Fool that I am, I used to think I was impervious to regret. The logic I employed to prop up that delusion at least had a patina of credibility: I reasoned that since I was, at any given moment in my life, doing my best (or bestish), looking back with regret would amount to an act of self-flagellation that would be useless at best and harmful at worst.
Conceits like that are representative of the defense mechanisms I use to try to delude myself into thinking I am somehow exempt from the vagaries of being human. Of course I have regrets! Of course I look back and wish I had made different choices or followed through on things I abandoned too quickly -- or even more simply, and taking my own influence out of the equation, I look back at certain things in my life and just wish they'd turned out differently.
Regret is, I think, another word for heartbreak. I'm in a phase of life where I'm pretty locked into my circumstances -- my wife, son, dogs, career, friends and acquaintances in our circles -- in a way I now realize I never was. Before my son was born a couple years ago, my way of life as an adult had been characterized by transition.
There were comparatively minor transitions, like renting a new apartment; and then there were the seismic events, like extracting myself from my career (and, honestly, life) as an actor without an idea of what was to come next; or, after an extended period of vocational and existential uncertainty, picking a graduate program, only to go on to repeat the pattern of extraction I'd played out as an actor; or, you know, getting divorced. Things like that.
As hard and as far-reaching as those transitions were, they were my way of life. There was a lot of good that came from living that way, too. But after a time, I think I grew a bit too comfortable with my barely subconsciously held understanding that if something wasn't working out very well, I could simply pull the ripcord and parachute into something new.
That reality stands in stark contrast to the one I'm in now. Living in a mode of comparative stability so that, among other things, I can help provide a stable foundation for my son to do his own growing and changing and transitioning from one phase of life to the next has proved to be really good for me. There's a big part of me that feels like I've finally grown up, and it's a relief.
It seems clear to me now that my previous refusal to acknowledge regret was a method of self-preservation. The stakes were high: I was in a quasi-permanent headspace of such uncertainty that I couldn't afford to indulge outright regret about the choices I had made or was avoiding or was actively considering. It would have been tantamount to ego death -- too painful for real life. So, it made sense for me at the time; but, eventually, it became high time to outgrow it.
So now that my life is comparatively stable, and now that I have a new set of worries and challenges to deal with as I try to create a nice life and a loving home for my young son, I can afford to look back at certain things and shake my damn head at them. I suspect I'll be thinking similar thoughts about certain things I'm doing and not doing now that, done differently, would put me in a perceived better place than wherever I'll be some years or decades hence. C'est la vie -- I'm doing my best (or bestish).
Regret and heartbreak are inevitable. The question, then, is what do you do with it? Do you just leave it there and mull it over periodically as an indulgence? Do you grow bitter and closed-minded? Or do you try to learn from it and keep the lesson handy in the event you have a chance to apply the lesson anew? I can see the challenge in doing this, but I think the latter question indicates the road I want to travel.
Here in the future, in the year 2019, blogs are pretty thoroughly passe. The good ones have either shuttered altogether or transformed into something else: something tidier and optimized for visibility and revenue. Personal blogs obviously still exist, but they've been subsumed by the same forces that have shunted large swaths of internet-browsing traffic to a handful of the usual-suspect platforms.
I've been in a bit of a creative rut. I've been a bit dissatisfied with my writing practice and felt a bit unfulfilled by my work, most of which I've kept to myself. I sort of just muddled along in that general frame of mind for a while, holding onto my erratic practice of writing in a journal or reading a book or long-form magazine at night as my sole preventive tactic against becoming fully unmoored from any semblance of a personally satisfying creative practice.
Blogs are so thoroughly passe that it didn't even occur to me until the other day that I could use this site — this site that literally is my first and last name dot com — as a creative outlet. I could just write things and post them here, and even share them with other people if I wanted to. In realizing this, I feel I fully and finally embraced the zeitgeist: I stumbled into a repetition of history in an utterly blinkered, unintentional way. I rediscovered a discarded form that's actually never gone away. And with that, there is freedom.
I can just write whatever I want. It can suck; it can be boring; it can be irrelevant or banal; my posts can be all text if I don't feel like finding a clever or pseudo-profound picture to include somewhere in the body of the piece; and it really doesn't matter. My livelihood doesn't depend on anything I put here. It can just be whatever it is. That feels oddly novel, and totally freeing.
I posted something at my old blog, "Mental Health for Humans." Here's the link. Here's the text:
I feel a little numb and confused as I read through some of my old posts. The focus of my life has changed since I created this blog and posted with regularity. I no longer practice as a mental health counselor in any capacity. My interest in the subject has waned. I still notice and parse other people's behavior, and my own, but my thoughts do not linger to solve the puzzles those behaviors present.
Within a year or so of starting this blog, I decided it was time to move forward in my life, for I felt stuck. I framed this to myself in scholastic terms: While I felt an impulse to explore the possibility of pursuing a doctorate or a JD, which would represent the more traditional path of learning, I chose instead to "get a Ph.D. in life."
That's a little keen, I'll admit. But it served a purpose: I felt I needed to venture forth into the world as a full participant. I had learned much in graduate school, but my life had also changed drastically, and I felt a deep need to focus my attention on the corporeal — not to turn away from, or to shun or critique, the intensive work I had done in a more cerebral, or psychological, realm, but rather to complete it.
After all, we live out our lives in the flesh and blood, breathing the air around us, our feet on the ground beneath us — tactile. Earthly matters, or matters of the flesh, if you will, are easy and tempting to shun for those of us who prefer the life interior. But what I learned is that I could never hope to maintain my interior without taking care of matters on the outside. A simple example is my exercise regime, if I can call it that. Never have I felt as grounded in my own skin, and as clear-minded, and as able to access and utilize the various aspects of my persona, as I do now that I exercise regularly.
There are other examples I could share that center on my work and relationships. The common thread among them is simple: by putting what I have learned and cultivated within myself into practice, I have attained to greater degrees of health, satisfaction, and balance.
Lately, I have sensed it is time for the onset of yet another era, the theme of which is "taking it to the next level." If I continue to use the school metaphor (which I am), then it feels akin to having recently finished my freshman year and standing on the brink of beginning my studies as a sophomore. I am still new to this journey, but not as green; now, there is a foundation to build upon — one I am expected to build upon, in fact.
Indeed, the challenge is steeper now, but it is time to meet it. It is time to continue this journey of growth and enlightenment.
Every time I read the news or check Twitter or Facebook, I am inundated with words and images that would have me believe everything is awful and degraded, and that the currencies of participation in these apparently awful and degraded times are cynicism, fear, fatalism, and hatred.
And then whenever I log off, I find a litany of reasons to look forward to a bright future for humankind. Part of that, to be sure, has to do with the fact that I enjoy a steep measure of blessing and privilege, both in what I have and who I am. But part of it also has to do with something I learned a number of years ago, at the tail end of a time when, like now, I had everything I needed to be happy and healthy, but, unlike now, was not.
The lesson was simple and profound: One of the only things—perhaps the only thing—under our control in this world is our manner of approach to it.
To be clear, I am not implying that a good attitude will cure all suffering or illness. A positive mindset will not render you impervious to disappointment and sorrow. One cannot gratitude-transform a jackass co-worker into a new best friend. A hopeful outlook will not solve all your problems.
So, fine: attitude is not a magic bullet. But it exerts tremendous influence over our lives nonetheless; it affects the way we interpret our lives much the same as lenses might affect the way we see. For example, if you approach your life with a determination to learn from your experiences and the people and ideas you encounter, then that will be the principle that guides you forth. In that scenario, and with that metaphorical compass, you will indeed learn and grow, simply because you will continue to seek the lesson until you find it. See? Simple and profound.
I refuse to buy into the paradigm of bad news and unkind treatment of other people. I want to seek a better, more hopeful world, and I think I have the ability—I think we all have the ability—to help create it, one moment, one conversation, and one day at a time.
I was looking for a file on an old thumbdrive this morning and I found a cache of essays that I wrote about 10 years ago. As I got about halfway through an essay I titled "Breakthrough," I was struck by the sense that everything my younger self had written there was an exercise in mental gymnastics, and an effort to convince myself of some pretty heavy stuff: of the validity of various decisions, non-decisions, and opinions that I held at the time; moreover, it seemed I was actively struggling to push through the terrifying existential uncertainty that I felt so acutely in those years.
"Breakthrough" was a journal-post essay that I wrote in order to give focus to my otherwise muddled grappling with a desire to go back to school (i.e., grad school). Reading it makes me feel frustrated and sad: I couldn't let it be simple. I couldn't let anything be simple. I had to pick apart my motivations and consider as many angles of the thing—whatever it was—as possible, right up to and well past the point of it making any sense whatsoever or resembling anything even modestly helpful. It was in this manner that I created the illusion of progress for myself, and the mechanism by which I kept my desires and ambitions in check. Quite unconsciously, I was sabotaging myself.
"Just go to school, Nate," I imagine saying to my younger self. "Just let yourself do what you want to do."
I was a prisoner of my own limited beliefs, and I suffered badly in my outmoded little cell. I figured it out eventually, more or less, but by the time I really understood how toxic I was, it was too late to do anything about it without making some huge waves in my life. I had to change most things, and I did. I charged forward recklessly, either dodging or knocking down any obstacle that got in my way.
Several years later, I recognize that time as a painful and necessary stage in my life. I made the changes that needed to be made, but I ran up a hefty tab in so doing.