Turning off Autopilot

While waiting in line for a macadamia nut gelato earlier, I saw a sign that urged me not to be afraid to do nothing but sit and think while at the beach. It sounds good, but the thing is this: sitting and thinking can yield some unpleasant insights into ourselves.

Without insight into ourselves though, pleasant or otherwise, how can we grow? How can we hope to move beyond those things that, like the turtle I saw today, surface into view only extremely briefly and rarely?

Most of how we operate is subconscious, deeply submerged, habitual, which is of course the antithesis to conscious living. Being conscious to the present may not always be fully pleasant, but it is surely truer and less destructive than living reflexively and unaware of the lengths we go to in order to manage our fears.

Busy-ness is one of my escapes from reality and fear, I’ve come to see clearly again. Being productive, getting things done. And being anything but busy this week, reality looms large. How I see myself, both good and bad, what I’m profoundly thankful for and what I’m bitter about, what I’m confident with and what I’m terrified of—it has all come into sharp focus.

Social and laughter-filled vacations are therapeutic, of course. But I think a retreat from all that distracts and numbs and enables our escapes from reality is revealing and empowering in ways that the usual ones can’t be. The unexamined life is, as Socrates said, not worth living.

Someone, I don’t know who, has said “to change your life: start immediately, do it flamboyantly,” and while that isn’t always desirable (impulses can after all be regrettable), there is something in those words, having spent more than a few decades on autopilot, that resonates with me.

There is often much we’d like to change about our lives and ourselves (at least there is for me), but though we may think what needs changing is this or that external situation, what really needs changing—what it is that gets in our way of contentment—is usually much deeper and trickier to arrive at, and completely out of reach on our chatty, busy, and numbing autopilot.

The deeper, much stickier, and less pleasant truth I’m arriving at is that, besides missing him desperately, I’m hardly conscious of a self apart from my husband anymore. I mean I know in theory, but I don’t know in the ways that count, in the ways that make us resilient enough to bend with the wind.

How Not to get Freshly Pressed: Avoid Ten-Step, Be-Happy, How-To lists

I’m a little bored with the ten-steps-to-anything-you-want lists. Ten steps to happiness. Ten steps around your stone-walling partner. Ten steps out of your personality box. Ten steps to keeping your impossible boss happy. Ten steps to being organized. Ten steps to project confidence. Ten foods to avoid. Ten foods to include. Ten steps to a thin and fit you. Ten steps to a beautiful garden. Ten steps to improving your finances. Ten steps to entrepreneurship. Ten steps to successful breastfeeding. Ten steps to making your posts stand out. Ten steps to being Freshly Pressed. On and on.

I’m new to this, so I could be wrong, but I kind of doubt that praising honest and messy writing over tidy little solutions lists will get you Freshly Pressed. It seems that despite the glut of self-help stuff out there, we still value prettily packaged up and simplistically optimistic over reality.

But sometimes some of us just want to know our lives aren’t the only ones that aren’t all neatly tied up. We want to know that others with similar experiences are managing, and we want to learn from them, but we also want to know that they sometimes don’t manage well at all. Some say this not-managing stage ought to be private, that we ought to offer the story only once resolution has been arrived at. I disagree.

Most of us derive comfort from being reminded that we’re not the only ones who live with insecurities and anxieties and sensitivities. We feel less alone when we’re reminded that others too live with pain, and that they sometimes handle them less than graciously, too. We need to present our best faces at work, and in public in general, and sometimes even with family and friends, and it’s true, nobody enjoys the Forever Victim. But nobody likes Ms. Perfect either, so what’s wrong with striking a balance?

I’m not opposed to helpful information. I’m not opposed to organized writing either. But I am opposed to the idea that the writing always most worthy of our attention is shiny, happy, and primarily informative. Sometimes gritty truth and reality are most worth reading.

Because the truth is that ten steps may or may not get us anywhere but depressed. The truth is that it’s not always black and white and simple.

We come with challenges, personalities, and limitations as varied as the jungle. We’re strong and weak, accomplished and frustrated, happy and sad, productive and lazy, generous and selfish, emotional and rational. We’re conscientious and lazy, principled and compromising, caring and self-absorbed, charming and irritating, tolerant and image-conscious. And we’re all these things for a million different reasons. 

Life does not consist of tidy little stairways, and we don’t often grow beyond the constraints of our particular personalities or find the courage or grace to achieve our goals or endure painful situations by way of ten simple steps. These things involve looking at our deepest fears and motivations and the honesty of fellow travelers. We don’t find community and comfort in being surrounded by people wearing their I’ve arrived badges.

Optimism, direction, information, yes. Picture where you want to go and who you want to be, yes. But be present in the moment too, with yourself, with those around you, with realities that may be painful.

I love to read, but not lists, and not only stories that are finished, all loose ends tied up, problems resolved. I read those who honestly and intelligently and bravely and with humour face the realities of being human, of loss and heart-break, and yes, limitations. Sometimes the waters are blue and the sky is the limit, and sometimes our wheelchairs or our ages or decisions others have made on our behalf are the limit, and sometimes no ten step plans are going to help.  And sometimes we just need to hear from others left cold by the bright-siding, just-do-it lists. 

But as much as the world of literature respects the darker realities of human experience, and despite the reality that many bloggers are actually looking not so much for answers as they are for others who might understand, who might be willing to engage in something less amenable to a numbered list, what mostly seems to float to the top in the blogosphere is the perkier, tidier, how-to stuff.

I’ll have to come up with ten steps to change this.