Change is a decision that you have to make constantly, especially when it hurts.
Phil Jourdan has responded to my response to his initial essay and it’s excellent stuff, as expected. It’s a powerful thing he’s talking about and it’s inspired me to do something I’ve rarely done in the last four years on here: talk about my own experiences.
Mostly this blog has become the ephemera and detritus of my thoughts. Much of the experiential stuff has been buried beneath that, partly out of a discomfort in talking about my every day life, the way I feel, and so on. I use fiction for that, hiding myself between the sentence folds. But I’ll be talking about some things that are uncomfortable for me to talk about, along with more specific responses to Phil’s post.
But first I want to talk about that quote at the top. It’s worth retyping.
Change is a decision that you have to make constantly, especially when it hurts.
Just linger on that a moment, because it’s a powerful and true statement. Every day is an opportunity to change your life. Every minute of every day is! But an opportunity isn’t as open or easy as the word implies.
We constantly have the opportunity to change our lives, sure. But changing is so much more than a moment or a day or even a year. Change is continuous. Much of it is irrational as well, in that we don’t often examine the way we’re changing. More than that, it’s something we’re not even necessarily conscious of. The truth is, we’re changing constantly at a variable rate. Just living life changes you. Surviving today changes who you are.
It may be very minute and seemingly inconsequential (probably most days are like this), or it may be something big that transforms the way you look at the world.
The latter happened to me when I first read Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. This is something I’ve written about many times, because it really was the single most transformative experience of my life, but I also touched on it briefly a few weeks ago when I was talking about another book.
But most change isn’t like that. Phil talks about that too.
It is narratively convenient to attribute a change in life to a single moment of clarity, or some near death experience, or whatever most suits our narcissistic self-image.
So much of our destructive behaviour rests on an implicit sense of narrative running through our lives, which gives it this mysterious “It’s bigger than me!” feeling. (It is bigger than you. But not like that.)
We each have a way of telling ourselves our own story, and most of the time we are not even aware of how much energy goes into keeping this story consistent. It is utterly exhausting. Human beings everywhere, whether they see it or not, whether they would care to take this as a hilariously sweeping generalisation or not, are exhausting themselves minute by minute trying to maintain an illusion of narrative consistency in their lives. When a crisis happens, when it’s time to change and there is apparently no choice, we have an ingenious way of preserving our sense of identity (the very thing that got us into this mess) while also caving in to the demands of external circumstances: We tell ourselves that we can change because we have decided to change, and pretend that this decision, now that we’ve made it, will take care of the rest. Even if we think we’re not that naive, we do tend to be.
It’s convenient to say one specific and discrete thing changed our life. The answer is probably much more complicated. It’s also probably not something you think about or even something you can articulate, which is why it’s easier to attribute it to that moment that sparked recognition of the fact.
So for me, I push blame/responsibility on Dostoevsky’s dead shoulders, when things are probably more complicated than that. I had to be at the right stage in my life for such a text to move me the way it did. And I was. I was broken. I was a nightmare. I identified with Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov so strongly that it’s actually kind of alarming.
I was obsessed with my Death and dying. I wished for it. Self-harm was not something I suffered from, mostly due to cowardice and apathy. I didn’t want to hurt myself. Not really. I wanted to die. I wanted to be hit by a car while I was crossing the street. This desire made me reckless with my own body and I’ve had many brushes with Death but never really managed to sustain much physical damage.
Why did I want this?
It’s hard to explain because I am so very much not that person anymore. I would say that I was a creature of thought back then, whereas I’m more of a creature of doing and being now. It sometimes shocks me how little I think about anything. But when I was growing up, I was trapped inside my head. Too, I was hopelessly depressed and stifled and frustrated and angry.
That probably makes you assume I was a quiet, friendless loner. Which isn’t true at all. For whatever reason, people have always been quick to befriend me. People like me. There’s no accounting for taste, especially back then, considering how little regard I had for everyone I knew. People liked me but I mostly just wanted them to go away.
I was lonely. Unbearably lonely, and having people around didn’t make me less lonely, though I always told myself it would help. They made me lonelier. I would smile and laugh with them, be charming and fun, but inside I just wanted to die. I felt empty or overfull. There was no in between.
I felt things so much that it physically hurt. I mean that in a very real sense. Even though I didn’t really like anyone, I cared deeply about them. To see them hurt, emotionally or physically, made me sick. I remember writhing in pain after a rather depressing argument with one of my fellow depressives. It felt like I was being stabbed, cut open, and having my entrails pulled out. I vomited.
And I lived like this for much of my life. Feeling either nothing or feeling so much that it felt like the world was trying to fit inside my too small body. I never slept. I was angry almost always, though I never expressed that anger. I was a waterfall trapped inside a well. I was haunted by the ghosts that kept me awake all night.
I remember lying awake in bed crying, holding my dog because she was all that mattered to me. My oldest and dearest friend. She may be the only real reason I persisted in living, reckless as I was.
I started drinking when I was very young. I would drink until 5am and then go to school at 7am and smile and laugh and be boiling with rage and pain.
And then I fell off a cliff.
I fell sixty feet, hit the rocks below, and quickly stood up, all the breath stolen from me. My friends shouted into the emptiness asking if I was dead. Eventually I was able to say no.
I spent the weekend in the hospital. I had a broken clavicle, and that was the only real damage to me. The weekend was surreal. My body was in shock so I slept through much of it. My dad was in the room with me the whole time. He never left my side but I barely remember him being there. I barely remember anything except how the nurses called me the miracle boy. They told me how life would feel new. like a gift. How my whole life would change because of this.
But it didn’t. And knowing that I wasn’t different made it worse. It was emotionally crippling to believe that I was somehow failing because the world didn’t look and feel new because I survived. I felt the weight of expectation on my young depressive shoulders and I buckled under it. My legs gave out and I felt worse and worse for not having some kind of epiphany.
I literally should have died. There is no reason that I survived, let alone that I was barely even hurt. Had I fallen a few feet to the left, I would’ve been broken in half over an enormous jagged rock. Had my body been rotated just a few inches, I would’ve snapped my neck. Had I been rotated a few inches another direction, I would’ve broken my back and maybe been paralysed if I survived.
But I didn’t die and not dying didn’t give me a new lease on life. Didn’t change my perspective about mortality.
I had been running for Death for so long that it didn’t seem significant to me that I lived.
To be honest, it still doesn’t. I don’t look back at that event as being particularly interesting. If anything, it taught me how tenuous our hold on the world is. Probably the most interesting thing about it happened when I returned to that cliff for the first time about two years later. I found myself unable to even come close to it. I was standing about 100 feet from the edge, my body shaking so hard I could barely breathe. I felt like I was going to pass out.
Because even if your brain doesn’t remember, your body does.
It was later that Dostoevsky changed my life, and it would be convenient to draw a somewhat straight line through all of this and connect the dots that way, but it would be largely incorrect.
Partly because I feel almost severed from that boy I was.
When I say Dostoevsky changed my life, I’m talking about a dramatic change. One day I was me picking up Crime and Punishment for the first time. A few days later I was a completely different me, crying into the page I had just finished, turning the book back to page one and reading through the tears blurring my vision.
Gradually, I came out of my head. I gave up my anger. I accepted my emotions. I forgave those who had hurt me–even those who broke my heart in ways that seemed cruel. I just gradually became someone who accepted so much of life. Maybe I owe this more to Lao Tzu than I do to Dostoevsky, but that doesn’t really matter, because, as Phil notes, the narrative isn’t especially useful or significant. Holding onto the me that I was and trying to reconcile who and what I was before with who and what I am now wouldn’t be a beneficial exercise.
I stopped thinking so much and began really inhabiting the world. I stopped being so obsessed with myself and put my focus on to the world around me.
Which has also crushed me at times. I’m a lifelong depressive, unfortunately. Sometimes it’s quite crippling. And then there are the delusional manic phases that are sometimes scarier, where I’m up for days just moving and grooving and hearing music that’s not there, my whole body vibrating as one and everything feeling so clear, despite how askew it may really be.
But my depression rarely comes from inside me anymore. I don’t hold my faults against me, just as I try not to hold them against people. But the weight of the world crushes me at times. The cruelty of it. The inhumanity of civilisation. I look around and see so much unkindness (especially online), so much hatred, so many ways to separate and delineate humanity, and almost no attempts to pulls us together, to remind one another that we really are just one species with billions of faces and variations.
To me, change is a constant gradual thing that happens whether we’re cognizant of it or not. Not just personal change, but global change.
The goal, I think, is to direct this change. But since we can’t steer our species or the planet, we’ll have to settle with ourselves. You are the captain of your own life. If you drift through the oceans of time, memory, experience, thought, emotion, and other humans, you may become lost and just keep getting loster until you find yourself in dangerous waters.
This is what people mean when they say, ‘She let herself go.’ What they mean is that you’re spiralling into a very dark place. You’re giving up or giving in.
I actually don’t like the imprecision of such language, because I think the process of letting yourself go is a positive thing, though my definition is different.
Letting yourself go, to me, is more about shedding all the aspects of your thought and behavior that lead to unhappiness (which is, in essence, what I did after reading Dostoevsky). Most of those are tied to your own sense of self and a lot of them are inherently selfish. Our desire to be correct. Our desire to be recognised. Our desire to be compared favorably to those around us. Our desire to just matter. Our desire to be loved. Our desire to be perceived as intelligent, beautiful, funny, exciting, interesting, whatever. All of these lead to looking externally for happiness, which, of course, leads to unhappiness. Not just personal unhappiness, but social unhappiness. Because, whether you like it or not, your behavior influences and affects those around you. Even the people that you only share a few seconds with.
So, to me, letting yourself go is more about manually directing your voyage through life without all the hangups and desires that veer you into treacherous waters. Being aware of how powerful choice is. How every moment of every day is a choice. The goal is to choose prosocially. Choose not only for yourself, but for all of those around you. Because that’s what you’re doing, really. When you choose to be rude or flippant or aggressive, you’re choosing the experience that other people will have when they encounter you.
This whole discussion that Phil started began with responsibility, and I find myself back here.
You are responsible for everyone, to an extent. This is what Phil’s getting at, I think, when he talks about collective responsibility.
To me, it’s become an incommunicably obvious thing that we are all equally responsible for everything; that is not just some thought experiment for a blog post.
And this is something that also became obvious to me all those years ago. The reason it’s incommunicable or at least difficult to articulate is because this process is so gradual and, I think, instinctual, to a degree. When you begin choosing prosocially for those who will have to share experiential space with you, it gradually becomes almost innate.
It’s one of the coolest aspects of our brains. The more you choose something, the more it becomes like muscle memory. When you make the conscious choice to be kind to everyone you come into contact with, eventually you’ll no longer have to consciously choose it. You’ll just be it.
Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. The longer you behave and think antisocially, the more rigid that behavior becomes. So when you’re often rude to people, it becomes easier and easier to be rude until you’re no longer even consciously thinking about being rude. You’re just a rude person now. The more you think that someone or some group is ruining the world/country/your life, the more ingrained that position becomes. Blaming others seems the only obvious answer to all that’s wrong with existence. The more you hold your mistakes against yourself (especially the little social gaffes that make up every day of every single person in the world), the easier it is for you to find fault with yourself and eventually that viewpoint will solidify into an assessment of your self worth.
The most difficult thing, for me, is seeing people suffer and knowing that I’ve been through that and found a way to come out on the otherside. It’s difficult for obvious reasons, like empathy, but the real problem for me is that I can’t guide them.
I’m not a therapist. I simply don’t have that training and wouldn’t know how to help someone work through it in a meaningful way.
I’ve often given advice to people but it’s difficult to tell them that they need to just start small. To try every day to think more positively. Or, it’s not difficult to tell them that, but it’s difficult for them to internalise that information and believe it’s meaningful. Which is not a slight against them, by any means. That’s a perfectly normal way to respond. If you ask someone for help and their advice is to try being kinder to yourself…it’s hard to do much with that advice. The problem with the advice is that it’s not especially meaningful without context. And your personal context isn’t necessarily useful to them.
I can say all kinds of unhelpful things like, Stay positive! But those kinds of statements can feel almost aggressive when you’re suffering. When you’re in pain and someone tells you to be kind, to be generous, to think about the positive things, it feels like you’re being attacked, that your emotions are being slapped and demeaned.
So how do you change?
That’s still the question, yeah?
How do you change and how do you know that the change you’re making is the right change?
You don’t and I can’t tell you.
But there is literally an entire field devoted to helping people in this way, so they may be part of the answer.
I, personally, have never been to a therapist. When I was younger it was out of shame but now it’s mostly due to cost, and I imagine many are in the same boat. Because I’ve never experienced it, I can’t tell you if it’s a good idea or not, but it does seem to be very positive for very many people, so, if you’re suffering or if you want to change your life, I’d encourage you to at least try it out, if you’re able.
Because the road I took was long. It was painful. It’s like holding a ghost. Like chasing rainbows. Sometimes the choice you think is the right one leads you down an uncomfortable and painful road that you need to claw your way back from. Sometimes making a choice is like climbing a mountain: It sucks and it’s painful and you’re exhausted, but when you reach the summit you’re elated and you can see for miles and miles and the world, for that moment, feels like love, like being enveloped by the hands of a god.
So how do you change?
One choice at a time.
Before I end this already too long post, I want to talk about one more point that Phil brings up:
You have to know for a fact (without even really know how you know it) that nobody in the world does anything except out of a deep and irrational caring about life. You can’t be angry without caring; you can’t be jealous without caring; you can’t start a war without caring; you can’t steal without caring. That doesn’t excuse any misdeed, but it’s a much soberer way of seeing things. We all care deeply and totally irrationally about being okay. From this totally irrational but all-powerful sense of giving a shit, there is no question that we are all equally responsible for everything. And understanding this right in the gut is the big change.
I think this is the most difficult part to resolve in your own head.
You may have heard of the idea that the villain of every story is just the hero to a different story. For example, Hitler believed he was doing something positive, something heroic, something unimaginably great. So did Stalin and Mao. So did Qin Shi Hua and Andrew Jackson and George Bush and Charlemagne. Never mind the extreme cost, the violence, the terrifying horror of what these people did. They believed they were doing something good for the world, for the people they loved, and even for the people they were subjugating.
Every act of greatness, whether it’s prosocial or antisocial, comes from a deep sense of caring. Every small act comes from caring as well.
We want to be loved. We want to be okay. We want to matter.
We care what people think. We care what we think about ourselves.
And this caring can lead us in a thousand different directions, can elicit myriad behaviors.
And I think part of being okay, part of coming to terms with your life as a human, as a person, as a part of a species, as an agent on a small planet in an uncaring universe is to understand that people aren’t good or bad.
We just are.
We’re all just trying to be okay, and sometimes the easiest way for us to feel okay is to lay blame on someone else’s shoulders. It may be incorrect or antisocial, but it’s not surprising. It’s not even unique.
We have to live with ourselves and trying to hold the enormity of human behavior is almost incomprehensible. It’s no wonder people would resist such a notion. And it’s not because they’re less evolved or enlightened or intelligent or anything like that.
I think to be human is to be damaged by the weight of history, to a degree. We inherited a world that we didn’t have a hand in creating. We exist in systems of power developed decades or centuries or millennia ago. We learn to be human from other inheritors of this same world who also had some hand in shaping the microcasm that is their life. These people have been damaged by reality, brutalised by history and ideology, and they are our guides until we’re able to lift up our heads and scream at the sky and beg it to answer Why?
I don’t believe that humanity can be perfected or that we’re unwhole. I don’t believe in salvation.
What I do believe in is kindness and generosity and respect. I think the only way for us to deal with the trauma of history is to be kind to one another. To give one another shelter. Compassion. Empathy. Love. Beauty.
It’s a simplistic answer. The kind that sounds to many like new age nonsense, but I think it’s true. I think most answers are simple, at their core. Reality is built around elegant simplicity that we all implicitly agree upon and forge together through this agreement and the acceptance of this agreement.
Humanity doesn’t need saving.
It needs healing. And the way to heal it is really to just be kind and generous and loving to those around you. Not just your family and friends, but the people you walk by every day. The people you ignore on the bus or the plane. The people who pick up your trash and the people who live on the streets.
We’ve inherited genocides and wars and disease and the extermination of thousands upon thousands of species we once shared the planet with. We’re still complicit in the ongoing conflicts around the globe. Right now there are countless tragedies happening on earth. Not right now in a general sense, but right at the moment you read this sentence, countless untold and unrecorded tragedies are happening around the world. From slavery to exploitation to the rape of the environment to the neverending war machine exterminating and displacing millions.
We are all responsible, in very concrete ways.
Your phone and your clothes are made by child slaves on the otherside of the globe. Your car poisons the air and the natural gas or coal powering your house is poisoning the water. The plastic you throw away is clogging up the oceans to the point that it will soon outnumber fish in the ocean.
Just by being alive we are complicit in countless horrors against other humans, in ecological terrorism.
But life shouldn’t be defined by this. And blaming this on those who came before or those Others who are here now won’t change anything.
Know that living is hard for everyone. That everyone is afraid and lonely and hurt and terrified. That they all care about something. They may care so much it hurts.
But they’re trying.
We all are.
So how do you make this better?
How do you change?
Be compassionate, even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard.
And know that it’s okay to fail. Because you will.
Endlessly. You will keep failing, even when you think you’re succeeding.
But it’s all we can do.
If you’re still here reading, you deserve a bit of beauty so here’s a song that reminds me of you, starchild.