I always write a post for the end of the year. And I have always been working on it for several weeks by the time it goes live.
Not intensive work, really, but slow, now-and-then work. Adding things as I think of them. Reflecting on things. Coming to internal conclusions about how I feel and what has mattered in the year that has passed.
This year I haven’t done that. I’ve only thought about starting it maybe twice over the last month, and each time the thought came and the thought went shortly thereafter with nothing done, no steps taken.
So here we are… It’s time for a year-end post and I’m typing one out, and purely by accident. I didn’t set out to write one, but merely to force myself to actually write something. Only once I got started did I realize once again that the end of the year is here and I ought to say something about it.
— § —
This year has not gone according to plan.
I switched jobs. Twice. Where I ended up is great. But that, combined with the ongoing complexity of divorced life and the financial stress that all of this brings, have led me to feeling just a bit at end-of-rope.
And when I’m at end-of-rope, I fall back into my own most deeply ingrained tendencies.
The most important of these is the tendency to be completely overtaken by my own momentum—or lack thereof. By my own inertia.
Without a conscious effort, I am an entirely interia-bound person. Whatever I am doing, I will keep doing it. Whatever I am not doing, I’ll keep not doing it. Even if I want to change, on both counts.
Whatever is the last thing I did is also the next thing I’ll do.
Now I realize that everyone struggles with “habit” and the question of how to break bad ones and form good ones. But I’ve never met anyone who manages as much of their life purely through habit as I do.
I am conscious for two things in life, and two things only: novel tasks at work and time spent with the kids. Everything else, and I literally mean everything else, is on autopilot.
This means that if I have a sticky autopilot function, and it’s stuck in bad positions, I do not do well. It’s been an issue for me since I was a teenager, and it’s still a big issue, as this year demonstrates.
I don’t think my ex-wife ever understood the degree to which I just plain do things automatically, without thinking. Whatever is happening, if it doesn’t kill me or cause severe pain, well—it’ll keep happening. Down to the smallest details of my life.
I’ll wear the same shirt and pair of jeans a hundred days in a row. I’ll launder them every three days or so. I’ll tell myself that I need to wear different clothes. It’s not like I don’t have any. Then I won’t. I’ll tell myself that it’s silly to launder just one pair of jeans and one shirt together, that I ought to wear more laundry and do bigger loads. No matter, it doesn’t happen. I’ll run out of detergent and know it. But I won’t buy more, because I don’t buy detergent. I just don’t. It’s not a habit. So when the next day three rolls around, I’ll go downstairs and make laundry motions and even get out the scoop and scoop in empty air and note in passing (and it barely registers) that I just got a whole scoop of empty air and am laundring my clothes with maybe two granules of powder. And by a minute later, it’s off my radar again until three days later still. Maybe after eight or nine months, I’ll finally remember to buy detergent, but only if I’m already at the store for something else and happen to remember it.
I’ll tell myself that I need to make a list of things that I need, in passing, and then I’ll go on doing whatever it is that I was already doing and not make a list because I don’t make lists. Not out of principle or anything. It’s just not what I do. And telling myself that I need to do it does not physically make me into someone who does it.
It’s just been that kind of year.
Turn up the stress, and I attend to the big problems, and all the little things go on autopilot.
I suppose another way to say this is that I live one of the most perpetually distracted lives of anyone I’ve ever met. I am a high-horsepower distraction machine. I see my kids and I see my job. I am entirely blind to everything else.
That’s how my year was.
I even have a habit of reflecting just before bed on how terrible this is and how my life is slipping right through my fingers and I need to take bold steps to change it because I am living the same day, week, month, and year over and over again and soon I will run out.
Then, I lay down and go to sleep without realizing that that’s what I’ve done. Because habit.
It’s as though my conscious, reflective brain is completely disconnected from my will, much less my body. My ex-wife commented on this often as well. She was right; something in my brain doesn’t believe that the world exists.
All that exists are the thoughts, if I can even be bothered to have them. And if I have them, my mind presumes that it’s been attended to and moves on.
— § —
There is another way of describing this, probably a more useful way.
I just don’t give a shit.
I don’t give a shit about anything but work and kids.
Because to be on autopilot like this and not really suffer, the deeper truth is that everything you actually care about is getting seen to. Because if it wasn’t, you’d be in pain for having let things that you care about fail or slide. You’d have regrets.
To be fully distracted all the time yet not in pain is a another way of saying, “I may tell myself that I care about all the shit I’m doing and ought to stop or not doing but ought to start, but in fact I don’t care about these things at all, which is why I’m never caught out when they do or don’t happen.”
Everything that’s critical, everything that really matters, gets done. Everything else is on autopilot.
From that perspective, it almost sounds healthy. I can hear a therapist being tremendously reassuring and saying, “Well then, all of the things that really matter actually have been taken care of, haven’t they? What you’re doing is called prioritizing, and we all do it.”
But that would be a lie, at least in a way.
— § —
If what I’m doing is prioritizing, then I’m automatically prioritizing today ahead of tomorrow, always.
I’m not sacrificing for the future, preparing for the future, planning for the future, or even aware of the future. I don’t mean Future like when I’m going to be a movie star, I mean future like the fact that there is no toilet paper in the house because I couldn’t come to consciousness and plan ahead enough to actually get any before the last batch ran out.
When will I get it?
The next time someone needs it, we’ll have to make a sudden trip to Walgreen’s to buy some. These sorts of sudden trips are also a habit, the way that I do things.
This kind of “prioiritizing” is not okay, because it means that I am completely unprepared for tomorrow, or next week, or next month, or next year, much less, say, retirement.
I am living by relying entirely on the just-in-time nature of modern urban life. Whatever I need I can have now, so there is no need to prepare. There is, in fact, no need to think. Anything that becomes a problem can be dealt with when it becomes a problem and not before.
Now, there is a kernel of wisdom in that attitude; a lot of people have the opposite problem, worrying incessantly about everything and being hypervigilant about the million little things they’re doing or not doing every moment of every day.
But in my case, I need the opposite. I am a man standing in a battle zone without a weapon, without camouflage, and without armor of any kind. When and only when bullets start flying past my head will I worry about it.
Thing is, I know that at some point they will start flying past my head, so I should at least take cover right now. But I don’t. Because until one almost hits me, it’s just not on my radar. I’m busy thinking about other things.
It’s a risky way to live, and it bothers me.
— § —
But I don’t give a shit. I want to say that I can’t give a shit.
Because the thing is, I want to give a shit. I want to care about things rather badly. And yet I don’t. Only about those two things. Work and kids. Work and kids.
Has always been thus.
— § —
So, to recap what I’ve said so far in TL;DR terms, 2018 may as well have never happened, in a way. I did nothing new. I stopped doing nothing old. The end of 2018 looks exactly the same in most ways as the beginning of 2018 in terms of “my life” in any way that matters.
And with that out in the open, I’m left with the problem of reconciling everything I’ve just said and the cause to which I attributed all of it (stress about job changes and so on).
It’s a circular problem, if you think about it. All the stress of changes caused me to be unable to change anything? And the net result is that absolutely nothing changed this year, thanks to the effects of so many changes?
It makes absolutely no sense.
What’s really going on here?
I don’t know. Maybe I’ll figure it out in 2019.
— § —
Things that are more than likely coming in the year ahead for me:
Health care crises, thanks to a convoluted health plan situation
More navigating the stressful relationship between me and ex
Death of my more-than-twelve-year-old dog, who has cancer
— § —
The stressful relationship between self and ex thing probably deserves some discussion, particularly since it’s possible she’ll read this.
It’s not that things are bad between us. They are, in fact, remarkably good all things considered.
It’s just that we’re so different. Our minds work in diametrically opposed ways. Looking at things now, it’s a complete mystery to me how we ever managed to marry and procreate.
Just about every single thing that she says or does comes as a complete shock to me. Not a bad shock in itself, necessarily, but as something-I-wasn’t-prepared-for. Something that interrupts my autopilot system, and for that reason, tends to send me into confusion from which I struggle to emerge.
I’m sure she doesn’t realize it. She barely realized it when we were married, and never understood it at all, and so now, three years on and with separate lives, I’m sure she doesn’t realize what a complicating factor little innocuous and completely innocent things can be.
One of the things I’ve realized as a divorced man is that I should never be in a relationship again. Or at least not until I solve the autopilot problem on my own. Because when I’m relying on autopilot and something little causes autopilot to disengage prematurely, my entire day goes out of whack.
And when someone hasn’t planned ahead, when they’re living entirely moment-to-moment in that battlefield of life without any defenses, a day out of whack is a significant problem from which it can be difficult to recover.
In other words, I can’t afford relationships. Cognitively. Emotionally. Not until I figure out how to cope with unexpected inputs.
— § —
Interesting question here.
How is it possible for a person like me to exist? My single biggest strength in work life and in just about every other serious endeavor has always been that I can think on my feet and do what needs to be done better than almost everyone else.
I am amazing in a serious crisis. When a building is burning down or a neighborhood is being evacuated, that’s when I come into my own and people lean on me for support because I’m so agile and adaptable and capable.
So how is it possible that I can’t freaking go to the other side of the room and wear a different shirt just once, because I’m so stuck in distraction, or that a text message with a funny joke that I wasn’t expecting to receive can derail my afternoon?
I am using so many of my faculties for whatever important task is immediately at hand that I have nothing else left for life—and this is why I’ve been visibly above average in terms of success in some areas but also visibly below average in ters of others (i.e. the trade-offs theory)
High stress kicks off something biological—adrenaline? cortisol?—that causes me to focus on the thing causing the stress, and to ignore all of the other things (i.e. the involuntary trade-offs theory)
I am actually dysfunctional most of the time, but high arousal—again, adrenaline, cortisol, whatever—actually turns my brain on for the duration of a task, and when the task is over and the chemical factors disappear, my brain shuts off again (i.e. the developed-tolerance-to-stress theory)
There is actually a set of criteria at work that I’m not aware of, and I’m not aware of them because I am keeping them—and the logic behind them—from myself for some reason (i.e. the repressed-rationales-for-choices-plus-avoidance theory)
I’m not sure what the truth is. And there are probably half a dozen other theories that I haven’t thought of that could also apply. I’d like to say that I’ll think about these more and try to figure out what’s what, but I won’t.
Because… wait for it… that’s not what I do.
— § —
Things that I wish I could say were coming for me in the year ahead:
Finding and joining a community of some kind (religious, even?)
Starting my own company
Developing a newfound sense of discipline and attention to “little things” in life
More money and financial security
— § —
What do I remember most from the year?
Possibly going to Lagoon (a local amusement park) with my kids a couple of times in the summer.
And being required to erase all of the work that I’d done for the previous five years when my company was acquired, and then to sign my name indicating that it had all been destroyed and none of it existed any longer.
Apart from these things, I swear I’m not sure I can remember or name a single other thing that happened this year just now. It’s all been mostly the same day over and over and over again, I think.
— § —
Things that I absolutely do not care about in the coming year:
I wish I could say that I did care, but I can’t honestly say that.
I just can’t.
How can I get myself to care?
I think that’s really the operative thing for 2019.
Maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s my year-end summary. 2018 was the year in which it really, really started to bug me that I don’t care about anything but kids, work, and the next 1.5 minutes of my life.
Like, it bugs me enough to make me angry late at night when I lay down and finally think about it.
So maybe the project ahead for 2019 is to try to figure out how to give a shit about things. To learn—as it were—to actually care.
— § —
How do you change your understanding of who you are? Of your own identity?
I mean, that sentence that begins with “I am someone who…”
Also on dock for 2019: figure out this related sovereignty problem.
Because if you are not sovereign over yourself, then you are powerless to affect anything else.
And yet changing understandings of self is a remarkably difficult thing to do, at least if you’re me.
Statement to self: “I am someone who…”
Reponse to self: “No you’re not. That’s a lie. You know very well that you’re actually someone who…”
This is a problem of will. Will should be enough to effect changes in self-identity, should it not? And yet… it’s not.
What do you do when you don’t believe yourself? And is this different or similar to not believing in yourself?
And yet I’m someone that has always believed in myself. Maybe just about the wrong things?
Is this a granularity problem as well?
— § —