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.
For the first few years that I lived in New York City, I worked temp jobs to earn money. Most of them involved office work, but occasionally there was something different or downright weird.
For instance, there was a one-off evening gig at a women’s luxury designer-clothing company. The agent who found me these jobs didn’t have much information about it other than the company’s name, address, and the name of my temporary supervisor. He said something like, “Well, I don’t know exactly what you’ll be doing, but it’s a legitimate company and we’ve worked with them before. Let me know how it goes.”
I showed up for work that night and, along with another temp worker, was taken up a few floors and down a few hallways and, finally, through a plain white door. We stepped into what was probably a large room, but was so full of boxes and clothing racks and mannequins and dollies that it felt like a broom closet. The door swung shut and closed the three of us in. The other temp and I took stock of the room and made quick eye contact.
The supervisor pointed to a space behind us. “See those boxes over there? The ones with all the heels?” We looked and saw. “Those are prototypes for next year. The design team went through them all and made their decisions, so now we have to get rid of them. We can’t just throw them away as they are or give them away, because our competitors could get their hands on them and take our ideas. So we need you to destroy them so we can get them out of here.”
She stepped over to a gray metal cabinet and rummaged around inside it. “Let’s see...ok, here they are. Take these.” She held out two pair of scissors and two box cutters. The other temp and I took one of each. “Ok! Just grab a shoe, shred it up, and throw it into this box when you’re done. I’ll check back in in an hour or so. I’ll be across the hallway if you need me.”
It didn’t take long for the other temp and me to realize that these were not “shoes” in the sense that we knew them. I don’t remember which of us was first to discover a tag with the words “suggested retail $700” written on it, but I do remember the sight of that tag and my sensation of complete stupefaction as I looked at it. Anyone could tell at a glance that the high-heeled footwear we were charged with ruining was very fancy and expensive, but these were on another level entirely.
There was a grim, yeoman savagery in our work that evening that I find I still grapple with almost a dozen years later. It was many things: the act of intentionally and methodically wreaking destruction on something so carefully crafted and, apparently, precious; the aesthetic absurdity of cradling luxury in a musty cardboard box in a storage closet; the stark differences in the fortunes of the company, its customers, me, and the man I saw outside the building sleeping on a grate; and the pure waste of it. It was strange to cut into the leather of the shoes, and oddly hard work. I felt like a butcher.
When the job was finished, the other temp and I stepped out into the cool night. We didn’t linger long, but I remember shaking his hand and one of us saying, “That was fucking weird.” We nodded in solidarity. He turned and walked up the block, and I glanced back at the building and went to catch my train.
I rarely read my old work. In fact, I hardly ever even think about all the old stuff I’ve written and scattered around the various spaces of my life: thumb drives, websites, my Google Drive account, a personal folder or two on my computers, old journals in the guest-room closet. When the thought of these artifacts’ continued existence does cross my mind, my “should” machine slips into gear and churns out the usual concoction of guilt and anxiety. The machine, it should be noted, is maintained in good working order by way of a steady application of my insecure belief that I am squandering my talents as a writer and wasting an opportunity to become a wiser, more useful version of myself by neglecting the various resources I have at my disposal—such as my old work—to both generate new ideas and affirm my progress through the various passages of my life.