When everything is going right, it’ll probably go wrong
If you’ve ever thought, “Hey, things are going perfectly,” then you probably know the next part of the story: everything is about to collapse. You may believe this affliction is unique to you because you’re flawed or unlucky, but the truth is what you’re experiencing is very human, and being a human can suck a lot of the time.
I did a thing
The website you find yourself on today is more than just stupid jokes and a sweet logo. It’s a marker on my journey that has long been defined by fear and self-sabotage. For decades, I’ve been in awe of people who could simply “do a thing.” I’m sure you know a few people like this. They have an idea, then they sit down and act on it. They tend not to second guess themselves; when they fail, they merely iterate and try again. It’s infuriating.
Apeathetic is my thing. While the sum of its parts may be quite small, it’s quite big to me. Some people whip up a blog over a weekend and start rolling with it. I don’t understand these people, nor do I want to. I much prefer to torture myself with self-doubt and second guess until I forget the original question (which is lovely because the question was tricky).
But eventually, I did launch this thing, and while there are many like it, this one is my own. I may not always be my own biggest fan, but if you don’t make a big deal about it and promise not to tell anybody, I will confide in you that I found something to be proud of here. I had done a thing.
From January until June of 2023, I consistently sat down every morning before work and played around here. It was entertaining and an excellent springboard for my days. Dare I say, I found meaning in it, which is, of course why the onset of July was so concerning.
Anticipating the problem
My children are lovely people. They’re full of curiosity and excitement for life that can only be expressed at the volume of a goddamn rocket launch. I also live in a small home that ensures that rocket launch echoes from the entryway right through my soul.
Perhaps I have a mild form of ADHD, or maybe I merely appreciate the boundless potential of mono-tasking with a singular focus, but with a soundtrack of life humming in my background, I can’t get anything done. This has never been an actual problem because not getting anything done is very much my flavour. Sorry, I didn’t get that thing done. There was a fan running, you see.
Except now I was finally getting something done. I was moving along at a pretty good clip for the first time in my life. The mystique of people who could perform at a high level was beginning to lift. I could see that they did what they did not because they’d necessarily won a genetic lottery or had a few wires loose in a beneficial way… they merely loved what they did and created a loop of success off that. I had begun creating my own loop and it was a good time.
With the ensuing summer thunder slowly building on my horizon, I put a plan into motion to overcome the devastation that would arrive with the kids’ summer vacation. I could do this. I was now a person who knew how to do things. I had the tricks of modern science, the wisdom of the stoics, and with the love of Buddha in my heart, everybody else could suck it. Absolutely nothing was going to stop me.
Absolutely everything stopped immediately
I dramatically announced I had lost all meaning by noon on the first day of summer vacation. I’m unsure if it was hearing the word “bro” 90 times before lunch or the third time somebody barged into my office to sharpen a pencil and ask me what my 4th favourite lizard is, but something valuable within me died that morning.
You probably love summer. The weather is better, the frantic pace of work dies down a bit, and the streets run golden with vitamin D. As mentioned though, vitamin silence is my drug of choice, and with summer comes a severe lack of vitamin S.
It is sometimes said in meditation circles if you ever think that you’ve got it all figured out, the universe (however you define that) will step in and offer you a correction. The universe has a sense of humour that way. Like a baby bird who’s pretty sure they’re nailing their first flight just before they crater into the forest floor, one of the surest ways to blow yourself up is to triumphantly proclaim that you’ve got it all figured out.
This can be demonstrated in something as small as a meditation. Perhaps you finally reach a calm state in your mind and (hilariously) pat yourself on the back for winning at meditation. This immediately triggers the opening of the floodgates to hell, and you can now reflect on the only calm moment you had all day as a distant memory.
Or perhaps it can be demonstrated by breathing a victorious sigh of relief as you balance your bank account and get all your affairs in order. Sure, it took you until March 1st, 2020 to get your small business going, but you did it. There’s nothing left to do now but sit back, relax, and maybe turn on the news. Hey, did China ever figure out that thing?
Why does the universe hate us?
It feels like the universe hates us; I won’t argue that. I will argue however that like many feelings, that feeling is a lie. The truth is probably either better or worse, depending on where you’re at mentally today: the universe couldn’t give less of a shit about you if it tried.
One of the core principles of Buddhism is the concept of impermanence. The idea that nothing lasts forever works great as a song lyric, but as a guiding light in our lives, we tend to ignore it on account of it being a massive bummer.
Try as we might to ignore it, the Buddhists probably got this one right. Things decay, all things die, this world has reinvented itself multiple times before we ever got here, and it’ll do it a few more before it’s through.
The basic idea that your good time will last forever is no more silly than a Silicon Valley CEO thinking he can live forever by snorting stem cells or whatever the hell they’re trying to do to reverse physics these days. You’ll die. I’ll die. Your good run of success will definitely die.
As an aside, I’m pretty sure I just figured out why I don’t get invited to parties anymore.
Our old friend the hedonic treadmill also has much to say about why your brain won’t keep the good times rolling. A constant return to baseline is simply what your brain does to keep you moving forward. You can’t honestly reach a point where everything is peachy keen, otherwise you’ll stop. Can’t have that.
The second law of thermodynamics says…
For those who brush off religion and psychology as witchcraft, your precious hard science would like a word. In a closed system, energy tends to disperse or spread out. Entropy is the measure of disorder or randomness within a system; within our little system, chaos is king.
Just as a clean room (or an entire life) collapses into ruin if left unattended, so does… well… everything else. And since we have an upper limit on what we can attend to and are so impacted by the things other people need to attend to, there’s no hope of ever keeping anything stable for any reasonable amount of time.
Ya, this definitely explains the party thing.
A slow learner
Wise people I’d listened to or read over the years were clear in their instruction: do not, under any circumstance, construct an end zone where you spike the football and do a little celebratory dance because you figured everything out.
As I put the final touches on my end zone, complete with confetti cannons and pyro, I will admit the hubris of sudden failure was soul-crushing. I still had hope though. Surely, there was a way out of this. The good news is there was. The bad news is I was still a ways away from figuring it out.
Should we add guilt? Would guilt help?
One thing you should never add to any situation because it never helps is guilt. And I should know. Lord knows I tried. It was not lost on me that this new reality I was fighting was one that many people would give all they have to experience. A summer with kids–kids who would, in short order, venture out into the world and cease to see my wife and me as critical as they do today. Hell, some people would give it all away to have kids in the first place. And here I was not-so-subtly feeling around for a fast-forward button. Like an asshole.
This only adds shame to the discomfort. Shame is like tough love on meth, which makes it a horrific motivator. You’d think the profound dis-ease of shame might kick you into action, but all it tends to do is leave you digging to find a way up.
A breakthrough, brought to you by Kirkland
I want to tell you that I enacted all my learnings and righted the ship in a few days; I mean, I consume a lot of material on living well. The truth is, I just ate a bunch and spent half the summer feeling like trash. I had found something special, lost it, and my efforts to regain it were piss poor to say the least.
One day, I found myself in the parking lot of a Costco eating a crisis hotdog and a slice of pizza because that’s how I was doing. In the background was a podcast featuring Jack Kornfield. Jack is often listed as one of the first teachers to have introduced Buddhist mindfulness practice to the West, and in that moment, he managed to land a couple of essential punches.
“…my measure now for myself: are you loving? …And that love isn’t just like, oh, sweet Valentine love, but can you be in this world and can you love it with all its imperfections? And can you bring that spirit of care and love in the middle of what’s tragic and what’s beautiful?”
It’s funny how some days, a few sentences can ignite little more than an eye roll deep within you, while on others, those same words can adjust your entire reality. My going theory is this: despite my self-destructive mood, my subconscious mind may have been working to communicate, “You need to slow down, you absolute madman.” My curious focus on that podcast could have been my subconscious trying to do me a subtle favour.
When you’re overwhelmed, having only one task can be a cool drink on a hot day. For Jack to say he has one single measure for himself made all the sense in the world. It also made sense that by that measure, like most things at the time, I wasn’t exactly winning at life. At that moment, covered in mustard and regret, the solution arrived so simply: you only have one thing to do. You want to do other things, and I guess tough shit because it’s not time for those other things now. You have to be loving.
Being a cranky mess until fall was not a reasonable strategy for anybody. Focusing on answering positively to “Am I being loving?” though? That might feel nice for a change. I could spend my days forcing states that weren’t there, or I could give up the war and do the one job I had at that moment.
Despite being a person who spends a lot of time reading and contemplating how our constant desire for control produces little more than pure unleaded suffering, I spent half my summer thirsting for it. It was no wonder why I wasn’t having a great time. I spent every waking moment and ounce of energy trying to get life into a headlock, but life doesn’t give a shit.
Having kids is tricky. They teach you things at a speed and on a scale that’s difficult to match anywhere else. Of course, they teach you about love and compassion, but they also have things to say about failure, compromise, and sacrifice. There are things–so many damn things–that you simply don’t get to do right now. You’re welcome to fight it, but as stated, life doesn’t care. So go ahead and have it all. Let me know how that works out for ya.
Tea with Māra
Jack wasn’t done. He had more lessons I’d already learned to bash me over the head with.
The Buddhist teachings have a being called Māra. His closest comparison would be the devil, but think less cloven-hoofed fire demon and more insufferable trickster. He plays a critical role in the story of The Buddha’s enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. Long story short, he tries to throw the about-to-be enlightened one off his path by sending him sexy visitors, scary visitors, and being an all-around prick about things. It doesn’t work, yadda yadda yadda, The Buddha is born.
Post-enlightenment, Māra shows up all the time. He’s The Joker to Buddha’s Batman. He’s always there to toss a wrench into things, but we don’t want to get rid of him… what would the story be like without him? In a way, this is one of the more important lessons that we tend to ignore from the story: you never arrive, and the struggle keeps on coming. As the Zen proverb goes: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”
Jack tells a quick story about Māra that I hadn’t heard before, probably because it’s a bit less metal than sending imaginary sexy distractions and freaky monsters to crush a soul. It’s the story of a Māra coming for tea (I told you it was more lame).
Siddhartha Gautama, who became “Buddha” after his enlightenment, had servants because being enlightened came with perks. As the story goes, Māra visits and the servant desperately tries to usher him away because he’s not someone you typically invite to a party (like me, I suppose).
Hearing the commotion, the Buddha calls out, asking if that’s Māra dropping by and if the servant would put on some tea for them. “I see you, Māra” is all the Buddha typically needs to say in these interactions, and the villain in our story dejectedly slinks away.
Māra is many things, one of which is a God of deception. The lies we tell ourselves about ourselves and the things that aren’t. Classic Māra right there. This is why the phrase “I see you, Māra” is particularly devastating to him. His power resides mostly within the fact that he’s not typically seen at all.
This is, in a way, a story about all suffering, from anxiety to depression to any feeling we’d rather not be having at the moment. As silly as it may seem, the first step is merely identifying it (“Is that Māra? I see you Māra!”). The second is to invite it for tea. Does this work for every problem? Of course not, because usually we’re full of shit and our invite for tea is under the false pretence that Māra gets the fuck out of our living room. Can’t you maybe call before you drop by? You’re like a shitty Mother-in-law who doesn’t respect boundaries.
But if you can invite him in with true intention, curiosity, and openness to his lessons, you might find something odd happens. Sometimes, you learn a thing. Sometimes you learn nothing, and he slinks away like a damn coward. Whatever happens, you can probably put it in the win column.
That the solution was so simple is almost embarrassing. It shouldn’t be. By this point, I’ve started to notice a trend that all the solutions are obnoxiously basic. We seem to be highly skilled at complicating everything.
You don’t get to do this right now. You want to write, but as it stands, you’re not in a place to both write and be loving. As being loving is the only task, there isn’t time for writing. Will the day come when I can actively do both? That would be rock and roll, but in the spirit of honesty, that time isn’t now.
So I gave up the fight. Despite all the business and productivity experts yelling at me through social channels to keep the streak alive, not waver in my attention to my craft, and make my passion my only priority, I recognized that they don’t have two kids to raise. Or maybe they do, and they’re in a place where they can balance it better than I can. Whichever it is, they weren’t in my position, so to let them drive my bus was stupid. I stopped trying to write immediately and welcomed my frustrations in for tea.
Māra’s first test
When you have kids, the opportunities to test your frustration strategies are endless. My eldest certainly didn’t disappoint. He did something profoundly stupid within about 7 hours of me deciding to stop writing. I genuinely don’t say that to shame him. We treat kids like they’re smelly adults when, in reality, we forget they’re doing almost everything for the first or second time. Why wouldn’t they do stupid things all the time? I do stupid things constantly, and I’ve been trying for decades.
Mine decided to toss a ¼ empty bottle of water amidst a wicked cross-wind to his brother at the edge of an actual cliff, resulting in me having to make a damn precarious rescue effort for Mother Earth. The bottle landed on a reachable ledge below, but it was not exactly part of my plan for the day (which definitely involved “staying alive”).
Upon my return, I was 3 degrees shy of seething. Perhaps it was the residual adrenaline of nearly dying to keep nature undisturbed by a bottle of Aquafina, but I was ready to throttle this child. I could be at home, writing and feeling fantastic. But I’m here. With you. And you’re trying to kill me on a mountain.
And then, like a pretentious passer-by with no skin in the game who should be minding their own damn business, whispered in my boiling mind: “Are you being loving?”
I placed a hand (still-vibrating-with-frustration) on his shoulder, and through the gritted teeth of a man trying not to swear, I said, “That was a mistake, but you’re allowed to make those. I’m having a great time on this hike, and I’m glad you’re here with me.”
Was I still angry? Yes! Did I fully mean what I said? Moving on! What matters is the immediate aftermath. His defence mechanism of anger towards me (always a true joy of parenting) gave way to the shame of making a mistake, gave way to sadness, gave way to pure relief. I’d seen this before in other plutonium-rare moments of parental winning, but this was the first time I was attentive enough to watch the stages cascade. He was back playing with his brother within minutes, and our day continued.
It could have been oh-so-much worse. I promise you that because I’ve played that scenario out incorrectly thousands of times, and one day on a very expensive couch perhaps my son will tell some of them to a very expensive therapist. But not today, dammit. We saved this one.
The plan for next summer, now that I’ve definitely got it all figured out
And in that moment, Māra slinked away. The rest of the summer went beautifully. Not perfectly, of course, I forgot my lesson every day, but that’s how it works. When I could catch myself and remember it, things generally went well.
So, my plan for next summer is to give up the fight on July 1st. While I love my little hobby, summer is a chance to focus elsewhere, let other skills grow, and potentially feed back into that hobby come September. Perhaps it can be a rejuvenating way to leave something in the tank and build some good motivational pressure.
Will it work flawlessly? No, because I feel like it will, and that’s not how any of this goes. The curveballs will keep coming, and every lesson will be tested. Certainly, I’ll lose all hope a few times. Say what you will about Māra; the bastard is persistent. It’s a good thing I like tea.