I was in Portland recently and took the opportunity to visit Powell’s Books. This time I only visited the psychology and philosophy sections, held a few tomes with solemn contemplation, and somehow left without purchasing any; rare occurrence for me. I mostly wanted to get back home after a long week. It is near midnight and my sleep schedule is out of whack from long nights, midday naps, and an active brain that keeps awake with thoughts. I am still awake. CrossFit in the morning will help get me back on track.
I am awake with thoughts now because I saw a sign on the wall of a Jimmy John’s sandwich shop. I’ve seen these words posted on social media, bumper stickers, and usually I let them pass by as something else has my attention. But this time I stopped. It has my attention.
work like you don’t need the money
This one is too easy to write off. Sure it sounds good, but some jobs require a stick instead of a carrot. I see no reason why some jobs would ever get done if there was no incentive (hunger) for someone to do them. Working happy and stress free may work in some fields, butin others it pays to have a bit of a chip on your shoulder. Some theorists postulate a world where we could live in communes and everyone is an artist, giving also of their time to do the maintenance work. I suppose this may work for some smaller segments, tribes, small villages… but certainly not a metropolis. As the population grows, individual effort in group task diminishes. Add to this the sense of entitlement that some have (‘Murica) and we are on the fast-track to Wall-E. Lest you think I am repeating the rhetoric of O’Reilly and other pundits concerning the lazy welfare class, I’m not. The greatest sense of entitlement are from those very same people that cry the loudest about helping out the poor.
dance like nobody’s watching
This is easier said than done for some people… like me. I am so self-conscious when I dance as to near lose all mobility in my joints. I’ve been told that in a variety of situations I’ve moved with grace, with a deep flow. When I’m on my game in bartending, I move with perfect grace. There were times in the dojo that I approached it. And I’m just now starting to find glimpses of grace while performing deadlifts and cleans. Dancing is not one of them. I would like to learn to lighten up. I aspire to dance as carefree as the aged hippies at the Saturday Market who seem completely oblivious to any notion of a beat. They have all the rhythm of a lava lamp. The lesson here, I’ve yet to learn, is to enter into dance with the same love as I do lifting. I lift for me, not others.
love like you’ve never been hurt
This one I took issue with. In the past I’ve casually accepted this without much thought, taking it at its face value to be daring. And perhaps this is great advice for asking people out on a date. But love? It asks too much. It asks me to assume that pain can be let go and forgotten. I don’t want to forget. I can’t.
When I deployed to Iraq in 2004-2005 I was a happy guy. I take after my Dad in that I am always cracking a joke, smiling, singing or whistling a tune. When I came back, I was changed in a variety of ways. Recently I had a discussion with my Dad where he told me he was glad to see me doing well some ten years after the deployment. He looked to Mom and asked her “Do you remember the first words I said when he (pointing to me) came home?” She answered, “Yes. You said ‘my son didn’t come home’, he’s still in Iraq.” Now it is that in some circles I am known as the happy guy. In my CrossFit box they joke that I’m the only guy who, in the middle of a METCON, will still sing the words to MC Hammer tunes, or yell out oddball encouragements (LET’S GET SOME COLD CUTS!), and that when we are out on a run in town I am constantly saying hi to people. But it wasn’t always like this. When I came back I was angry more than not. I made jokes, was a goofball, but it wasn’t really the same. It was rare. My emotions were raw and powerful, unpredictable, and also fragile. They would appear and disappear with the change in the wind. I had a relationship with an amazing person and our intimacy was near zero after my deployment. I was overwhelmed with shame and guilt because of this, compounding my issues more. After dating another person, then another, then another, until the pattern became very clear and so predictable you could set your clock by it. In 3 months the wheels would come off, in 6 months we’d be separated. Seeing that the common factor in all of this was me, as each woman was amazing and unique her own way, I began to harbor more and more doubt, fear, and dread for the next relationship. Because at the end, I was the fault, the broken piece. Yet, even though I knew, but had not fully learned, was that the emotions are a tapestry, one and all, and that by seeking to cut out one emotion from my awareness, avoiding the so-called negative, also had the effect of cancelling out the others. Because I had numbed myself to feeling hurt, I now numbed myself to feeling joy… and love.
I can recall a moment a few years ago where I was drifting to sleep and before doing so I had a fervent wish in my heart… I wished that I could have a broken heart again. I wanted that pain because I now knew that without having the ability to have a broken heart I could not truly open up into love. Love is a mystery, I’m not sure how I can force the issue, to make myself love someone when I feel nothing. This would have saved me a lot of problems in the past. But perhaps on opening up to heartache I could allow the engines to turn back on. I didn’t have a plan, or a guide, other than cultivate what little openness that I could find. Whenever something uncomfortable came into my awareness, I leaned into and felt. I felt, whether it was a television show, a song, or something I witness in the world around me. If sadness was there, I welcomed it, however small.
I was broken goods. The prevailing theme among many, even in the helping professions, is that PTSD is not only normal, but that it is permanent. They try to soften the blow by saying something like “you’ll learn to manage it” even though it stays with you forever. Broken things are pretty useless. I was no better than Anduril, to be kept on a soft display, out of the normal workings of the world. I couldn’t handle battle any longer. This metaphor holds for hearts… I couldn’t handle intimacy with people any more. I was to go into a quiet, lonely museum. Unless I could have a miracle, some dwarven or elven master smith to make me whole again. With great power, magic, furious furnaces, and powerful blows, I could be reforged, without breaks. I found no dwarven smiths with hammers of magic.
While I was going through therapy, and starting/ending relationships with people, I came upon the idea of Kintsugi, “it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise”. Looking through images of these, I found that most of the time their broken patterns were the most loveliest. The asymmetry, the crudeness of it, gave me more appreciation for the design of the item itself. Also, looking at the small pieces I am reminded of the patience, the love that the mender must have had in putting the item back together. Looking at each piece, gently putting it back into place, and mending it. The history of the break prominently displayed, celebrated. My therapist was no dwarf with mighty hammers, smiting the flaws, erasing them from me. She was the patient mender, gently holding each piece in reverence.
Imagine holding a piece of pottery like the pictured. You are more present with it, its weight, its tactile feeling, and you are aware of its history. You know that it can break, but you know that it is also a thing to be used, not to be put on a shelf for display. Do you cherish it more? My grandmother was a hunter in the swampy woods of southern Arkansas. My father gave me her trusty .22 rifle that she carried everywhere. It is quite a gift and I’m really, very humbled. Its wooden stock is dotted with dings and scrapes and scratches. Its barrel and metal worn in patches from wear. To pick up this rifle and study it is to see the evidence that my grandmother did not live her life stuck in a chair. She was a woman of the woods and knew it well, and it knew her. My dad said that he briefly considered having it refinished prior to giving it to me, yet didn’t. I’m glad he didn’t. Those many dings and dents are the imprinted history of my grandmother. Those dents are what matter to me, not the rifle.
Virtue philosophers, and others, generally hold that we humans are pretty clueless. We often take the easy way out, or are selfish, or act from fear or eagerness, or fall into boredom and stupor, or more. In all of these states we are not fully human. We are not flourishing. What is it that makes a flourishing life? Acting in virtue. How do we develop virtue? It is a bit of a long answer, but I’ll attempt to sum it up as thus; we learn virtue when we deliberate, alone and with wise elders, on what virtue might be, and we attempt it. We fail. We succeed. We fail again. And over time of testing and pushing the limits and expanding, and discarding, and growing, and shrinking, and adding more and more threads into our soul, increasing the complexity of our being, we develop virtue. This life, it is said, is the life well-lived.
I started playing music again. I fell in love with GarageBand on the Mac. I got a new acoustic guitar, and a bass guitar a year later. I started playing and making silly songs on SoundCloud. They were just typical guitar hero stuff, but I surprised myself one day by making a tender melody on piano. I’m not a piano player, I cannot play chords or read notes, nor do anything with two hands. But I can make loops in GarageBand. One day I had been fantasizing about being in love again, imagining what it might feel like waking up with this person on a lazy Saturday morning, the sunlight filtered through a soft window, and her still asleep. I took that feeling and played something on piano. Now, a year later, when I listen to it and I can slipping deeper into numbness. Now I made this song and it expresses something I had only glimpsed.
I entered into many relationships with the trepidation, the dread and anguish, of knowing that I was poison to her well. That though we were having fun today, I would darken her skies too soon (three to six months). In the past three years I’ve seen several that I’ve dated go off into loving relationships, some married, and while that part of me that loves them is filled with joy for their happiness, it was another reminder that I am the poison. And again I would retreat into my museum, put myself onto a shelf, and stay from the light.
Yet there is an ember deep inside that keeps burning and over the years I’ve tried to keep kitsugi alive in my heart. Recently I met someone and, somehow, was able to talk to her. I gave her my number, asked her to call me. She did, and we went out, twice. In the solar system of our souls, as we near each other and the gravity begins to influence the calculus of our actions, that calculus is more complex than mere attraction for me. Had I never been hurt, or had I not hurt too many people, the trajectory would have been quicker, straighter. What comes to mind is that of a asteroid striking the Earth. Good bye dinosaurs. Yet now my approach is different. I am not saying that I am ‘taking it easy’ or ‘slow’, but I am mindful of my motives, my reasons. I am listening to my soul as it suddenly awakens. I sit with myself and realize that, contrary to what I’ve said, I have been lonely for something, I was just good at hiding and ignoring it. And there is a quickening of the pulse, a desire to move forward, and a joy in an embrace. It is like the feeling of a cool rain after weeks of scorching sun and the soil softens and roots welcome the nourishment. Rain can be rash, it floods. It can be stingy, and drought. Or it can come as needed, and the Earth greens.
Imagine holding someone, aware of their broken lines, with all of the care and reverence in your heart of the pottery mender. Imagine being that broken piece of pottery, being held and seen, loved for your design and your history. Not placed on a shelf, but made a part of a life. How beautiful is that? We can do this, not because we love like we’ve never been hurt before, as though we were naïve and forgetful of the past, but instead because we are mindful of our past. The heavy knowledge that we have been hurt, that we have been the one to hurt, are alive in our touch as we cross the vastness of space to touch the solar system of another star.