The distance between me and “confidence in this life” is measurable. Normally a headstrong individual, the greatest challenge of late has been to venture out not knowing when I might be sideswiped. Like driving for the first time after being in a car accident, I live my life assuming something terrible will play out again.
The minute I let my guard down I know I’ll pay for it.
Living a guarded life has its privileges. Because of my careful, observant life I’ll be ready to volley back whatever life throws at me. In the end, I’ll come away unharmed and unaffected by the terrors of the day. I’ll become the master of deflection.
Living a guarded life also has its downside. I am tired of walking around all the time with catcher’s gear on. Padding from head to toe, feeling like an oversized pillow being thrown from one side of the room to another. Things are happening around me but my response time is limited by the amount of safety measures I’ve set in place.
I’m not sure that the guarded life is the right one, but it’s the only play I’ve got right now.
I am not a quiet person by nature. As a communicator, I employ passion and volume to accentuate significance. I have a voice that carries and I've rarely been afraid to use it. When I drive in my car I prefer the volume up as opposed to down. When I watch movies, I want to be surrounded by sound. I have grown very accustomed to the whirring of a fan running at night when I sleep. Our house is on a busy highway and I’ve never minded the road noise. Externally speaking, I have no need for quietude. Internally though things have changed – it is not as noisy inside as it once was.
Some might consider it a blessing to be set free from the internal monologues of life but this uncomfortable noise-free zone has made me wary. I’m not all that enthusiastic about it. Maybe it’s because I have always trusted my own voice. No matter what the situation or the opportunity around me was, I knew I would have the last say. My inner noise was better than your inner noise kinda thing.
The turmoil of the last few years has silenced me.
I am learning that there’s a difference between quiet and silent. I can always add noise to a quiet life, but so far I haven’t been able to make this silence go away.
Much like the church in Graham Greene's masterpiece The Power and the Glory, beauty and art persist through the harshest of days. This is easily a top ten read for me. Well worth it's time.
If your eyes are open to it you'll see inspiration everywhere. I have seen it in hard working, blue collar folks. I've seen it in broken people. I saw it in this guy who pushed a stranger's car across a busy intersection to the nearest gas station.
Today, I saw it in a child.
The feeling you get when you see something that pushes against your very existence and forces you to take quick stock of your life --that feeling is a gift. The key is not to deny it.
Inspiration is like a life line thrown to those who are drowning in hardship. It comes in all forms but however it gets to you, let it change you.
ALSO: never let the fortune of others cause you to sulk.
Good for them.
Yesterday I saw something that I haven’t seen in a while. A younger man, who was working in a management-level role, was being critiqued by his superiors regarding the overall performance of his work crew. Immediately upon hearing the news of his team’s less than average output he triaged with his two closest workers and set a meeting for later that evening to discuss long-term strategies that would hopefully rectify the situation.
What made this scenario so remarkable was the absence of blame in the young manager’s response. It was not his desire to find out exactly who’s fault it was that they were in this spot – he knew that would only take more time and energy away from the ultimate goal. He wasn’t looking to make himself feel better by punishing someone else. Instead he accepted blame and moved on. It was a beautiful display of proper management.
This young man had never been classically trained in the art of business management. He was just a very stable individual.
The presence of stability allows for selfless responses in life.
More than I’d like to admit, I have looked for someone to blame for the situation I’m in. Countless times I’ve wanted to point the finger at something else to justify my own actions. I did so out of a lack of stability. Even though I am running and scrambling and distracted, I am not excused from trying to build stability in my life at the same time.
In doing so, I might be able to move on from triage and start making plans for the days to come.
When I was younger I bought into the belief that life was mostly about finding answers to important questions.
What will I be when I grow up?
Where will I go to college?
Will I get married?
Where will I live?
What kind of car will I drive?
So far, answers to questions like these have come in handy when asked things like:
So, what do you do?
Where did you get your degree?
Are you filing single, or jointly?
What’s you mailing address again?
Is that your car?
There have been times when I’ve felt like I was on an extended Easter Egg hunt. Running around and looking for answers under trees and behind fences hoping to exclaim, “I got one!” loud enough for everyone to hear. (Note: Now the possibility exists to broadcast your findings even more so thanks to online social communities. Not only can you show everyone the answer you’ve found, but you can quickly discern how your answer measures up with others around you.)
The nice thing about answers is that they provide closure.
The problem is that answers are static and finite.
Sometimes I worry that all I have is a basket full of answers.
I’m done with finding answers – what I want now is better questions.
Claustrophobia was setting in fast. Nancy needed some space to deal with all of this. Nobody would've blamed her for running away -the only problem is she didn't know where to go. No matter where she chose to run, the pain would be there too. She could get a new job, change her hair color, even move to a warmer climate but her diagnosis would be unaffected.
Nancy was struck with the startling reality that her life was no longer her own.
In the back of all our minds exists a small notion that there's more to this life than we give credit to. Our own abilities make for a good distraction until the circumstances of life overcome them. When we "lose control" we haven't really lost anything -we're just handing our life back over to something bigger than ourselves. Words cannot adequately describe what it's like to be in the passenger seat of your own life.
For Nancy running was no longer something she did twice a week for her health - now she was running to survive.
I was talking with a friend this past weekend and he asked me how I was feeling. I tried not to overthink the question and just say the first thing that came to mind.
"I am feeling pressed."
The answer I gave him was an honest one. In so many ways it feels like the walls have been slowly and consciously moving inward. It hasn't been a rapid progression -more like a steady,in-working of things from multiple angles.
(When I think too long about it I begin to panic. Sleep becomes lighter and breathes become shorter. I don't much like this and, despite my efforts, very little changes the pressure that I feel.)
I've decided that if I can't alleviate the pressure, perhaps I can alter my perspective.
When you iron clothing, the ultimate goal is to press out any wrinkles or deformities in the fabric. The weight of the iron in combination with it's internal heat work together to force a clean and straightened article of clothing. The goal of this type of pressing is to restore something back to it's original state.
Things like fruits and nuts undergo a similar type of pressing but the outcome is very different. For example, when pressing grapes to make wine the goal is not to produce perfectly flat, wrinkle-free grape skins. No. On the contrary, the point of pressing grapes is to extract something that is inside. Ultimately you are harvesting from the grape something that it would not have been able to give up on it's own.
My goal this week is to change the metaphor.
I am not being squeezed and suffocated, rather this current period of pain and suffering is meant for restoration. This current "pressing" is working to force something out of me that I could not produce by my own strength.
I can remember back to a day when making important life decisions wasn't a full-time job. Now, though, life seems so complicated.
When you're not in a place of suffering, decisions are easily isolated. Seemingly, their outcomes would have little bearing on anything else. As the important choices and opportunities of life come rolling down the conveyor belt one-by-one, you just quickly assess and decide. Easy.
The same cannot be said when the weight of the world is upon you. Every choice you make affects the whole of your life (and others). Simple decisions have a gravity that they never had before. Your pain becomes louder as you realize how complex the problem really is.
How do you deal with a complicated life? Well, sometimes you stall, or you avoid -hoping that somehow the giant knot will just unravel itself.
Note: Knots never unravel themselves.
So I have begun the process of untying the knot - which at times seems like I'm going backwards.
Have you ever watched someone untie a knot. It's no fun. There's frustration and anger and confusion.
I have always been a lover of film. (No other medium has been able to tell stories quite like a motion picture.) In today's world we're privileged to have an endless catalogue of movies, but it hasn't always been that way. Post-war era filmmaking was a unique period for the industry. It was a time when films were in demand, and directors were breaking new ground.
One director that was advancing the art of storytelling to new heights was Akira Kurosawa. He, and a grand troupe of actors, redefined the Samurai film genre for Japan. Kurosawa's work has influenced some of the most prominent directors of our generation.
His entire filmography is worth watching.
Here are two of my favorites:
My father owns a snowplow business, and the other day I was riding shotgun with him as he finished up his list of customers. It was a long day of work and we were both happy to be almost finished. As we turned down a side street enroute to our final customer of the day we let out a collective gasp as we encountered an all too familiar sight. A 2-foot snowdrift had swallowed up a half mile stretch of the road we were driving on. Ordinarily this would pose zero threat to a plow-laden F350, but buried in the middle of the snowy mass were three sedans, one police officer and tow truck.
The tow truck driver was of no help in this situation. He shook his head in disgust and did a quick about face. The officer, who was at a loss for next-step ideas, decided the cars would have to stay until the next day.
My father, though, was determined to save the day and plow everyone out. So with the help of a local farmer friend (and his John Deere tractor) all of the cars were pulled out and a pathway was cleared. As amazing as this feat was, it was not the joint rescue effort that fascinated me. It was the people stuck in the snow who really caught my attention.
It was a sunny, clear afternoon. The road before and after the massive snow drift was dry and black -so any of the drivers stuck in the drift had full knowledge as to the potential hazard. Something inside told them that they could successfully drive their ill-equipped, 2-wheel drive sedans over a stretch of road that even veteran snowplow drivers would avoid. So they went for it. Some made it farther than others, but at the end of the day they were all stuck.
I walked by each of the cars chatting with the drivers - asking them if they were okay and letting them know about the plan for extraction. The looks on their faces said it all. The high-school kid in the Audi knew he was in for it when he got home. The guy in the Lexus was mad at himself, but even more upset at the tow-truck driver who left him stranded. The husband and wife in the BMW were arguing about who's fault it was that they were in this mess.
What is it about situations like these that convince us to flirt with the potential landmines of life?
Did these drivers trust more in the carmaker's commercials that show similar vehicles bounding over snowy terrain rather than their own abilities to drive under such extreme conditions?
When we're stuck, are we to worry ourselves about fault and guilt rather than getting to a place of safety?
Should we have known better?
Is pain and suffering something that we willfully enter into because we're not thinking clearly?
For a long time I would have characterized myself as the snow-plow savior in this story, just yesterday I realized that I am actually the wide-eyed, nervous sedan driver.
There is a place where art and reality move in unison.
There is a place where individual stories overlap.
There is a place where suffering loses it's identity and is mistaken for meaningfulness.
There is a place where hurting is promoted and normality is overruled.
There is a place where darkness eschews the light.
This is the place that I want to explore.
Nancy was told that she would most likely loose the use of her legs by this time next year. She could hardly make out the words that were coming out of her doctor's mouth. He continued talking to her but she couldn't hear him over the loud ringing in her ears. She was certain everyone else could hear it too, but for some reason they weren't reacting to it. Nancy's eyes darted back and forth between the doctor and her daughter. She was making herself dizzy. "Who's dimming the lights", she thought to herself and as she got up out of her seat to escape the noise and confusion her daughter tried to catch her before she collapsed to the ground.
It was the second time in two days that Nancy had fallen.
Sometimes the hardest part about being with people is trying to navigate their reactions to your fall.
Nancy had asked her family to gather at her home the Saturday after she received the news from her doctor. She told them that she had been diagnosed with a rare form of late onset poliovirus. The virus had been developing in her left thigh for quite some time and her recent fall at the diner had forced her to deal with the lingering pain. At this point paralysis was inevitable.
After a long while of hugging and crying with each other, the family slowly walked out to their cars. Nancy stayed at the front door -holding it open with her one hand and giving out reassuring waves with the other one. As the last car backed out of the driveway Nancy closed the front door. She remarked to herself that this simple act of closing the door had more significance than ever before. It was as if Nancy was closing the door on a certain way of life.
Things would be different now.
Nancy was no longer in charge of her life.
Now she was scrambling.
Whenever I think about what I should be doing at this stage of my life, or where I should be on the "sliding scale of successfulness", the word thriving comes to mind. I've been on this earth long enough and I've had plenty of experience and opportunity --to the point that I should be out in front with the wind at my face.
The mere fact that I am not thriving, but only just surviving, has become an unwanted reality.
Survival isn't all that bad if you're stranded on a deserted island, or lost at sea. In those scenarios the best you could hope for is to stay alive. In fact books have been written and movies have been filmed about people who just barely survived and they were considered heroes.
How come my survival doesn't feel very heroic? Why does it feel like being a survivor is last on the list of wanted lifestyles?
THEM: "So, what are you doing currently?"
ME: "Oh, I am just trying to survive right now."
THEM: "Sorry to hear that..."
It's hard to be a survivor when everyone around you is doing so much more than that. By all appearances they are thriving. Thriving in life. Thriving in their marriage. Thriving in their social media posts. Thriving in their vacations. Thriving in etc. etc.
I know that a lot of that is surface-level analysis and if I were to dig deeper I would surely unearth a different outcome, but I don't have the time to do that because I am just trying to survive.
I need to learn that within the right context, survival can be more than enough.
After all, the opposite of surviving isn't thriving.
The opposite of survival is death.
When suffering is present in your life the weight of everything seems to change. Things that seemed important and necessary lose their heft and give way to a tenuous lightness of being. For a time everything is nebulous and nothing goes as planned. Change is a constant companion and even the most trivial of things are confounding. For example, you have no real answers for even the simplest questions of life.
"How've you been?"
"What are you up to these days?"
"What's going on?"
These types of questions, mostly intended as conversation starters, become philosophical curveballs that freeze you in your tracks. Small talk becomes big talk. You can't find the energy to exchange even the most common of pleasantries with the person you're talking to.
This is why I've become fragile --not necessarily because of who I am, but because of my surroundings. When everything around you turns into fine china and you realize that you're the bull you either cause a lot of damage, or you learn how to tiptoe around.
I remember meeting with people in the past who told me that they were in a fragile state. My first thought was always about them and their lack of moxie and determination. I would attempt to help them rebuild their lives from the inside out. I never paid much attention to their surroundings and how that may have affected them.
I never realized how strong fragile people actually are.
I have a new found respect for the fragility of life. It did not choose me, rather I had to choose it because I was breaking everything around me.
My brother is a rock star and I couldn't be more proud of him. The latest iteration of his musical creativity is known to all as Mondo Cozmo. Like a blue-collar worker shopping for scarves at a Hermes store, MC's sound travels beautifully through the musical legacies of both Philadelphia and Los Angeles.
This song will help on the rough days.
If Mondo comes to a city near you, be sure to tell him Jason said hi.
I've always been the type of person that could focus in on one thing for an extended amount of time. Whether it was a project to be finished, a task to be crossed off of a list, or even a marathon to be run; I could always be counted on to see it through.
When pain and suffering entered my life I was no longer efficient in that way. My desire to reach out and harness the energy and concentration required was gone. It was as if my hands had lost their ability to hold things. I knew what I needed to do, I just couldn't.
I remember the day when everything I had under control came tumbling down like Jenga pieces on a wooden table.
A few things that I remember about that moment:
First, I was surprised to see how tired I was from trying to control everything. For quite some time I had been carrying around the pieces of my life like an overly large bundle of laundry. Constantly looking over and around the massive pile in my arms trying to see if I had dropped anything along the way. It was a burdensome way to live and I had no idea the amount of power it took for me to do that on my own.
Secondly, I was shocked to see just how far the pieces of my life scattered away from each other once they were out of my hands. My "getting-around-to-it" plan was to take stock of my life. To methodically restructure the load I was carrying. Maybe I would shuffle things around, put new labels on old issues and then somehow escape having to do anything at all.
Conclusion: everything needed to be scattered.
When everything in your life is in a nice neat pile you can continue on with ease. When things are all scattered about you can either run around at breakneck pace trying to recollect it all or you can just stop, admit your tired and start looking at the pieces individually.
Honestly, I never thought I'd be able to post a blog everyday for a month. It's been both therapeutic and challenging to get up every morning and write, but I'm glad that I am doing it (and will continue to do so). I took the time last night to go back and read over my earlier posts. I changed some of the syntax and grammar (thanks for generously reading between the errors) and then tried to look for common themes. At the outset of this process I wrote that this would be a blog about pain and suffering, and I believe for the most part it has been. My continued goal will still be to write words that speak into the corners of our lives. That being said, I could not help but see a ribbon that wove it's way through the middle of so many of my posts.
I am fortunate.
I'm fortunate to have a loving family to hang out with every night.
I'm fortunate to be able to walk my son to the bus every morning (and that the bus picks him up at the end of our driveway :-)
I'm fortunate to have friends to go to diners and concerts with.
I'm fortunate to have a house and a bed.
I'm fortunate to have art (music, books, film) in my life.
I'm fortunate to have difficult conversations with loving people.
I am fortunate to have people in my life that do not let me go.
Writing a blog about pain and suffering can be weighty and suffocating. Today I just needed to come up to the surface for a different perspective.
Scientific data suggests that about 60% of people in this world are bad singers. Whenever someone sings more than a semitone above or below the correct key it is labelled as poor. The industry terms this universal phenomena as being "pitchy". Interestingly enough, the majority of people that sing off-key will do so in a lower pitch rather than a higher pitch (which would explain why so many people feel comfortable singing notes in a lower voice register).
There is no better place to engage this scientific study than in a crowd at a local rock concert.
Last night I met up with some good friends to check out Mondo Cozmo's show in Philadelphia. As MC weaved their way through a beautiful collection of alt rock, post-punk, timeless 4-4 anthems, the folks in the crowd were wont to drink it all in. In fact, there were some in the crowd who considered it their civic duty to not only sing along with the band, but to do so in such a way as to compete with the in-house sound system. For months they had been honing their craft and perfecting their skill as they belted out Mondo's lyrics during their drive home from work. They knew that this night would be their magnum opus. They sang with reckless abandon and with no concern as to their pitch. They were lost in the music and it was glorious.
As we all stood there, swaying back and forth to the rhythm of a generously driven bass line, my concentration was broken when I heard someone behind me singing off-key. I couldn't tell at first why this one voice stood out to me above all the rest. Then I realized that her voice was pitched higher than the correct key, which caused it to appear more egregious than our lower pitched errors. We were all pitchy. She was pitchy, but in a different way -which made it sound worse.
There are no (pitch) perfect ways to deal with hardship and suffering in this life.
For the last few years I have struggled to see how my off-key life related to those around me. I've found no solace in being compared to those of similar pitch. In fact, the most comfort I've had recently came in the form of a nameless, faceless, aspiring Mezzo-soprano who delivered the show of her life behind me at the club last night.
Nancy had half a mind to go out to table number 75 and scold that little boy for not telling anyone about the apple juice he spilled all over the floor. She knew that if she did though it would mean the end of her job at the diner. She'd already been reprimanded twice in the last month about "unhealthy" interactions with customers. One more blow-up and she'd surely be looking for a new place to work.
The morning of the fall, Nancy had a brief conversation with her daughter on her way to the diner. Her daughter had called to make sure that everything was alright.
"What's gotten into you lately?"
Nancy had been very offish the night before at her grandson's birthday party. In year's past she would've been the most engaged person in the room -making sure that everyone had enough cake to eat and handing out little prize bags as the kids left the house. Not this time though. This time Nancy spent the night lingering in the corners, trying her best to blend into the background. At one point during the party she excused herself to the restroom. Twenty minutes later her daughter found her upstairs in the guest bedroom watching Jeopardy. Everything was not alright with Nancy.
Most troubling to Nancy was the fact that she just didn't care anymore. She could tell that things were out of whack, but she had no desire to right the ship. Her life was nothing more than a fake storefront on the set of an old western movie. One step through the doorway and you knew something was awry.
As she sat in her idling car near the back of the diner's parking lot, Nancy didn't know how to answer her daughter. The very question implied that there was something that had gotten into her. "That's just it", she thought to herself, "nothing has gotten into me because there's no place to put it."
Nancy didn't know how to tell anyone that she was broken.