as a daily affirmation….” Something wonderful is about to happen”
    I am working to retrain my overwhelming (& generally negative) mind chatter and so have been actively replaying my own version of that quote in by head….another thing someone suggested (which I started a few days ago) is to write one small thing that you are grateful for daily on a little piece of paper and stick it in a jar along with a penny (or euro or dollar….my new savings account)…..
    Workin’ hard to be happy in the face of alot of unhappiness!!
    And no you are not in a bad place! A miracle is about to happen!
    You are very blessed! 😉

    • Thanks Kelli, lovely to feel your positivity across the auld internet thingy.

      As for the miracle that is rapidly approaching it is hard not to think of it that way so, blessed indeed!

      Good luck with that savings account and belated happy birthday to Conor. Isn’t yours around now too? Have a kiss – mwah!xx

  3. Once again Dara a great piece of writing,I must admit i never thought of you as someone who gets dark times but there you go,we are not so different you and i,I am very glad things are going so well for you guys,nobody deserves it more and really glad Chiara is singing and playing again.Thanks

    • Thanks Sean, it’s always good to read your thoughts. I don’t think depression or black moods are the preserve of creative and artistic types but there does seem to be a pretty strong connection. I think ultimately it is connected to real feeling and an engagement with life and self that is occasionally almost unbearably raw.

      Not to elevate it to overly flowery terms but there is an inevitable messiness that comes with immersing yourself in the pulse of experience. As you well know, not all songs move to the same rhythm and each day throws up a new set-list – some tunes you just don’t want to play while others take you right out of yourself until all boundaries disappear and you become music itself. Not flowery? Not half!

      Cheers, D.

  4. Great post. Have you ever read The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman? I think it sometimes get classed as a self-help book but it really is not. Based on this post I think you might enjoy it.

  5. Once again, plenty to think about here. I estimate that there are very few people over 35, who are where they thought they might be when they were closer to 20. The trick is working out how to readjust. I think we have a ‘concept of self’ in our early twenties and that gets covered in the ‘moss of life’ as we age until eventually we can’t quite see who we are. perhaps we need to take time every now and then to scrape off that moss and look back at what we were and what was important to us, in order to reconnect with our earlier concept of self.

    All of the above doesn’t mean that we must not accept changes. We have to in order to be at peace with ourselves. However, when we completely lose sight of what our dreams, ambitions and drives were, simply because factors beyond our control send us down that path, we probably become disconnected from our ‘core being’.

    Gratitude is helpful, but not the only answer to working with the anger, frustration and feeling of perhaps being a little ‘ripped off’ or let down by life. I think being able to recognise the anger, identifying where it comes from and then doing something useful with it can be handy. Anger creates a fire in the belly that can be very useful if well directed.

    At the end of the day, none of us are perfect and none of us could predict exactly where we will end up when we were 20. My parting thought would be to keep going for ‘what makes us tick’. For those of us, myself included, who are dreamers, perhaps we need to dream with one eye shut and keep the other eye on reality.

    Thanks for making me think Dara.

    • Thanks for the comprehensive response G, good to know I’m not the only space cadet dreaming my way across the Universe!

      Maybe all the swimming we’re doing keeps extinguishing that fire in the belly? Joking aside, I think there’s plenty of fuel to keep those particular fires stoked. We’ll be nice and toasty for a long while yet…

  6. I believe I’ve said before anger is but an expression of something deeper: helplessness in shame or hurt. The inanimate legos would certainly leave a boy feeling helpless.

    “I get angry with myself. I consider everything a result of my own indolence and self-doubt…

    My first two thoughts are that I am not in control”

    Your well-put input is welcome under my latest post. I talk about martial arts at one point. The dialogue has been among the richest on my board.

  7. Thanks for your response, HW.

    I agree with you about helplessness although that is typically an illusion born of negativity as it is rare for any of us to be truly helpless no matter how demoralised or defeated we feel.

    As for the Lego – pure undiluted frustration! The gulf between what I wanted to create and what I could create defied my limited patience. I like to think I would fare better now.

  8. As your friend I can say that when you get angry while empathising with a maddening situation, it makes me feel supported and helps me feel justified in my own feeling. So your anger isn’t all bad

  9. I struggle with old, deep-seated anger almost daily. Interestingly, it’s one of the very few topics that my blog readers seem to recoil from — it clearly makes them deeply uncomfortable, (or they wish I didn’t talk about my anger.)

    Only in the past two years (sorry to say) do I finally feel — and I am now 56 — I have finally achieved most of what I wanted in life: good husband, nice home; decent work; friendships; health and savings. I am indeed grateful for all of them — but i also work my ASS off to get and keep every one of them. I sometimes see people whining about what I have (or I’m the whiner) without being willing to take the creative or emotional risks or stay the course long enough to reach that goal themselves. Very few of us get everything we hoped for, but the media and social media make it look like we can or we should and than can lead to a lot of self-blame.

    I live in a very wealthy area and often wish deeply to own a big bloody house and not a small apartment forever. But I hate most jobs and am not a lawyer, doctor, movie star or other high earner. I’m not willing to put the bit in my mouth, keep it there and pull. So, here I am…

    Life is trade-offs.

  10. I couldn’t agree more with your conclusion. Trade-offs and compromises – do these concepts even exist for today’s ‘me’ generation?

    As for anger, I guess people find it confronting because it is not something they can control. I always try to look behind it, whether in myself or others. There is always a reason, a motive, a root cause that is connected to something very real. It it’s real, it has power and that is worth engaging.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts a second time!

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