Labors

I’ve spent a lot of time living under the belief that I am insufficient, deficient, or otherwise defective. I believed that this was the case because no one was even pretending to be my champion. I lived in such painful invisibility that I acted out in a number of ways just to somehow try and be visible. I participated in things I didn’t care about deeply and spoke half-truths that I really didn’t believe at my core to please people I honestly didn’t like.

I didn’t know how to speak my truth then. Even now, I’m still learning how to do it and do it with compassion for both myself and others.

It wasn’t until very recently that I started to learn what my truth actually sounded like when spoken from a place of self-love and recognition. I was in bed with a partner and was able to communicate specifically what I wanted in that moment, and was able to engage in the behavior that I felt was exciting for the both of us without any trace of shame or dependency. It felt absolutely amazing, and more importantly it felt right. We both emerged from the experience closer and happier.

Earlier in the weekend, I was out with the same friend at a bar and was playing pool against several other patrons there and was able to hold my own for several games. People were making passes at me, which I accepted without judgement on how they looked or their intent and appreciated it for what it was to me: a payment of appreciation for my appearance and personality.

A year ago or more, I wouldn’t have been able to do any of this. I would have been hiding behind whoever I was there with, nursing a beer, and just generally being anti-social (but forcing myself to be “social”).

I think it says a lot about how far I’ve come and how much I’ve learned about telling my truth, actually hearing what other people have to say, and how much more compassion I’ve been trying to extend to myself. There have been a number of noted spiritual and philosophical thinkers who have had a lot to say about self-esteem and self-confidence over the course of written history, many of them sharing some of the same basic philosophies at their core:

  • Letting go of what you cannot control, focusing on what you can
  • Focusing purely on success diminishes the worth of the effort expended in the pursuit
  • Among the most prescient of ideas that I have come across is the notion that without self-love and acceptance of imperfection, all other points are moot.

“You could search the whole world over and never find anyone as deserving of your love as yourself.”

I’ve also found that thinking about the self-talk that I engage in and comparing it against what might be the reactions of others if they overheard such speak against myself has helped a lot in sometimes breaking out of the black-and-white thinking that I find myself in. It’s helped me to understand and really start to believe that others actually do like me, they do trust me to some extent, and that they genuinely care about my personal wellbeing and growth. It’s still sometimes difficult for me to accept, but I primarily chalk that up to the upbringing I had and the blind eye that was turned to my troubles and experiences.

Growth is slow, and I still hit what I refer to as “speed bumps” occasionally, but they are becoming easier to manage in no small part to the people that surround me in this life I’ve made for myself. I, who came from nothing, am grateful for those who see me and recognize me for both who and what I am: human.

Journal Entry: July 5th, 2014, 8:52PM – Somerville, MA

Long ago, when you or your contemporaries outgrew the morality or the pettiness of your surroundings, you went one of two directions: East or West. You went, and went, and went some more until there was no more distance to travel–or when you were finally alone. These days, there’s no more distance to travel. All of the frontiers have been claimed (except for space and the deep sea), so what’s left to you when you feel like you’re living on the edge of the universe? When there’s no frontier left, where do you go?

When there isn’t any hope or understanding, what’s left for you to do? Who do you go to see? When the sun sets on your weary shoulders, who do you think of? Why?

I can’t speak for anyone else but myself, but when I get these kinds of moods I tend not to think of anyone. I tend to see and feel memories from my past in a kind of reverse-montage sort of way. It’s hard to describe the feelings that come up, but I imagine it’s something like bleeding-out and seeing your life play out before your eyes as you edge closer to the end. The sunset today accentuated that particular emotion, and made me feel like I’d lost something important or that somehow I felt “terminal”. As if there were no further distance to go, no further fugues to be played, and no more mileage left in this bleeding heart of mine.

I know for a fact that these feelings are not true, but they’re about as real as anything else I could possibly experience. It’s strange, being apart from it and seeing or experiencing it in an ethereal, detached sort of way rather than being caught in the crushing gravity of it all. I’ll take this perspective, given that the alternative is worse.

If you could imagine peeling back layers of ice, volcanic rock, and metallic armor away from a heart–that’s kind of what it feels like. Necrotic flesh and decaying metal peeled away from a heart that has yet to mend. Though, the more that I think about it, the less I think that it’s a broken heart than the essence of what my younger self is. Cocooned in the cooled anger of over a decade’s worth of jealousy, hatred, and the devastation of rejection, the ice formed from the cold reality of intense loneliness and depression, and the armor formed from the patchwork of identities and masks that were created over time to try and cover the scars and make it seem as though I could tough it out, that I could take it.

It wasn’t the companionship I wanted. It wasn’t even the closeness. All I wanted was to be understood at a base level, to be acknowledged, valued, and accepted for who I was without any reservations or conditions; to be able to trust someone implicitly. I think that particular point is chief among the reasons why I have such a hard time with things these days: trust. I couldn’t trust anyone then, and even now there are scant few people I can say that is true of. To say that I couldn’t trust even my parents was an understatement. I couldn’t trust anyone for a long time. Even when I made friends with the person I still consider to this day my absolute best friend and confidant (you know who you are), I held a lot back. There were many things I couldn’t say, do, or be. Time progressed, and I grew to trust them implicitly, even when it seemed to run contrary to what my gut was telling me. To quite John Cusack’s character “Rob Gordon” from the movie High Fidelity, “I’m convinced that my guts have shit for brains”. But I grew as a result of that deep friendship.

In this stage of my life, I have what’s known as a “good problem to have”. I have friends, and some of them I am working toward granting that level of trust. I still hold a lot in because a lot of what I feel isn’t meant for public consumption, but at the same time it eats me up inside to the point that not letting it out is just as bad. But I’m trying to work it all out, letting people in slowly who earn that trust, and trying my hardest to realize that not everyone entering that space intends harm.

Sometimes trusting means giving someone else the microscope and implicitly understanding that they don’t mean you harm, they’re just analyzing and responding. That’s probably among the hardest lesson to learn out of all of this.

One of the hardest lessons is learning to be able to be comfortable and happy with myself and my struggles. I’ve tried hard to build a life worth living, worthy of respect, one that other people take positive notice of. I’ve labored under the impression for a long time that I’ve always been “deficient” and that I’m always in need of improvement. This mindset isn’t healthy and it’s something that stems from over a decade of rejection and intense bullying. It’s something I hadn’t had the courage to really address in the past, but lately I’ve noticed it popping-up in the worst possible ways. I think the worst of people when I have no reason to, and I fear the worst when there’s nothing to fear.

I have to work on realizing that no one is intending me harm (physically or emotionally), that I am not deficient in any way, and that things are just “okay”. Not necessarily “lowering expectations” or “settling for less”, but easing the pressure on myself needs to be one of the bigger priorities I need to take on before much else. Maybe then I can stop expecting so much of other people (or expecting the worst).

Why?

Lead with it.  It might seem inscrutible, impossible to comprehend the reasons why depending upon what subject is being queried.  But the impossibility of starting with it begs the question itself: why not start with “why”?

Take, for example, an engineer.  Brilliant, but utterly fearful and ineffective at communicating.  Why?

Perhaps that very same brilliant engineer might have been smothered or abused early in their life.  An educator or authority figure might have told them they’d never be able to communicate well.  A parent who could never be placated or pleased tore them down at every turn.  Maybe that’s why.

Maybe moves us closer.  Why gives us an opening to insert insight, perspective, and empathy into the discourse.

When we’re confronted by difficult choices, disagreement, or discontent, we have the agency to ask the magic question.  It’s up to us to dig deeper.

So, why not?

Climbing & Mental Health

To say that climbing has given me a reason to live isn’t hyperbole.  When things get tough, when I’m not able to “show up” for people, when I can’t handle anything–that’s when I go climbing.

The climbing gym is my temple.  My meditation is the climb.  The motion, the focus, the effort; in combination it becomes my zazen, my moving meditation.

You really get to know someone for who they are when they’re at the absolute peak of their effort.  When they hit a wall, when they’re way out of their depth, what’s their reaction?  Do they put one-hundred-percent focus and effort on the motion?  Do they analyze their options?  Do they “just go for it”?

What’s your reaction when you fall?  I’ve experienced so many varied emotions after taking a long fall on a climb that demanded more than I thought I had.  More strength, more strategy, more technique, more everything.  Anger, despair, even cacophonous laughter (my climbing partners might instead argue that I bordered on mania, but that’s a whole different discussion).

Climbing is the magnifying lens through which I can truly see myself.  The way I respond to others (and myself) under stress and in the face of repeated failure gives me a clearer picture of myself than my mental illness would let me normally see.  It points out in no uncertain terms that I am most definitely not a failure, that I am worthy, that my efforts aren’t in vain, and that I’m progressing.

In the past, PTSD would take my thoughts into some really dark places.  I wish that I could say that my worst days are behind me, but I know that really difficult days can appear anytime.  There is no schedule, no “tell”, no signal or sign.  But working through those days and experiencing them while climbing has given me an appreciation for the sport and the people who engage in it that I didn’t have before I started climbing.

The most rewarding climbing days aren’t necessarily the days I send a 5.12 on lead or figure out the “intended beta” for a boulder problem.  It’s the times I’ve been able to work through fear, push past adversity, and really have the support and understanding of my climbing partners that make those days really shine.

It’s telling to me that the most intense and intimate experiences I’ve had in my life have been in conversation with other climbers.  There’s an intensity there–a camradarie and openness that’s cultiavted when you’re “out on the sharp end”.  When climbers get down to brass tacks and really communicate, it’s utterly without pretense and completely unvarnished.  If you’re doing something dumb, you’re going to find out real fast.  If you’re progressing and pushing, you’ll know it.  It’s helpful to have someone else right there beside you.  Even bouldering by myself these days, my life and my attitude are improving by degrees.

In short, I don’t think there’s another group of people on Earth I’d rather spend my waking hours with than climbers.  There isn’t another pursuit that I can think of that I’d rather give my time and effort to, especially when it’s given me so much back in return.

Queerness

I don’t know how other people describe something like queerness. I guess that’s the point of the word really—different. Is my bisexuality a problem or is it just one facet of who I am that gives context and texture to the person that I have become and will eventually morph into?

My life, being not-quite-straight and not-quite-gay, gives me pause. I have to wonder sometimes if the reason I wanted a “straight-acting” life was because I was afraid of repercussions. Afraid of being labeled. Afraid of other people making judgment calls about who I am as a person without getting to know the innumerable other facets that make up a more complete picture of me. People might know me as a climber, a faggot, a metal-head, a hot-head, or some flavor of geek or nerd; but I wonder how many people know the real me. The one who wants to show affection, the one who wants to encourage and push his friends and chosen family to succeed, the one who would love nothing more than to find a home that contains only what is needed and nothing else.

Do I want to make that “unknown me” more visible? I want that more than anything else in the world. I want to make it possible for people to see more of me, and maybe they could see more of themselves in the offing.

Stress

I’ve operated under a number of fallacies up until now.  That I’m above my circumstances.  That most everything can be attributed to being a mental block.  That I’ve moved past pettiness and hangups.  That I can just will myself to work through the discomfort and the pain.

The truth is that those fallacies did little more than obscure the reality of the situation: that I don’t cut myself enough slack, I expect way too much out of myself, and that my stress boils-over too easily.

This is how most high-performance individuals describe how they feel when they’re deep in the proverbial locust-swarm of burnout.

I’ve done a really piss-poor job of regulating myself and pushing back when I need to.  I’ve expended a lot of cognitive and emotional energy on trying to look good and be visible to the right people, but for a lot of the wrong reasons.

I’m going to be completely honest: I feel stuck.  Stuck in my job, stuck in my relationships, and stuck in my progression.  Progress toward what is a whole different topic, so I’ll save that one for later.

What’s hurting me the worst at the moment is progression in my chosen job.  I’ll be completely blunt: I am proficient at what I do, but I’ve never been promoted and I’m afraid I never will be.  It feels like a job more than a career.  It pays the bills and lets me have fun, but for me, that’s not enough.

I don’t wake up excited to go to work.  I generally like the people I work with, but there are definitely personality differences that cause friction (most of it my fault).  I take criticism and poor work outcomes very personally rather than allowing it to be what it is: circumstantial and ephemeral.  I react this way because I’ve wanted to be what a lot of people in my early life weren’t: invested.

A lot of the people I interacted with in my early life portrayed a lot of what they were doing as unimportant or not impactful.  It made my experiences with them very difficult to understand because I would see media and images of other people who were so completely and utterly invested in what they believed and what they were doing that I started telling myself that I had to find what I could be passionate about.  That money and prestige didn’t matter, only the mission.  I was looking for a mission for myself.

What I couldn’t have known then, and I’m still wrestling with to this day, is the fact that there were (and still are) a myriad of personal obstacles to figuring out just what my mission is.

To the current point about burnout specifically, I heavily invested emotionally and physically into the things I was most passionate about that were accessible to me at the current time: climbing, snowboarding, and system administration.  I thought at the time that if I made those my missions and worked at them without distraction and with as much passion as I could muster, that I would discover that one or all of these things amounted to my mission in life.

The plan, as it turns out, backfired in spectacular fashion.

I became so invested in outcomes at work and emotionally attached to, and in some cases dependent on, coworkers and outcomes that I became bitter and belligerent when things didn’t work out or went wrong.

I became so invested in the continuing progression of my abilities at climbing and snowboarding, that disillusionment and disappointment became the norm when I couldn’t perform.

In short: I set myself up for failure by overly-investing and expecting too much.  I expended an ever-increasing amount of emotional and physical energy for diminishing returns.  I failed to obey the maxim “work smart not hard”.  In so doing, I arrived where I am now: in near-complete burnout.

I’m disillusioned with my job prospects, and I’m trying my hardest not to let that bleed-over into things that I try to do to give myself happiness.  It’s difficult to do when you’re also battling depression and trying to find medication that works to help mitigate some of the symptoms.

I guess what I’m trying to say at this point is this: I haven’t done a good job at taking care of myself, setting healthy boundaries, and these have caused me to be a bastard to a lot of people.  I’m trying really hard.  I just need help and a gentle reminder sometimes.

A Minimalist Life, The Short Tour Part 1: Home

I still get the occasional question about my choice to engage in minimalism and why I’ve chosen to forego “stuff” in favor of experiences.  Even when I tell them that it’s more aesthetically pleasing to me to have fewer things and be less worried about what I still own, I still get the impression that people seem to think that minimalism is more about asceticism, engaging in some flavor of anti-consumerism protest, or some kind of “race-to-the-bottom” trend.

What gets lost in that conversation is what I’ve gained in the process of removing the superfluous.  When the flotsam and jetsam of a consumerist life is moved aside, I’m able to leave cognitive room for more of the things that generally make life more interesting.

When you’ve removed the beeping, buzzing, dinging, flashing, and blinking bits from your immediate view, what are you left with?  When you’ve removed all but “the work”, what’s actually there to distract you?

In my case, removing things actually gave me more in return–I removed the visual and physical clutter.  When I donated of a ton of books and CDs I’d never read or listen to again, I gained mobility and options in where I wanted to live.  As I divested myself of the superfluous, I started discovering what was essential to how I wanted to live my life.  I discovered my strong desire to climb, hike, and snowboard as a direct consequence of asking myself really difficult questions.  I began curating my life in such a way as to make them seem as if they were foregone conclusions rather than abstract concepts.

  • Does this add value to my life?
  • Would I miss it if it were gone?  What impact would it have?
  • Is this something I could easily replace, repair, or borrow if I absolutely needed it?

When I consider these questions and I look around at what I still own, what relationships I invest time and energy in, and how I spend my time, I realize that what I’ve removed is actually less than what I’ve gained.  I’ve added more space to what used to be a “small” living space for myself, found better focus by having less visual distractions in my field of view, and I’ve made it easier for myself to move if I choose to (by having less to pack).

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By having fewer possessions, I’ve made it clear to myself that what I have should be able to do a few things fairly well or one thing really well.  Whether it’s the clothing, food, or where I live, I look at all of the options as closely as I can now and generally make more informed decisions about what I want and why I want them.

In short: I wanted less distractions, less clutter, and less craziness.  What I got in return was more of myself: more of my own personality and expression, more of the space that I want, and more of the things that I need (and consequently, less of the things I didn’t).