Remember that part in the movie Titanic where those two guys are shivering in the middle of the night and they see the iceberg and they freak out and call the lieutenant and yell, “OMG, iceberg, dead ahead!” and the lieutenant freaks out and swings the steering wheel all the way to one side and then screams on the phone-like thing to the engine room for those lazy fuckheads to put the whole damn ship in reverse, like right this second, and then there’s all these smelly Irish guys screaming and sweating and closing furnaces and these gigantic pistons the size of the Statue of Liberty suddenly stop and the earth shakes and then they start swinging in reverse really fast, pumping what I can only imagine is a ship propeller the size of Australia in reverse to try and slow this heaping fucking massive ship, and meanwhile the two bros in the crow’s nest are like freaking out going, “Why aren’t we turning? Why aren’t we bloody turning?!?!?” and then BRAAAAAHHHHHHH!!! the iceberg starts ripping into the side of the mammoth steamer ship that’s barely even turning and there’s ice spraying all over Kate Winslet’s tits like a 1912 porno that never happened and Leo DiCaprio looks like he’s 14 years old?
Remember that part?
So yeah, that’s basically how all of life works.
No, I’m serious. I knew this guy once. He had been obese his whole life. Always the fat guy. Mr. Chubs. But then in his 30s, after about a year of obsessive exercise, he lost over 100 lbs. And not only was he thin, but he was one sexy dude. The ladies were always asking about him.
Except, here was the thing, in his head he was still that same fat guy. He still had shame attached to his body and his appearance and every time he looked at himself in the mirror the light would bend in such a way to always make him appear flabby and insufficient, and thus, despite his ripped biceps and his shiny new abs, he couldn’t conceptualize in a million years anyone ever having any sort of sexual interest in him.
His perception of himself was like the Titanic: he had swung the wheel all the way to one side and put the pistons in reverse, but the thing was hardly turning. And emotionally, he was still hitting the iceberg.
You see this all the time. People who grew up poor and work and become successful still act like they have no money because they still believe in some deep, dark part of themselves that the money isn’t real, that they’re a fraud, that it’s all fake and a joke, and one day it will all disappear.
People who were bullied growing up and go on to become the smartest, nicest, and most interesting dude at the company Christmas party, yet they still harbor this overwhelming sense that nobody really likes them, that it’s all fake and unreal and unearned and undeserved, and that in the end, everybody’s going to wind up hurting them. So they don’t let anyone get close to them. No matter how loved they are, they can’t ever let anybody get too close.
People who grew up thinking they were dumb but then go on to get a PhD in molecular astro-chemo-bio-physics yet still feel like they have to prove themselves over and over, that they can’t be wrong about anything, ever, that any sign of doubt in others is a secret sign of inner laughter, that the simplest of mistakes or a poor decision will bring down their whole life like a house of cards.
This is to be human. We all have this great inner psychological inertia in us. Externally, we may be these lithe and fun little combobulations of talkative flesh. But internally, psychologically, we are all these massive steamships that take their sweet fucking time just to turn enough to not hit an iceberg.
This is because our minds are essentially accumulations of habits. We all have physical habits, like brushing your teeth every day or flossing the cat. But we also have mental habits — biases and stereotypes we regularly fall back upon, worn and weathered explanations for the world’s difficulties, assumptions that get us out of a psychological pickle. You get the point. We rely on these mental habits just as we rely on physical habits — they sort and rearrange the world for us without having to expend any conscious effort.
There are, of course, emotional habits as well. Your default reaction to problems may be anger or sadness or resignation. Maybe your neurotic mother conditioned you to feel guilty about every fucking thing that ever goes wrong in her or anybody’s life, so you’ve learned over the years to always believe you’re not good enough. Or maybe, on the other hand, you’ve adopted a sense of confidence and competitive drive that has never left you, even in situations when it maybe should.
The point is, you’re basically this walking, lumbering habit machine. And these habits — a.k.a. your identity — have been built up over the course of decades of living and breathing, laughing and loving, succeeding and failing, and through the years, they have built up a cruising speed of 40 knots or so in the freezing Atlantic. And if you want to change them — that is, change your identity, how you perceive yourself or how you adapt to the world — well you better slam that steering wheel to the side and be ready to hit a couple icebergs, because ships this big don’t turn so well.
Life’s not like a Smart Car where you can just jack the thing into reverse and veer onto a pedestrian-strewn sidewalk whenever you please. There are a thousand tons of emotional and psychological cargo being hauled across the vast oceans of your unconscious. Be a little patient, fucker.
Sometimes I get emails from high school or college kids who want to completely reconfigure their entire personality and life history, like, right now, right this minute, and they ask me what to do as if getting rid of shyness was like a recipe for a cake. And it takes all of the willpower I can muster to not type “SHUT UP AND BE PATIENT” in really upsetting capslocks. Because that’s really the only “one thing” there is — patience. Life moves at the pace it wants, not the pace you want, bucko. Barring some extreme and cataclysmic life event — i.e., some overwhelming force that could move a tanker across the ocean — change is going to come slowly, often so slowly that we don’t even notice it’s taking place, the same way a ship steers ever-so-steadily that you’d have no idea you’re changing course.
Sometimes I get emails from recent divorcees who spent ten or twenty years with the same person, bought their first house with them, raised kids with them, shared half of their life’s most important moments with them, and after being single for two months, they want to know how to get over them. I realize these people are in a lot of pain, otherwise they would realize how absolutely irrational and unrealistic they are being, but the fact of the matter is that you were sailing in the same direction with one person for a very, very long time, and many of your habits, and therefore, your identity, is now tied up with that person. It takes a long time to turn around and set off for new waters.
Sometimes I get emails from people who want to become writers or start an online business and they want to know THAT ONE THING that I did that helped me become successful or achieve x-y-z, and they want to know it now, so they can just, like, copy and Ctrl+V that motherfucker into a Word document and boom — it’s margaritas-on-the-beach time. These people, of course, aren’t chasing success. They’re chasing a fantasy. They’re chasing a vision and a dream that is designed not to secure their future as much as to help them escape in the present, living as if “being successful” was any easier or more stress-free than being unsuccessful. Spoiler alert: in most cases, it’s not.
But these are the easy emails. Because there really is only one thing you have to do to become “successful” (whatever the fuck that means) — fail about a thousand times. Come up with horrible ideas and then try them anyway. Do that long enough and I’ll see you at the beach.
I spent years revving up my steam room and plowing through my own share of icebergs without sinking until I got it right. And that’s really the only secret sauce if there is any — being willing to chart your own course regardless of the inevitable fear.
And maybe that is why we are so afraid, because we know that once we chart that course and fire up those furnaces, it’s so fucking hard to turn things around, it’s so hard to move and change and we’re afraid we may end up like the spoiled rich girl, stranded in the icy Atlantic, screaming, “Jack! Jack!” even though there was totally room for Jack on that piece of plyboard, the dude clearly had some martyr complex and wanted to feel like he was dying for her, dying for something beyond his own selfish desires, which ironically, is still dying for your own selfish desires, asshole.
Anyway… where was I?
Oh yeah, changing course is hard and this scares us so we look around and try to copy the courses other people took. But this never works out well because the sea conditions are always changing and yesterday’s calm waters are today’s icebergs and one man’s heaven is another man’s hell and yada yada yada.
I’ve been going through some pretty major life transitions lately. In the past three years, I’ve gone from being a bachelor, for whom life was a never-ending process of finding the after-party, to having a fiance and delusions of grandeur of three-bedroom houses and children.
I’ve gone from being a small and successful blogging upstart who sold a bunch of random shit to get by, to becoming a legitimate writer who is getting paid by agents and publishers and is going to have a bona fide book on store shelves next year, and can you believe it, talk shows are going to have to put up with this shit at some point too.
I’ve gone from traveling the world nomadically, experiencing adventures in new places every few months, to settling down and setting roots for myself, to choosing one country and culture and community.
These are all great transitions, good changes coming to a life that is slowly inching its way into its next stage.
But life transitions, even when good, are always difficult, and they are always slow and gradual. There have been times where I have felt lost, like I was no longer the same person I once was, but also unsure of the person I was becoming. There have been times where I felt conflicted and confused, where I mourned for a past self that I knew I would never see again while anxiously awaiting a future self who seemingly would never come. Old habits, both good and bad, have fallen by the wayside while I’ve picked up both good and bad habits to fill their space.
This is my steamship, slowly, mechanically turning itself, veering onto a new horizon, an unfamiliar yet calming trajectory.
And this is life. This is part of the bargain. The universe says, “Hey, guess what? You get to exist!” And we say, “Holy shit! That’s great!” not realizing that existence is, by definition, a merciless and unending foray into the unknown.
It would be easy for me to say, “I want the answer NOW! I want to know what my life will be like NOW! I want to know what I should do, how I should feel NOW!” But I’ve lived long enough and fucked up enough to know that that doesn’t help things. If anything, it just makes it worse.
In the meantime, I keep trying new things and accepting however I feel about them, both good or bad, all while trusting that one day I will arrive in new sunny waters that I will love just as I loved the ones before.
A good life is not a life without problems. A good life is a life with good problems. And so, despite the turbulence of the rocky waves and twisting tides, I can sometimes stare into the heart of my confusion and the crossed strains of joy and sadness, and smile and be grateful that it’s all there.