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?