How Are You Feeling?
A trip through health (mental and physical), psychology, adolescence, fatherhood, relationships and the rocky terrain of emotions
My friend is sick. Well, at least three of my closest friends are sick. (warning: fractions may be unreliable). One-third of the Bay Area is sick. One-quarter of the United States is sick. According to my scientific research, one-eighth of the world’s population is sick.
We all either have the regular old winter flu, a bad version of the common cold, COVID-19, allergies, a combination thereof and about 60% of Americans have Trump-itis.
I’ve been mildly-sick to flu-ridden for half of the winter. My partner has been sick. Our daughter has been sick several times, too. We’re all sick of being sick. We’re also tired of being tired. Now, with COVID-19, much of the information-gathering world is understandably on edge and the markets are starting to reflect the interconnectedness of the illness, the impact of the illness on economic forces, and the paranoia that’s connected to the unknowns related to this new virus.
Because I care about my friend, after he’d been sick for a day or so, I texted him to see how he was doing. Here’s our interaction, which has me thinking about how we talk about how we feel in general.
“Scale of 1–10, how are you feeling?”
…“What’s normal? 8? I’m at maybe a six, coming out of it.”
“If your normal is an 8, good for you. Glad you’re coming out of it. Rest!”
…“Let’s not read into normal being great. I’m two points below normal! Thanks!
“You chose an 8! Most people would probably say 5 or 6 is average.”
…“I was thinking ‘If average is 5, then no one would really reach 10. Normal healthy is great. Sex, exercise and ecstasy might bet you up a few points but not five. However, one can always feel a little worse.”
I replied with a list of things that might bring me to a 10, adding to his list, which included food, music, creative flow, not having to work, laughter, Celtics playoff basketball and Red Sox baseball in October. Of course, the best times with my partner and our daughter and dogs bring me up to 10, too. Especially when everyone is sleeping peacefully, and I can feel the comfort they feel.
Those everyday 10s are harder to notice, because they’re baked into the everyday struggles and dramas of family life with two full-time working parents, toddler-hood, and not enough stress-free time.
Over the last few years, I’ve subconsciously decided (consciously adapted?) that I won’t let myself get down to 1, which also means achieving a 10 is mighty difficult. Some might view this as a watered-down version of emotions, or of mental fortitude. Perhaps it’s simply experience and exhaustion with over-analysis. Perhaps it’s the reading and the habits I’ve formed around finding balance. I don’t need a 10. There is no perfection. Erasing that myth is the beginning.
Socialization and the Flaws of Real Life
I grew up spending too much time dwelling on the negative. I was a natural perfectionist raised by a mother whose expectations were difficult to meet and who had trouble decompressing from the chaos of single-parenting and full-time teaching. My older brother’s report card rarely included an A minus, and whenever we played a board game or a sport, we were competing, not playing.
There was a time in 7th grade when I absolutely needed to have my books lined up perfectly on desk. I was not a mild obsessive, I was extremely obsessive. One series of scenes, and finally, a revelation, is indelibly etched into my mind: My friend would mess with the stack at the corner of my table as he walked by. My need to have the corners lined up and his need to needle me. Nobody had encouraged me to draw outside the lines. My obsessive-compulsiveness was not helping me. It was absorbing my attention and highlighting the flaws all around me. The flaws that make up real life.
My friends in elementary school changed dramatically around fourth grade. When boys started to act like little assholes, I couldn’t abide it. Two new boys entered the school and the asinine behavior exploded. Maybe it was the sense of justice that rose up in me. I was unafraid to confront others and after feeling constantly controlled by my Mom and brother in my home, I wanted to control everyone else. Maybe I just refused to bite my tongue when humiliation became an integral part of adolescence.
I went from being a playground and classroom leader and achiever to hating and judging many of my classmates. I kept swinging back and forth from gregarious and whimsical to isolated and miserable throughout my teenage years. The flaws that make up real life were just too gigantic for me not to notice. It was a miracle I didn’t become a pothead or heavily medicated in high school.
Instead, I found refuge in Mr. D’s office. He was one of the school guidance counselors. His open-door policy might have saved me from myself and junior year. I remember the paintings of Sedona, Arizona on his wall. The orange, red and pink hues in the ancient rocks. He always had a smile on his face, but his was real and empathy filled the oxygen in his room. As a teacher now, I’m disturbed by the lack of funding for social workers and guidance counselors in public schools. My mom often spoke with Mr. D and always appreciated his efforts. Years later, his own son committed suicide. The man who gave so much of himself to so many teenagers was left to question how he missed the signs. The flaws that make up real life sometimes really are gigantic.
I had a math teacher in ninth grade who used lots of chalk. In 1995, we didn’t have many dry erase boards. We had chalk boards that squeaked and left white powder everywhere. This teacher’s navy pants always had a smear of chalk around the pants pocket, where his hand would naturally rest while standing and teaching and walking around the room. The chalk pocket became hard for us not to notice.
Basketball became my refuge. A few friends became my anchors. Away from the pressures of my house. Trips to Harvard Square, eating pizza and buying CDs. Playing endless video games and watching the Celtics. Finding laughter amidst the chaos and conformity of high school.
It’s difficult to live with a constantly observing, restless mind. There are times the chatter gets too loud, where a mild panic can overtake me in a rushing crowd, or when losing my grip has become overwhelming and occasionally terrifying. My dreams have always been about missing something, losing something, searching for someone, worst case scenarios. In other words, losing control. An active imagination can become overly active and tilt you out of orbit.
Maybe it’s as simple as my parents were not a great match for each other. My father moving out of our house when I was 18 months old and my parents never forgiving each other added layers of tension. Likely, it’s a genetic predisposition that was exacerbated by extreme circumstances and tension in my household.
Music and exercise have always been ways to keep anxiety down. Writing is the best therapy…other than actual therapy, which I’ve had off and on for most of my adult life. I’ve never had a prescription for anxiety. This may be a good thing, but hasn’t always made me easy to live with, as my partner knows.
If and When You Become a Parent
All of your own issues become easier to notice, and less important if you recognize the importance of raising a child, when you become a parent. This is a genuine benefit to all humans: caring for someone else allows you to forget yourself.
Many of my friends over the years are now at this crossroads as we’re all turning, or have recently turned, 40. Most of my friends were raised with a kind of spotlight on themselves that earlier generations weren’t raised with. To grow up in the 1980's in the U.S. meant you got a trophy for participating. This isn’t a horrible thing, but to hear the Baby Boomers complain about participation trophies tells us more about how unimportant they were taught they were, and implicitly, how the children of the 1920's were taught to grin and bear it and not to complain about most things. Those of the “Silent Generation” experienced the Great Depression and World War II. In general, those men were taught little about emotional development, or the need to nurture children. In turn, the women that raised those children of the Baby Boom were isolated from their spouses, left to seek love and companionship from their children, but without a sense of their own identity beyond motherhood.
I teach students from Central America, Brazil, Mexico, East Africa, the Middle East, Tibet and China. One of my Chinese students seemed to be the only student in the room without brothers or sisters. She was trying to explain the Chinese government’s one-child policy to her classmates from Guatemala and Brazil. They couldn’t believe the government would do that. The majority of them come from large families. Even today, rural life in Catholic countries usually means big families. Compare how common having three or more children was in the mid-twentieth century in the United States to today. My generation (between Generation X and the Millennials, sometimes referred to as Generation Y) are considering whether or not to have one child. Ironically, those younger than us often think having a child is selfish.
The idea of getting beyond your Self is foreign to American individualism in the modern Internet Age. If I get beyond my Self, how will I take pictures? How will I share stories? How will I remain (partially) connected to those I’ve become disconnected from? What will my brain do with all of that time?
We’ve created debilitating routines and we have apps to counter some of those routines and limit our use. Do they bring awareness and shed light on our mental default to autopilot?
Is that enough to fundamentally appreciate the greater world and puncture the force field most of us keep around silence, joy, suffering, spontaneity, and death?
Which brings us back to…The Search for Happiness
What is it that keeps us from being content? We’re taught not to settle for average. To push ourselves to be the best. To achieve status in a materialistic and individualist society. To become ruthlessly efficient and quantify every aspect of our lives, constantly comparing ourselves to others.
We’re rarely taught to look out at the natural world and observe all that is around us that might bring us calm and enable a greater sense of collectivism and awareness. We are taught life is zero-sum, rather than seeing a path toward collective progress. This Rand-ian outlook defeats empathy and reduces us to a fear-based, isolated populace, prone to manipulation and argument.
When you consider the socioeconomic imbalances that have been made plainly visible, the power of outrage and the change in our media consumption that began in the early 1990's with talk-radio and worsened in the last fifteen to twenty years with the explosion of the Internet, it’s no wonder that American politics has devolved into tribalism as a result.
If we’re accustomed to suburban or urban life, we often reject, and are rarely confronted with the rural. If we become educated, we reject the rural and often look down on the working class. And yet, if you take the time to look at a map of the United States, you see how few urban centers exist outside of the coasts, you know that much of the United States is geographically, and in turn, culturally, rural.
The Electoral College gives rural Americans a distinct advantage and enables Republicans to control the Senate. Two senators from California. Four senators from the Dakotas. Meanwhile, the safety net that used to hold up those without college degrees or a financial head-start, is gone.
If as children we were taught to be kind and cooperative, we cannot understand or abide this modern socioeconomic filtering that has erased the middle class, thrown the average American under our current economic bus and made visible the myth of the American Dream. And yet, the majority of Americans who want a new path cannot come close to agreeing on what path we should take. We resort to choosing a candidate out of fear, outrage, or both.
All That We Cannot Control
I haven’t learned how to give up control. Despite years of conscious effort, my subconscious still often wins. Our daughter is two years and nine months old. I have to remind myself constantly to let her figure it out. I feel as if I’m always cleaning up. I’m always putting things back or picking things up. I encourage her to help. Sometimes she does. Life is messy. Dog poop dries in the grass, which grows and wants to be mowed. Weeds grow and want to be pulled. In November, the leaves fall and want to be swept. In March the blossoms arrive, then fall, and want to be swept. It is calm now. The sun is back, after taking several days off.
Too often I tell our daughter what she is doing is “not safe.” Children need boundaries, I tell myself. My partner doesn’t react how I react. She was given more latitude throughout her childhood. I have suffocated her at times over the two decades of our relationship. I haven’t allowed myself to breathe first before reacting. Parenting can often feel like damage control. The urge to document everything is another form of control, but I won’t delve into that. Silliness and play are so important to children. I try to bring that as often as I have the energy to. She will grow up. She will learn. She will become herself. Regardless of our attempts. For me, the roller-coaster of parenting has also been healing. Adjusting my expectations and getting out of my own head, closer to my own heart. Understanding the pain that I rarely confronted in my depressed years. Losing self-consciousness and singing. Infants and toddlers are always in the moment, for better or worse.
We are healthy. We are lucky. There is a world full of suffering and joy, disease and health…and it will be there tomorrow. But for now, let’s appreciate what we have and recognize how much work we have to do.