It’s been a rough first six months of this year. I’ve been trying to work on myself, trying to come to grips with things. I’ve been in counseling since January, the result of a broken relationship that’s brought up significant brokenness in me. It’s a miserable business to be faced with your own ugliness. It’s also good to be reminded you’re worthwhile.
It’s too easy to forget that. It’s too easy to buy in to the narrative that you’re just this one speck of infinitesimal whatever floating about in a vast, indifferent universe. You’re not special, you’re not valuable. You just are. You just so happen to exist, along with seven billion others at this time.
All of that being put out there, I matter to myself. That is where I am learning to begin, to launch from. It’s easy to say, “oh, you matter to your kids, to your family.” Well, yes. Yes, I do matter to my family. But everyone who comes from a moderately functional family unit matters to the others in that family. This is about something that exists outside of the sphere of known constants such as family and friends. This is about mattering to those I do not know.
That is where I have become lost. Mattering to those who do not know me, who can only observe me at whatever distance they happen to be in, that is a someplace I got stuck several years ago. I kept thinking that I was throwing words out into an endless void, that it would never come back to me. In a world where anyone can publish their opinions, what do my words, my thoughts, matter?
That was part of the problem. The other was the fear that what I said might upset the wrong person. Usually, I had the person or persons in mind. How will this come off? Will I be rejected? She is important to me, I cannot burn her with this post. He will question my reasoning, he will make me feel small. Odd to know how those who are closest to us can also make us feel insignificant.
So out of fear of both mattering to no one on the one hand, and jeopardizing what I thought was “mattering” to those near to me, I wrote less and less, and dried up inside. There was still so much to work through. There was still so much to get out. I’ve always been the kind to think and write at the same time. In the first several months of the blog I wrote in South Africa, I felt I was connecting. I was writing this stuff, people were reading it, I was getting feedback, I felt I have something to contribute. It was a saving grace in a dark time. Then the novelty wore off, I pissed someone off with what I wrote, it broke a fragile relationship, and I was scared. After that, what I wrote came off as repetitive, inauthentic, stale. I wrote less and less. I left South Africa, I came here…. and vanished into the ether.
But you’re married! It’s amazing how having no real sense of purpose or joy for life can suck the air right out of the relationship balloon. That and the drinking to cope with the sense of despair that has only grown in the last seven or so years. The enormous sense of insignificance. Get a shitty job. Come home, drink, fight. Make up. Wash, rinse, repeat.
But you have these amazing kids! It’s haunting to watch your neuroses infect the little ones. I look at Sean, I see in him reflected the same in-your-gut desperation I feel all the time: that this is a hard, cold and indifferent world, that you better not dream because that’s a set up for disappointment. That is me to a T. I dreamt of getting published. The damn publishing house folded. I dreamt of getting paid to write. I work in fucking IT and I hate every minute I sit stapled in that uncomfortable chair listening to unbearably petty people bitch about their websites. I work with wonderful people, and not all love what they do but they do it and are mostly happy-ish. I am unhappy because I am doing what I do out of fear.
I was in a masters program for clinical social work before I segued back into the working world. I got into the social work program because I wanted to help people. I think that’s a decent sentiment. I got cold feet when I started to look at the starting salary for a guy coming out of a program like this. Out of the blue, I received a call from a recruiter who turned me on to this gig I’m doing now. I reasoned, hey, this is a cry in the wilderness. Heed the call. You’ll never be anyone in the social work world and you’ll get paid peanuts. Do IT. It’s steady work, the internet isn’t going anywhere. Do this for the kids. Do this for your wife.
I suppose if anyone reads this, there will be the odd person saying, “yep, that’s right.” But I know I chicken-shitted my way out of that scene by taking this job. I had to know on some level when I got into the social work program that this was not a fast-track to greatness. Social work is grunt work; it’s thankless, poorly-paid, and necessary. Getting into it requires something like a calling from the applicant, and perhaps I was lacking that. Perhaps, if I’m honest, I got into the program ostensibly to get out of the previous IT gig I was in and hated then. I was trying to shift careers into something I imagined would at least make me feel like I was doing something good for humanity. When the rubber hit the road, though, I still felt terrified when I looked at the bank account and wondered how on earth we’d make the bills on a social workers salary. It didn’t add up. So I sacrificed my soul for expediency, and I have hated myself all over again ever since.
But what do I want? My counselor asks me this all the time. What do you want, Phil?
There are many things I want. I have relational desires. I have things I want to do before I die, places I wish to see, things I want to learn. Professionally, I have never been sure what I wanted to do. I’ve done a bit of this and that, never really settling upon something where I thought, “aha! That’s it.”
But when I write, I feel close to something like wholeness. When I was writing copy for 30-second ads at East Coast Radio a lifetime ago, I was happy. When I was writing content for social media, I felt I was doing something I was good at, something I could do more easily and quickly than others. As I’m pecking away at this keyboard, looking at my fingers because I can’t type properly, I feel wholly present.
There’s more, though. I think it comes from being a pastor’s kid, but I want people to listen to what I have to say. I want them to listen and grab onto something and have it inspire. When I was writing the blog out in South Africa, people were doing that. There’s a fine line to tread there: not every one will like what you have to say. I’ve always wanted people to think well of me too much. You have to be willing to piss a few people off.
So there it is, something I want. As far as what keeps the lights on, what pays the mortgage and puts food on the table, I want my earning to come from that place. Making that happen… that’s another matter.
I think if I’m honest with myself though, I’d like to do the writing and the inspiring (whatever that might be) even if it doesn’t pay, which I believe is what legitimizes this as something I need. Not just want. Need.
I’ve been afraid that no one listens, no one cares. I’ve been afraid of those who have listened, of the very few whose opinion of me keeps me up at night. I can’t be afraid of both of these and be okay with myself. I am too easily intimidated. I give up too easily.
My counselor keeps asking me what I want. It’s your life Phil. What do you want?
I wrote a couple of days ago about Tony Bourdain, who killed himself. Here was a guy who stumbled upon a magnanimous existence, who was slaving in kitchens and equally loved and loathed it. When the chance to become a writer came to him, he grabbed it with both hands. He ran with it. He asked no questions, and he didn’t look back. He has inspired countless people, and I guess when I think about it, he inspired me. We can sit here and argue that it was not “enough” in the end because, ya know, he hung himself and all.
I just wonder whether one act of desperation invalidates the 15 or so years that preceded it? I’d say those closest to him would say no, it did not. He changed things. He made stuff come about. He was doing one thing, and when his moment came, he went and did something different, something he loved more.
I don’t know what it will take to stop being afraid that no one gives a shit about what I have to say. I also don’t know what it will take to stop being afraid of what those who I do know think about me. But I do know it will only get resolved in the place where I feel alive. Whether I can monetize it or not.
Sounds so crass: monetizing. I guess in some weird way I always equated the ability to make a buck with my own personal worth. I could never seem to make cash being myself, so I do something that makes no sense and which I hate in order to … what? Be someone? Doesn’t add up any longer.
I want a bit of congruence in my life. I want to live from my passions, from my convictions. I think people call this being authentic. I think living from your passions is courageous stuff, and it makes you want to live the next day. Maybe when someone completely runs out of time to do so or has lost the ability to live from that place, that is what drives them to end their lives. In one sense, such a step is logical. Rather actually be dead, because isn’t doing less than that a form of living death?
Here’s a practical example: my dad, whom I love, is passionate about his missions thing. He believes that he must go to all ends of the earth and preach Jesus, that people need to hear this and pray a prayer to have their sins forgiven. The alternative is eternal separation from God. He believes this wholly and absolutely, has all of his life. He will get on a plane to Cabinda, an enclave of Angola, in a few week’s time to carry out his call. His life has been bent at the service of his convictions. He has paid for this conviction down through years in a number of ways, but he has never wavered. He is 76, just had a knee replacement, and he is going thousands of miles away as he believes he is called to do, to preach Jesus. He is absolutely at peace with himself, a happy, motivated, joyful individual.
I admire his passion, his clarity. Whatever the substance or makeup of his belief system, he has hidden his passions there and operates from that place. He made up his mind about it a long time ago. It is at the center of his being. He does not need me to agree with him. He does not need anyone to agree with him. He is wholly and utterly at the service of his passion. That, whatever the details of his “worldview,” is admirable. I’ve not operated from such a place consistently, and it shows in the aimlessness, the self-medicating, the blaming that has been the substance of my 42 years on this earth.
I spoke to my father the other day and he said I have talent. I have talent, but no confidence. I do not know if I have talent. I do know I have no confidence.
In a week’s time, I’ll be ironing out the final details before jumping on a plane with Sean and Sophie and heading back to my beloved South Africa for two weeks. They will stay there with their grandparents until August, but I will return in a couple of weeks. Oh how I wish I could stay on the whole time. I do miss it there. The timing of the trip is auspicious: we arrive there June 20th, seven years to the day of Janie’s death. I leave the 3rd of July – it would have been her 39th birthday.
The last seven years have been awful, the worst of my life. I lost my wife, I lost my way. I tried to manufacture a future but chased despair down a bottle. What few good things have come my way were invalidated by the seemingly endless ocean of despair in my spirit. I gave up on my dreams to try to make ends meet and have nearly lost my mind. I have not lived from the center of my passions as my father modeled for me, and I know in my bones I am to blame for that. Life takes courage, and I’ve been much afraid.
A friend of mine signs all of her emails with the tagline, “what will you do with your one, precious life?” At first, I thought it was a trite little sentiment, but it gnaws at me, ya know? What am I doing with my one, precious life? To exist is one thing. To live is another.
I need to live.