Our limbic system is hard-wired to make us panic. It’s the system in charge of, among other things, fight or flight. It’s been in us since well before we were homo sapien. We are a species into the six figures worth of years of existence, and it’s only been in the last several hundred years that we haven’t had to actively participate in our own continued existence beyond the minimum effort. And in this modern life, in this modern society, it is often hijacked and used against us.
You see it on every single news channel. There’s ALWAYS “Breaking News!” And it’s always presented as if the entire world was fracturing in half over the knee of this particular nugget of information. Dozens of pretty and handsome faces have careers around framing the information that comes at us daily in such a way that keeps us watching. In ads for things as simple as deodorant and snack chips, choices are framed in a way that make us think in a fight-or-flight way: If I don’t use this deodorant, girls won’t flock to me and boys might see a white ring in my shirt, exposing my flaws. If I choose the wrong mouthwash, I’ll be despised. If I feed my dog the wrong food, they will be lesser dogs. My cat will not live more than a few years if they don’t get the Sheeba stuff. This one brand of shirt will fix my popularity problems, because I MUST run with the proper herd.
None of this is new information. We all know it, and we’ve been dialed into it for years. But what I was blind to until this weekend is how deeply it has affected my own way of thinking on a second by second basis. It’s not just the Fox News and CNNs and Unilevers and Purinas of the world that do this to us. We do it to ourselves, subconsciously, every single day.
I look around at my desk and myself this morning. I am wearing pre-made clothing I got off a rack at a store. I am drinking pre-made tea out of a plastic bottle. I am typing these words on a pre-made laptop with lots of pre-made software. Essentially, the last hour and the next hour will consist of my making pixels appear and occasionally disappear on the screen. I will get up and go pee into a toilet filled with municipal water that I pay a very small sum to have piped into my house (with premade pipes, by the way). I will probably grab an apple or banana as a snack — hunting and gathering in the kitchen downstairs from a pre-made fruit bowl filled with fruits that I didn’t have to pick myself (outside of making sure the bananas were the right mix of green and yellow tint, and the apples had no bruises).
I am a human being in a modern first world society. And that, my friends, is a lovely thing to be. Life is fucking good. And yet…
I can’t go a day without overthinking about a transgression someone has performed. If it wasn’t in that calendar day, I’ll reach back a week or a month or even years, because my brain can’t just sit still and enjoy what’s going on in front of me.
- I constantly make the trivial into the monumental. Just this morning alone:
- I yell at drivers who cut me off.
- I scream when someone rides up in the left-turn lane in front of me, and then stops and puts on their right turn blinker, blocking me in while trying to get three cars ahead of another lane.
- I flip off people who ride in the HOV lane with only one person in the vehicle.
- I get angry when people don’t wait their turn at a four-way stop.
- I want to throw a brick at cars that take up more than one parking space in the lot near where I work.
- I get flustered when people don’t stand to one side on the escalator and let me pass.
And this is all just in the first 30 minutes of my morning routine. I could enumerate many more transgressions throughout my morning into lunch, and still more during the working day until I head home, and then the traffic ones fire up again, and then I’m home and on the internet to do the work I demand means more to me than anything… But first let me check my download stats on my book or see what’s going on in the feeds — why is there only 12 downloads of my book today? Why doesn’t anyone love my writing before they’ve even had a chance to read it? Why do I even bother? FML, I hate everything, blah blah blah. And this doesn’t even take into account my frustrations as a writer trying to make it back up a mountain I climbed years ago, or as a screenwriter breaking into an industry I’ve sat near and around for years, or as a happy human being in general.
So petty, right? It would be embarrassing to admit these problems to you if I wasn’t also keenly aware of just how petty and asinine they all are. And occasionally, I’ll catch myself in the death spiral of complaining about the injustices of daily life, and I’ll remind myself of this piece I wrote about the moment the house of cards that my life once was came tumbling down and I was left with nothing.
That perspective helps. And so does this one, which I wrote a few years later about how I’d come to enjoy peace and quiet and the simple things.
So, fast-forward to now, and I realize that 4 years out from the moment my life fell apart, I’ve rebuilt it decently and the struggle has faded… Everywhere except in my brain. I get stuck in survival mode because I’m wired that way. But that’s not my shrugging off responsibility for it, as if I can’t help it and I’m just going to have to live with it. I know I’m better than that.
So today, I tried something new. I decided to start from the other direction. Instead of being caught in the whirlwind of everyday life and reacting to every little thing, only to catch myself and have to remind myself of how hard it could be (and how hard it has been before), I am trying starting from the simplest assessment of my life.
This morning, I wrote out one paragraph that sums up my life:
I’m Joe. I am a web designer. My hobbies include writing documentaries and cyberpunk science fiction, as well as collecting cigars and whiskey. I have 2 dogs, 5 cats, and my girlfriend whom I love very much. I’d like to be in better physical shape and eat better.
By breaking each point that adds up to what is “me” I hope to keep them in mind when forces in my life and in my head challenge any of them.
I’m Joe. Easy enough.
I am an experience designer. This is what I do for my day job, and in some capacity my entire career since 1995. If it’s not websites, it’s video stuff, if it’s not that it’s books, but in some way i’ve been building experiences for people since I got a computer. It’s how I pay the rent.
My hobbies include writing documentaries and cyberpunk science fiction, as well as collecting cigars and whiskey. I want to be a full-time writer again one day, but if I’m being honest with you and myself, my career has not been fully about writing for at least 5 years. So, it’s my hobby, and I do love it. It pays, but not very much — enough to keep a little extra money around for cigars and whiskey, my other hobbies. These are the things I do because I love them, and will continue to do forever regardless of who gives me permission or money (or both). These can also become the source of a LOT of my irritations and frustrations, because this is where I let things matter way too much. I have hopes and aspirations and every day I’ve not achieved them, I make myself miserable by dwelling on the lack of advancement instead of focusing on the joy. This is where the most balance needs to be attained, and it helps IMMENSELY to remind myself that these are my hobbies. I do them because I love them. Having goals around reader counts and views of the documentaries I wrote and acquiring that rare cigar or whiskey is healthy. Making it matter more than it should is a recipe for pain.
I have 2 dogs, 5 cats and a girlfriend whom I love very much. This is the reminder that whatever else I do all day, every day, on whatever project with whatever goals, I have these lives in my life and they are what matter most. I put it in the middle because the rest of everything else revolves around this core.
I’d like to be in better physical shape and eat better. I have an impulse for survival buried deep in my primal programming, and when I’m not deeply engaged in a form of physical activity, it begins to work on me. The need to move. The need to hunt. The need to compete. The need to constantly be paying attention and surveying the world for threats. When I have a physical activity I participate in daily, that energy gets let out there. When I’m eating right, I run on clean fuel and don’t feel sluggish. I know I need to return to physical activity and proper diet. If I go all-or-nothing, I’ll probably succeed in the short term and then crash again when something big happens, because it’s ALL THAT MATTERS and if some unfortunate event occurs that derails it, then I get into “why bother?” territory. If I keep it like this — wanting to make sure I am physically active and eat right, instead of “I want to be the Crossfit Masters Champion in a year” or some shit, I can keep it balanced. If I want to dial up my activities and go after a fitness related goal, great. But I’m not a “failure” because I don’t (yet), nor is that a reason to give up on my goals.
It is something you hear about a lot — life balance, keeping things in perspective, etcetera and so on. We all know the words and the general theories. I think we all come to these kinds of realizations in life at some point, in our own way, in our own time. This was mine: I make EVERYTHING matter way more than it needs to.
Not that any of this is not important. It’s all important. But it doesn’t need to matter as much every second of the day. There’s no need to wind myself up and begin panicking because things aren’t going according to a plan that I made too grand and over-important.
I think it’s healthier all the way around for me to start with the basics and work from there. Should I want to add another sentence to that paragraph, so be it. If I decide I want to be the Crossfit Masters Champion, great — I can add that in. But I need to make sure it fits in with the rest of the paragraph. And that means keeping it at the same tone and level as the rest, and putting it in the proper place. Does it come at the beginning of the paragraph or the end? Where does it fit in my life? And should I remove another sentence to make room for it? These are all questions that are good to ask, and I will ask them if and when it becomes important.
But as of right now, it’s not. What is: I do good work in my job, I write fun things that I hope others like to read, and I spend time with my family. Inside of all of that, I’d like to eat better and work out more.
It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that.