When Life Gets a Timeout

Most of us respond well to limits. For some of us, limits offer a comfort zone, a soft spot within which to perform the functions of living. Others of us like limits just for the sake of being able to push them. They give us something outside of which to operate. Either way, humankind has established and adapted to a set of boundaries complete with a system of reward and punishment, and with only an occasional rejection, we all tacitly agree to it.

We begin the institution of our system early in life. We learn that good behavior gets a gold star, while bad behavior gets a note home to the parents. But sometimes the system doesn’t make sense. Sometimes the system doesn’t translate well across the process of aging. These are the moments when adulthood becomes questionable, and we find ourselves feeling like the butt of a cosmic joke.

In elementary school, children receive recess or playtime when they’re well-behaved. I can’t help wondering why we reserve the luxury of recess for children. It seems rather cruel, does it not, to introduce our young people to routines like recess and naptime only to yank them away upon initiation to adulthood. Why is it that only children are allowed their playgrounds? As adults, we are forced into the world with no hope for recess and, for most of us, no clue what we would do with one if we had it. As children we are allowed a certain amount of time each day to get “it” out of our systems. We have our favorite equipment, our favorite games, our favorite playmates. We have a safe place to work out our aggression, a soft patch of mulch on which to land when the going gets tough and the tough fall down. But the older we get, the less entitled to this break we become. Why is it that we feel the need, as adults, to strip ourselves of the luxury of recess at a time when it seems the most relevant?

I suppose the argument might be made that the world is an adult’s playground. We are rewarded when we follow the rules, complete the assignments, and we’re punished with pay cuts when we don’t. We have our favorite vacation spots, our favorite hobbies, our favorite people. But if that’s true, and the world really is our playground, then Life becomes the bully who pushes us down the slide or pantses us while we’re swinging from the monkey bars. Suddenly, in that moment, we realize that there is no soft patch of mulch, and the best we can hope for is that the swings don’t have puddles underneath them. Somehow, by accepting the possibility of reward, we create a concept of recess that is more to be feared than relished. Perhaps this is why so many of us are willing to relinquish the privilege altogether.

It’s easy to get caught up in the way Life mistreats us. It’s easy to succumb to our role as Life’s plaything and do everything in our power to avoid it, but sometimes, just when we feel like giving up, like maybe spending recess in the library might be the better alternative, Life gets a timeout.

These timeouts are small, barely recognizable blips on the radar of ways we, the peons of the playground, have been wronged. But we don’t really want Life to start ignoring us altogether, so we take them when we can get them. Keep a count. Tally them up. Think of them as figurative moments of recess. There are more of them than we realize. They come when we’re standing in the checkout with one item and the person in front of us says, “Go ahead.” They come when we see “Just Married” painted on the back of a car driving down the Interstate and break out in a collective, “Aww.” They come when someone allows us to cross the street outside the crosswalk when it’s pouring rain. These tiny timeouts, while they do not constitute the same relief we might get from recess, serve to remind us that we are not in this alone, that Life gets to everyone at some point, that we need each other.

So maybe as adults we don’t have the luxury of a full-blown recess. Maybe we do allow Life the Bully too much power over our state of mind, and maybe we don’t have the time, space, or energy to indulge in taking care of ourselves the way we should. Maybe instead we get brief recessive moments, little reminders that we can’t play dodgeball alone.


I Am Nobody / Who Are You?…Wait, what?

Emily Dickinson once allowed her narrator to call herself (or himself) a nobody. I can’t help wondering how she (or he…you get the idea) came to that conclusion. Was she stuck in an identity rut? Had she been in one place so long that this seemed to be the only logical conclusion to make about herself? What might she have done if she had come outside her comfort zone, if she had started fresh?

She goes on to suggest that being a someone is “dreary” and that anyone who is someone is part of an “admiring bog.” Would she have felt this way if she had gotten the chance to try on a different personality for awhile, if she had gotten to feel what it was like to be a somebody? When we have the fleeting chance in life to start over, to be whomever we chose to be, do we scoff and pretend that who or what we were before is all we’ll ever be? Do we embrace our nobody-ness and continue living with whatever aspects of ourselves we find plaguing? Or do we grab that opportunity by the horns and hang on for the ride? Do we allow ourselves the opportunity to change, grow, experience?

Beginning a new chapter in one’s life is akin to beginning to write in a new journal. We stare at the vast expanse of space in which we can create whatever we want to create, and the hardest part seems to be what should come first. We become the storytellers, the master creators. If a character exists, it is because we made it so. If there’s something about that character that we wish to change, we can do so with the quick flick of an eraser.

Moving to a new place gives us a similar opportunity for creativity. When we move to new places, where we don’t know anyone, we get the chance to make a new first impression. We get the chance to take our past experiences, learn from them, and transform ourselves into better people because of them. Certain aspects of our personality will always be present, and they will inevitably surface without our bidding them to do so. Who we are, the core of what makes us us, is inherent; some things we can’t change. But we all have moments in which we wish we were something else: more adventurous, more easy-going, more ambitious. A change of setting always allows for new perspective for a character, and we are no different. Being in someplace new nudges us out of the norm, forcing us to either sink under the weight of all the things we don’t like about ourselves or to swim, free of the baggage of self-related negativity.

For that kind of chance, isn’t it worth seeing what the bog is all about?


A Moment of Truth

Lies come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes they’re stories we make up to fill empty moments. Sometimes they’re tiny and insignificant, ways to avoid exposing elements of ourselves that are too vulnerable. Sometimes they are momentous; they change the way we perceive the world and ourselves in it. Sometimes they are devastating, life-altering. Cataclysmic.

Whatever the type of lie or its scope, we tell them mostly to ourselves. No one else has to be involved; no one else has to hear. We create diversions to make it through the day. Yes, I am going to have the grande salted caramel mocha latte, and it won’t be a skinny because I will get up extra early tomorrow to workout longer. Yeah. Right. If I get this pair of shoes I won’t get anything else for at least the next two paychecks; I’ll save instead. Uh-huh. Keep talking.

Some of these lies are innocuous. They aren’t going to do everlasting damage that will rear its deformed head at inopportune moments. But some of them go deeper. Some of them penetrate to the core of who we are, so much so that we allow ourselves to become the lies we tell. Again, these are the lies we tell ourselves, not the ones we tell other people.

These things we tell ourselves distort the truth of who we really are. We tell ourselves we aren’t smart enough, wealthy enough, attractive enough, talented enough. These contrivances become the truth because we allow ourselves to see nothing else. We are consumed with being enough. We start to focus on what we’re not, instead of what we are. Funny how the little lies grow.

What would happen if we allowed ourselves only to tell the stories and believe the stories in which we are the champions? In which we are the people we aspire to be? What would happen if the only truth we knew of ourselves, the only truth we ever told ourselves, is that we are always enough?


If I’m Me, Then Who Are You?

In general, we like to sing the praises of individuality. Let each be his own, or something similar. We applaud the efforts of those who seek to distinguish themselves from the masses, and we designate whole months of the year to celebrate diversity and revel in the distinct attributes every person brings to the cultural table.

But to what extent do we actually believe in the positivity of the differences we like to praise? Do we celebrate individuality only so long as someone else is performing it? Is our championing of individual self-expression conditional, limited to those who couldn’t conform if their lives depended on it? And if we are subconsciously reinforcing this double-standard, what does this do to an adolescent’s capacity for self-expression?

Shopping malls are full of innumerable incarnations of the same teenager. This teenager wears skinny jeans and retro sneakers. He has borrowed a hairstyle from a cleverly marketed pop culture pawn, and he bears the look of befuddled indifference popularized by teenagers long ago. This teenager bumps into himself at every corner and refuses to say “excuse me” for fear of damaging his borrowed ego.

When two embodiments of this teen converse, those of us cognizant of what’s happening expect some sort of metaphysical breakdown of the archetype. We expect, perhaps naively, that the mask will dissolve, and what will be left behind is the true individual. And that would be ok. It is, in fact, what we want. Right?

What happens in reality is that the clones embrace their identically constructed selves and march on together, still believing they are doing something unique, still presenting themselves as the individuals they think they are. And still believing this is how it’s supposed to be.

I wonder where they got that idea.


A Helpful Headache

Every generation has its problems, and every life has its hurdles. To circumvent these problems, or at least make them easier to deal with, we occupy ourselves with finding shortcuts, time-savers, ways to make life a little better. But what happens when the very things we create to help us clear the hurdles only serve to make them more difficult to overcome? What happens when we create more problems than we solve?

Take, for example, the iPod. Or the iPhone. Or the iPad. Or any smartphone. You get the idea. These devices were invented to make life easier, better, more user-friendly. We thought we were saving ourselves time and trouble by implementing pieces of technology that would allow us to bank remotely or communicate via email in the grocery line. We created iTunes, a one-stop shop, sample, and storage program for all our musical needs. But when these widgets and whatsits don’t perform at our level of expectation, when the downloads take too long, when the battery drains itself, do we calmly and rationally seek other avenues for obtaining what we want? Or do we lash out at the computer, phone, or mp3 player in hopes that it will respond to our baleful coercing?

The self-checkout line also serves to call into question our dependence on ourselves versus our dependence on technology. We approach the self-checkout with the utmost optimism. Finally a way to ensure that we are not overcharged for glass cleaner and that our milk is double-bagged before we leave the store. We begin the checkout process only to find a few minutes later that our enthusiasm has confused the computer. We have, in our haste to be our most efficient selves, placed too many unidentified items in the bagging area. When we attempt to remedy the problem, we only exacerbate the situation, further confusing the computer. At this point, we are forced to wait for the checkout attendant to sidle over and fix the problem. Perhaps the regular checkout line would have been faster?

These advancements, such as they are, were created to help with the headaches of life, not cause them. And for the most part, we can derive a sense of satisfaction with the ease they sometimes create. But when we take that ease for granted, we allow ourselves to become fully dependent on their capabilities. Or incapabilities, as the case may be. In the name of efficiency we create time-saving devices, and we apply ourselves to them with the utmost confidence in their productivity. But how much time are we losing? How much self-reliance are we sacrificing? And do we even notice?


Tell It Like It Is

People love a good story. We always have. We like to hear them, and we like to tell them. But what is it about telling our version of the story that makes it so exhilarating? Why do we expend the effort to tell the same tales over and over again? And why do certain aspects of the telling change each time we do it?

The oral tradition of storytelling has existed for, well, longer than I care to estimate. Storytelling, much like writing, gives us a way to make sense of things, to create order where we may not otherwise perceive it. In telling (or retelling) a story, we are preserving our own voice. We are maintaining the integrity of our perception of life and the people in it.

But what does storytelling do to truth? Sure, people make amazing storytellers. If we see that we have a captive audience, we bind ourselves to continue the telling, embellishing what can be embellished and omitting that which doesn’t work in our favor.

They say there are two sides to every story, but none of us will tell it the same way twice. How many people have a voice in any one story? What if we all have a side, and what if they are all different?