2010: A Different Hope

19 December, 2009

2009 was ushered in on the tails of a Collective Hope – we, as a nation, had spent a huge portion of our energy on ensuring that Barack “Hope” Obama was elected to office, and the celebration that followed his victory in early November lasted roughly 10 weeks, through to his inauguration on that frigid day in January. We felt the pressure of the world on our shoulders, and suddenly, it wasn’t enough just to vote, but we expended a great deal of mental and emotional and sometimes physical energy hoping so damn hard that this one moment would be the change in history that we, as individuals, as a country, as members of the world, so desperately needed. It was the biggest Care Bear Stare in history, as we all gathered to concentrate our Hoping on putting Barack in office.

We succeeded.

And then, we were exhausted.

Last night, at annual holiday dinner party, my friends and I each volunteered what we were thankful for in our lives right now, and what our high points of 2009 had been. No one had very inspired answers; the best being “when I got laid off,” and the worst being “nothing; nothing good has happened in 2009.” It seemed low-points were far more plentiful and easier to conjure.

It got me thinking that maybe what we were missing last year around this time was the hope for ourselves. We were so fixated on the political hope that perhaps we invested too much in that; for although we all believed heartily that Obama’s election would change all of our lives for the better, his message of Hope did not apply to us on a personal level. Hope for the nation, Hope for the world, but what about for us?

I can’t help but wonder if, recession notwithstanding (I realize I’m asking a lot there), we just didn’t have the time or energy to position ourselves in the metaphysical space needed to enter 2009 positively, with optimism for our personal futures, with the knowledge that the ability to make our lives better begins and ends with us. We readily became proud citizens of the country for the first time in eight years, and our energies went towards hoping for better things for the group we belonged to – citizens – rather than for just ourselves, not simply as citizens, but as individuals, as unique snowflakes in this global blizzard.

By beginning the year neglecting our own need for hope (without which we’re pretty much doomed), we all started the year on less stable footing. For some of us, the ground was already fairly shaky and became increasingly worse. For others, the cracks in the once-solid ground came out of nowhere. Either way, as the country sunk into recession, we as individuals descended into depression, realizing that no one was there to hold our hand through these hard times, and despite friendships built on newly available unemployment time, we all had to learn what it was like to be a little more alone. There was an emptiness that grew more vapid as the months wore on, and I’m starting to believe that the void was created by our wearing out our energies too early, on causes other than ourselves.

Going in to 2010, a new decade that couldn’t have come too soon, we are too weary, too jaded, too afraid to invest much faith in anything – but placing faith in the greater picture just seems futile. 2009 was proof of that. Don’t get me wrong – despite the frustrations and disappointments, there’s no other person who should be in office right now other than Obama, and I believe that we did cause that change – but we’ve learned that entrusting so much of our hope in an entity so far out of our hands does not yield a fair exchange. Our Hope Portfolios need more diversification than we were willing to undertake last year; but the safest investment, the one most likely to grant the most returns, is putting our hope for the future in ourselves. Sure, we bear the brunt of the responsibility for it (call me a romantic, but I refuse to take all responsibility for what happens in my life. See “The Traumatic Bike Theft of 2009” for proof), but our accountability is more real, and thus, our rewards are that much greater, that much more fulfilling, that much more meaningful. And that works to renew our hope for another day, another month, another year. 2009 flew by, but each day was a chore, no matter how it was filled. I want 2010 to snowball – whatever hope we can muster to start the year off, as long as its a personal hope, as long as its genuine, to make January better than December, which will make our approach to February that much more positive, which will make it that much easier to wake up in the morning and face the life that awaits us.

On my way home from the dinner party, I sighed to my friend Elaine that 2010 simply had to be better than 2009. She smiled her comforting smile, patted my knee, and said “It already is.”

Do two cowards make a right?

15 December, 2009

I don’t really hate anyone. I am irked by many, disinterested in some, and simply don’t care enough to form an opinion about others. On the whole, though, I’m a lover, not a fighter, I’m a good girl who believes there are better ways to spend our precious time than hating. In fact, even when I have the right to be mad at someone, my overwhelming inability to hold a grudge usually prevents me from doing so.

The past few years have seen one major exception to all that, as there are two people, both former supervisors at an old job, whose callousness and cowardice run so deep in their characters that they are, simply, detestable. I am not at all apologetic that I feel that way, nor have I ever tried to excuse my feelings or hide them. These folks are serpentine, and the enigmatic smile of one and blank, mousy-eyed gaze of the other does little to hide the fact that they are swine.

I won’t go into the details of my grievance with them, save to say that it was in their cowardly and unprofessional approach to management that their sin was committed. Thankfully, I recovered from the incident in question quickly, and had managed to avoid these two slimy beasts for a year and a half, although there’s been a handful of close calls (which were accompanied by panic, shallow breathing and sweaty palms). The panic set in because no matter how far “past” the incident I was, I had little faith in my ability to restrain a verbal barrage of insults from hurling out of my mouth before I had a chance to try and stop them.

Last week, that 18 month bastard-free reign tragically ended. The tragedy was two-fold.
A) the longer I went without seeing either ugly mug, the better, as I was sure that the sight of them would make me ill. (I was correct.)
B) I had long imagined the moment when I was forced to address them face-to-face, and the glory of my damnation, the sweet satisfaction of calling these two milksops out for exactly what they are. But instead of a verbal beat-down and a glowing, virtuous success, I found myself betraying myself! I suddenly succumbed to the pressures of so-called ‘maturity’ and ‘niceties’ and was forced to endure not just the phony, inscrutable smile emitting from the face of a jackass, but – mon dieu – suffer a filthy kiss on the cheek from such a hated man, while trying to swallow the sick that rose up in my throat.

Oh, the heartache. I instantly felt empty, defeated. I had lost my chance at revenge; at accusing the most cowardly man I know of being just that, of kicking him in the shins, both literally and proverbially, all in the name of some godforsaken professionalism.

Was I the bigger person? Or did I commit the sin of playing into his delusional fantasy of being universally-adored, of doing no wrong, of being so in charge that his every whim and wish becomes the law of the land?

I felt dirty and ashamed, felt like I had reneged on and disappointed my pride. Worse yet, I’m afraid I’ll never again have the chance to tell him squarely: “Your behavior towards me proves that the only thing more enormous than your ego is your fear. There was never any dignity in avoiding me, in avoiding the truth, in avoiding bad things in an attempt to believe they’re not really there. Live in misery with the knowledge that whatever your title, salary or role in life, you have acted with a cowardice that will not be forgotten, or forgiven.”

… followed by, at least, a knee to the groin.

So who is the worse person? Him, for being an asshole? Or me, for swallowing my feelings when I’ve never before been so right to express them? The last few days have seen me plagued by thinking of all the biting lines I should have said to him. I need to move on, and learn that although I may have let myself down this once, I can take comfort in knowing that I will never, ever let a such a ripe opportunity to speak my mind pass me by again.

This one’s rated “A” for abstract, kids. Reader tolerance is requested.

There’s no such thing as a single, solitary outlook (on life, on love, on work, on friendships). Anytime a situation, conflict, issue arises, we struggle with the right way to deal with it – ‘right’ taking on a variety of meanings… There’s right to our heart, right to our heads, right to other people, right ethically, morally. So we start to divide our feelings, our approach. That’s when the “If…”s start to rear their curious little heads. We begin to vacillate between the imps and angels on our shoulders (when it’s easy) or we dig deeper and deeper inside ourselves to try to find something that resembles the truth (when it’s not).

Recently, I got tired of mixed emotions – stemming from nearly all parts of my life – running amok inside my head. I needed to find some peace that would afford me sleep, and some degree of comfort. I recalled that a few friends of mine were ardent believers in the power of positive thinking – if not so much as a way to get results, than as an effective approach to not let negativity get the best of them. Desperate for a change, I sucked it up and tried it. I not only placed every part of my life in a positive and forward-thinking context, but I went so far as to project whom I wanted to become in the place that I wanted to be. I even situated other people inside these projections – who do I want to work with, who do I want to spend my time with, and who do I want to be with these people?

It wasn’t easy; in fact the effort was relatively enormous (‘relatively’ being the operative word there, but it’s hardly my fault – times like these do not lend themselves to inherently positive thinking). For about a day, despite the effort exerted, I felt great. I was energized and created a huge map of the road from “now” to “happy place” and spectacular energy abounded in my apartment. The future seemed within reach, and the troublesome, tedious, stressful days of my past were numbered. What joy! What relief! What shit-eating shame that I had to admit my superstitious friends, in their optimistic glory, were right.

24 hours passed. Then, the fissures began to show. First, the effort required to put on a happy face became tiresome – if only because my cynical mind is not used to taking a backseat to blind hopefulness. Second, to me (here’s that cynicism), optimism is often equatable to vulnerability. Expectations are great, investments are high and defenses inevitably come down. This a dangerous place; this is the place that leads to disappointment, to hurt – two familiar and detested emotions.

Still, I was reluctant to break up my fling with positive thinking altogether. I searched for a way to adapt what I still viewed as a na├»vely juvenile world view into the more comfortable, if more pessamistic, outlook. I wanted to see the world through purplish-tinted glasses; not quite rosy, but not quite dark. Oddly enough, I found that turning my view completely around – more balanced, even if it did skew towards the negative – helped me get back to a not-unhappy, safe place that I wanted to be. Dissonant, for sure, but not-unhappy, and that felt good.

I tried to explain this to a friend, citing a frequently troublesome and blog-worthy area of my life (hint: it’s not the MTA). My Day 1 outlook on the topic was confident and mature, but sadly, existed in a space that was foreign to me, and so it felt largely inauthentic. My Day 2 outlook reined emotions in to a place where I could embrace whatever may or may not happen, and, importantly, be A-OK no matter what. (Some might argue that this takes the fun, the butterflies out of it. I do not necessarily disagree.) But although I was ready to accept this change as “negative,” I soon realized how much better this safe if contained approach made me feel, and that, friends, is it’s own positive thinking. If you don’t care enough to expect things from people, it’s infinitely more difficult for them to let you down. That may seem callous, but there’s a practicality there too that I’m learning to love.

From that standpoint, I took what seemed to be a tumble downwards, but, again, the so-called fall only served to reinforce something solid and settled. I began to entertain that a certain pesky situation I was in as simply entirely over and done with. Fair enough that you might think that I’ve hit the lowest depths of negativity, and you might be right in wondering what kind of investment I have/had in it at all. (I do not have an answer for you). But by nay-saying (or nay-thinking) I’ve fortified my resolve and secured my sanity. At best, I told my friend, I am pleasantly surprised by what the future holds. At worst, which is hardly worst, I stay no worse off than I am currently. And the safety in realizing this suddenly felt more positive than any allegiance to “The Secret” that my friends extolled. “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst,” my friend summarized. The way I saw it, only good things can come of that, even in matters of the heart.

Of course, it’s too easy for this tirade to end there, with my upside-down, bass-ackwards point of view bringing me undue solace. For I next began to wonder, as I truly did slip down into cynical terrain, how can one prepare for the worst while not projecting those fears? Like brown eyes and dimples, negative thoughts are dominant, and tend to cloud the presence of other emotions. Throw a projection-inclined gal like me into that mix, and suddenly what I had seen as a “rational and safe” approach grew into the scowls and thick walls of a skeptic. I found that neat coincidences could wind up under the “Positive Thinking” banner, but later couldn’t help but think that I was manifesting disappointment by specifying a more negative outlook. Suddenly, my negative-yet-positive vantage point was devolving, turning into a reclusive-and-negative view, conditions that the universe seemed all too eager to satisfy. And this worried me.

If we prepare for the worst, do we not invite panic from our neighbors? If we emotionally cast aside people we once cared for (likely in a veiled attempt to save ourselves from hurt, but that’s a blog for another time), then what’s to stop them from doing the same to us? How do we live a life of caution but convey an attitude of devil-may-care?

It is not so much that I wish to be a rock, an island, to feel no pain or to never cry, but I do sometimes wonder if our outlooks on life – on love, on work, on friendships – would be better suited if equipped with a moat. Not impregnable, but not susceptible; not foreboding, but not exposed. Then, there’d be no reason to choose Positive vs. Negative Thinking, nor to spend hours calculating which is the more effective, tenable and lasting approach. The challenges before us would serve to strengthen us, and the task of others reaching us would prove to be that much more rewarding. We would be safe, but not alone.

On Loneliness

4 December, 2009

A few weeks ago, while having a casual conversation about the nature of confused yet platonic relationships, a friend remarked “Everybody’s lonely.” He offered this without irony, without sadness, simply assuming that this is a fact, an integral part of the human condition, as natural and non-negotiable as needing oxygen to breathe, as certain as death and taxes. Our conversation twisted and turned from there, as conversations in bars tend to do, but later that night, at home alone in bed, those two words floated back into my head. “Everybody’s lonely.”

Of course, this is nothing new to me. I’ve held hands with loneliness long enough that, at times, I view the world in degrees of disconnect rather than love, connection, partnership or camaraderie. But something about how my friend had said it – was it his tone? his off-handedness? his confidence? – rang in my ears. Perhaps, too, that phrase resonated with me because this friend, in describing “everybody,” was really allowing me a small glimpse into his own emotional core… and it looked a lot like mine. I fell asleep thinking that try as we might, loneliness never truly leaves us.

A week or two later, I enjoyed the type of evening where being with someone made me feel safe – if only temporarily – from the long arms and tight grasp of the immeasurable beast called loneliness. I spent the next few days thinking that, even if we are destined to each be lonely, the relatively small moments of connection really do make the rest of the ride more palatable. Feeling confident about my prospects for a more tenable future, then, loneliness seemed like a harmless yet permanent mark that maybe we’re all just born to wear, but not endure.

Sandwiched in between then and now, I saw the new film “A Single Man,” a visual delicacy directed by fashion designer Tom Ford, exercising his right to the American dream. I won’t weigh this blog down with a review, but the movie can essentially be broken down as follows:
Act I: We all die alone.
Act II: We may not necessarily go through life alone, but we still all die alone.
Act III: We all die alo – wait – wait, do we? Maybe not! Maybe there’s hope after a – oh, no, no, we do still all die alone.

My initial reaction, as I’d seen the movie through confident and relatively sanguine eyes, was “Well, no need to be so depressing!” I would’ve gladly endured an ounce of Hollywood’s conventional optimism to not have the ending of the film so absolute, so final in its commentary on the solitude of death.

As hours passed and I digested the film and what it had to say, my friend’s small comment floated back into my conscious mind, and the past few weeks came full circle and secured by something that felt like a rock solid truth: Everybody’s lonely.

My friends in confused yet platonic relationships are lonely. Hell, all of my friends are lonely. My coworkers and customers are lonely. Bar-stool philosophers are lonely. Tom Ford is lonely. I’m lonely, too.

Sometimes, we cling to this – there is an odd safety in holding on to loneliness – it crushes you slowly, which is often preferable to the acute pinch of heartache. Most of the time, we search for a distraction, or we try to cope together – something akin to huddling together to stave off the cold, rather than giving up and lying prostrate, waiting to be consumed by that thing we’re all afraid of.

I don’t write strictly of the Single Condition. There are hundreds of social and emotional units by which to measure loneliness and/or its more positive sibling, satisfaction. And while I don’t believe we can ever fulfill all of those measures, I also don’t believe that loneliness is something we’re all destined to suffer with. Like aging, indeed, like death and taxes, it’s true that loneliness will eternally ride with us through life. But I see a virtue in that, a kind of reassurance that no matter what we are or who we’re with, we’ll always be searching for something more, not to replace what we’ve got, but to add to and enhance it.

Many years ago, I discovered the difference between being lonely and being alone. To me, it’s similar to the relationship between being alive and living. Being lonely, being alive – these are the permanent conditions. Being alone, like living, is not guaranteed, but exists in moments that come and go, come and go. Just as we are not always really living, we are not always alone.

I’m still learning to understand how everyone deals with their own loneliness. What do my sisters’ boyfriends offer them that my sisters have chosen them as their partners? Why does an old flame seemingly derive so much pleasure from being alone? What safety does a friend find in setting impossible criteria for her potential mate? Does having more options, more lovers, more stories result in being less lonely? What type of relationship do I need to find in order to keep my own loneliness-demons at bay?

So is the best we can hope for to trudge towards that lonely death hand-in-hand, to share the awkward journey? Maybe. But if we endeavor to fill our lives with happy things – people we like, fulfilling hobbies, pursuit of a satisfying career, faith in something – anything, good books, real cinema, every now and then an indulgent movie, polka-dot dresses and matching shoes, music in its myriad shapes and sounds, someone who makes us feel wanted, someone who makes us feel loved, raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, George Clooney – we may come to understand that to tame the loneliness monster is not to fight it, but to live with it.

PS: Another cute new movie recently out, “Up In The Air,” has Mr. Clooney reminding us, again, that everyone dies alone – except, he offers cheekily – for “the people in the cult, with the sneakers and the Kool-Aid. They didn’t die alone.” Food for thought. Thanks, George.