Tuesday, May 03, 2016

What Do You Want?

When we're young, we're asked this question a lot. What do you want for breakfast? What do you want to do this weekend? What time do you want to leave for your soccer game? We have little control over our environment and our world, so we rely on our parents and guardians. We even rely on them to think of these questions, because the concept of creating our own world isn't feasible.

Eventually we move out. We get a job or go to college. We start our careers. And as life passes, we never think to ask ourselves, except vaguely, the one question that dominated our childhood. Perhaps we find someone, a partner, who is willing to ask us. Perhaps we're motivated enough to go on a retreat or vacation and ask it ourselves.

But most of us forget. Most of us get caught up in the routines of daily life, that unending cycle of busy-ness and business, and what once seemed so important now seems like the question from a children's story. It never strikes us that it's the one question that will dictate who we become.

The Most Important Person in Your Life

Who is the most important person in your life? I'm a Christian, and I know some friends who will say 'Jesus.' Others will point to their spouse, their children, or one of their parents. All of these answers are selfless. All of them speak to generosity and kindness.

And all of them are wrong.

The most important person in your life is you, if only because it is the only life that you control, and it is the only life you can change. Yes, you can have great impact on people around you, whether its your kids or your partner or your friends, but you can't make their decisions for them. You can't create their world, no matter how hard you try.

In psychology they call this 'self-care,' this notion that you have to look after yourself before you can be of use to anyone else. If you don't take care of yourself, if you're miserable, everyone else is going to feel it. That said, most of us don't identify as 'miserable.' If I asked fifty people how they felt about their life, I'd guess that about eighty per cent would say that they're "doing okay." That life was just... life. Most people would consider their complaints 'common' or 'part of life.'

If I were to rephrase the question, however, and ask if their was one thing they wanted. One thing that they could have, all things being equal, I would get a very different response. Why? Because everyone can think of one thing they want -- whether its a vacation to a certain place or a skill they never learned or just more time to themselves -- and when its asked without impinging on what they do for others, its easy to find something. In some ways, it's like asking for a dream, and everyone has a dream or two that never quite panned out.

We Have To Be Practical 

If you had asked me six months ago what I wanted, my answers would have been vague. A healthy marriage. To manage my depression in a positive manner. To be happy. If you had pressed me, I would have said something like selling a lot of books, though I doubted such a thing was possible. (I would have said it apologetically, with a smirk and a shrug, like someone who buys a lottery ticket.)

If you had pressed me further, I would have said that I couldn't control these things, and that I had to be practical.

I would have been wrong.

That is, I would have taken an important truth (I couldn't control certain things) and turned it into a lie. Which is exactly what I did. In turn, it sowed the seeds for the worst year of my life.

Dead In The Alley

I spent most of last year lying prone in a back alley. My depression had kicked me to the ground in a way I'd never experienced. My relationships eroded, some of them souring so badly the damage was permanent. A month ago, I experienced a loss so great, so unexpected, I was no longer certain of anything. If I'd spent the previous year lying in a back alley, this event was the equivalent of someone sticking a knife in my side while I was face down in a puddle.

It was like waking up into a nightmare, where one plus one no longer equaled two. A place where the sun rose in the West, and when it did rise, it burned like gasoline over an open wound. And in this scorched earth, I was forced to re-examine everything. Well, either that, or just give up. However kind I had tried to be, however generous I'd wanted to be, and however concerned I'd been for other humans, none of that seemed to matter.

Life Doesn't Keep Score

Sometimes life hands good people a lot of pain and sometimes it doesn't. Believing that life was unfair was probably true, but it was also unhelpful. I had a choice, made stark by my circumstances. That choice was to get up, find a different approach and do things differently, or wallow in self-pity.

The first week I wallowed. Much as I had the year before, when I didn't understand why the world seemed so dark. I complained bitterly to God about my circumstances, about how it wasn't fair. Why bother being a good person when life was just going to crush me anyway? And yet, somewhere in this vague haze, I heard a single question, over and over.

What Do You Want?

At first, the question enraged me. I wanted what everyone wanted! I wanted to be happy! I wanted a healthy marriage. A job that I liked. A life I could be proud of. The question refused to let go, probing my mind, goading me, angering me.

What Do You Want?

I told you what I want, dammit! I want the same shit everyone else around me already has! All my friends have these incredible lives with great families and nice homes. I want what they have! The voice refused to relent. Refused to leave me alone.

What Do You Want?

Like a child after a tantrum, I remember mentally slumping against the wall of the alley, too tired to fight anymore. And so I thought about it. No more lazy answers. No more vague niceties. Nothing to do but answer the question. And so I did.

The answer was surprisingly simple. I wanted kids, and I wanted to own my own house. Yeah, I know. That doesn't seem like much of a revelation, does it? But my path was unlike that of my friends. I'd been a writer for the past twenty years, an aspiring novelist. My day job was working with special needs kids. I'd never made very much money. Not enough to consider buying a house. Not in one of the most expensive cities in Canada. As for kids, it had always been a dream, but never practical. I didn't make enough money to consider having them. And so much of my life seemed wrapped up in my writing. And yet, as soon as I said, out loud, what I really wanted, the voice left.

We Must Be Practical

The lie I'd believed earlier, that we only controlled certain things, was only a lie in the wrong context. Yes, we only controlled certain things, but we had far more control over our life than we imagined. This was, again, a revelation. By stating aloud (and writing it down) what I really wanted, these two simple goals that were deeply embedded in my subconscious, I felt a weight lift off my shoulders.

Pointing Our Life Towards the Solution

Those two simple goals, difficult but not unattainable, created something I hadn't seen before: a map. They were markers on a board I didn't know existed. Whatever else I wanted -- selling a lot of books, good friendships, a life of giving back -- revolved around those two locations. And with those two goals in place, I was able to start placing other markers. If I wanted a house, especially in this market, I would need to work. A lot. I would need to squeeze out TV and mindless surfing to be able to keep writing. My writing would have to become more efficient. If I wanted a family, I would have to switch my priorities, be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to put children first.

For the first time in a long while, I stopped worrying about the questions and unfairness and complaints about my life and started seeking solutions. Something vague and hopeless had just become a math problem. A challenge. One plus one suddenly equaled two again, and if I didn't have all the answers right away, that was okay. I could do this. It wasn't going to be easy, but I could do it.

First Steps

As I chewed on the end of my pen, poised over my recently acquired "goal" notebook, I realized the first question I needed to address was that of my mental health.This meant understanding what my depression meant, how it worked, and what I needed to do to manage it in a healthy way. Last year I'd been blindsided, but mostly because I lacked the tools to see what was happening. If I was going to stay healthy, I would need those tools, which included professional help, accountability from my friends, and other resources. I could not have a family and go AWOL for a year.

The first thing to go was alcohol. No more drinking. I'd used it to manage my depression, to take the edge off, for the past few years, but the more I drank, the less it worked. Depression makes it difficult to control your emotions, and alcohol is a depressant. It can fool you for an hour or two, but it's an illusion. And it only makes things worse.

So I stopped drinking.

I'd also learned the past year the importance of regular exercise. The endorphins and physiological benefits helped counter my depression and gave me confidence. So I set a goal to work out thirty to sixty minutes every day.

I haven't been in this kind of shape for nearly two decades.

I needed to be more efficient about it, but I still needed to write. I thought about my regular schedule. I tended to be a night owl, but never really accomplished anything after 10:30pm. So I would need to go to bed earlier and get up earlier.

I'm up by 6:30am every day now.

One by one, I was able to draw branches from my two goals and create smaller branches needed to support them. I'd expected the process to be hard. Instead, I found myself motivated. Excited even. The pain of recent events had not diminished, but I was doing the only thing I could do; I was taking control of my life. I couldn't control the people around me. I couldn't control how they responded in certain situations or what they thought about me or the way some would react to this "new"me. And frankly, I didn't care. I was more excited about the possibility of something great than anything anyone might say or do. I had, if unwittingly, created purpose in my life. Something for my compass to point to. I wasn't about to give that up.

There were, and still remain, other questions. Other challenges. I have a new job, and it will be challenging. I will be expected to work in some difficult environments. I will be expected to do some things that make me uncomfortable.

Even that creates one thought: bring it on.

Fear was no longer part of the equation. I could handle it. I'd taken the hardest blows the past year, and I was not only standing, I was creating a new life. If I had learned one thing, it was this: the choices we made dictated our life.

Movie Moments

I've always loved inspirational sports movies. (Rudy is at  the top of the list) I love the scenes that show the hero or heroine getting knocked down and getting back up again. Of course, in a movie, those scenes depicting weeks and months of hard work only last for twenty or thirty minutes. But they inspire me just the same.

Why? Because we have the ability to do that! Because we have more say in our life and who we become and what we attain then we realize. Because we are the ones who determine our life.

E + R = O. Event + Response = Outcome. 

We cannot change the events in our life, but we can change our response. That is what determines the outcome.

What Do YOU Want?

So let me ask you this. What do you want? Take a look at your life, really look, and tell me what it is that's missing. Maybe you're one of the lucky ones. Maybe you have everything you ever wanted. Maybe you can't fathom losing everything or feeling like you were dumped in an alley. Chances are, however, that there is part of your life that feels incomplete. Relationship issues? Familial difficulties? Job problems? Or maybe you want to try that new hobby. Maybe, if you're honest with yourself, you realize that you're just going through the motions. that you 'lost control' of your life a few months ago or a few years ago and have no idea how to get it back.

I know that feeling. I've been there. Hell, I feel like I spent too much of my life there. But if I've learned anything, I've learned that we CAN control our world. We CAN create a new life. New habits. New routines. And yes, it may be painful. It may require more falls, overcoming fears we didn't realize we even had, and thinking about ourselves in a completely new way.

But you can do it. We can do it. We are all so much more than we realize. We are not just a mother or a husband or a friend. We are not just a son or an accountant or a deacon. We are more than a profile on a page. We are beautiful and boundless and limited only by our own expectations. We are unique and special and gifted. And we are all here, together, sharing time and space and relationships, for one purpose: to make this world a little bit better.

I don't have it all figured out, and I'm not writing this to suggest that my new life, my new approach, is easy. It's not. There are days when I am torn about the past year, days I wish I could go back and scream at myself to get off the floor and do something. And there are nights when it is hard to fall asleep, because the goals I've set seem so very far away. Nights when I feel very much alone, as if the whole universe has gone quiet. As if I've set some impossible tasks for myself that won't make a difference.

But those are lies. To get to where we want to go, we have to create new patterns of thought, and consequently new habits, that refute those lies. Dwelling on them does nothing but bring us down, however difficult that is at times. We have no say over our past, all we can control is our future.

So today, before you get into your daily routine, before you set your weekly schedule, might I suggest something? Look in a mirror, look at that beautiful person staring back at you, the one who has been with you through every heartache, every sorrow, and every storm, and ask them this one question.

What do you want?