Wednesday, January 25, 2012

My New Year Comes Late

I'm not much for celebrating the change of calendar years, but I do like to take a quick inventory of the past year when I've successfully lived another 365 days.  In other words, it's my birthday and amid the fun times with my awesome friends and family, I like to sprinkle in some thinkin'.

Yesterday evening I had a lengthy and fairly intense conversation with one of my favorite people about depression, empathy, and general philosophy.  Specifically, we talked about what it means to be smart and depressed, what it feels like to be "over" empathic in a culture that doesn't, despite its best intentions and platitudes, value empathy (and how it's often perceived as kind of creepy), the relative insignificance/importance of a single human being on macro- and microcosmic scales, and how we understand our personal context and the larger human historical context in the world within an atheist framework.   And contrary to how that probably sounds, it was one of the most engaging, funny, uplifting conversations I've had in a while.

I will mark this year as the year I got happy and the beginning of my radicalization (it's short way to radical in these gross political times, by the way). Strange conceptual bedfellows, a bit, but definitely symbiotic .  Being happy means I have the luxury of engaging with the world outside in way that is vigorous and positive.  Even when I'm seething with indignation about this or that injustice or ranting about letters to the editor, I know it's because I like life and it matters to me that this world is good.  For the record, I recognize the nearly unbearable earnestness of statements like that and even that feels like a triumph, even if it makes you, dear reader, barf just a little.  Take that, increasingly-marginalized cynical Meg!

What cropped up over and over again in the conversation last night was the idea that being responsible for your own happiness is maybe the defining responsibility of a person's life.  Complaining that things are terrible and vaguely hoping they spontaneously get better is a miserably inefficient solution, and one that has ripple effects through other people's lives. Prayer is complaining and really hoping things will spontaneously get better.  Next week or next month or next year are not more magical than right now.  Your future is happening by seconds, now, now, now, now, now, again now. Be kind now.  Appreciate the good things now.  I'd cite the Serenity Prayer, but I don't want anyone to wait for a god to give them serenity or courage or wisdom: Accept the things you can't change, change the things you can, take yourself off autopilot and figure out which are which.  It sounds incredibly simple, to the point of being meaningless, but in practice those three tasks are very, very difficult.  A lot of terrible things happen.  A lot of frustrating things happen.  Sometimes those things will happen continuously for kind of a long time and there's nothing you can do about it.  I've let that stuff own me plenty and all it got me was a double dose of misery.  Sometimes the bright spots to focus on belong to a friend or a stranger in a news story, but being happy for those bright spots beats wallowing, defeated, in a dungeon of suffering.  It's easy to let yourself off the hook. Sometimes I have to remind myself out loud.

Here's a useful object lesson:  I started writing this post this morning before I met friends for lunch.  I was supposed to go visit my father afterwards.  I thought he was being impatient and calling me at 1 and again a half-hour later, but as it turns out it was his neighbor calling to tell me that Medcu was taking my dad to the hospital.  I got to the building as they were leaving, gave them his basic info and told them I'd meet them at the hospital.  The facts aren't in yet, but he probably had another in a series of seizures following a stroke more than 8 years ago.  It's not serious in the sense that it's unlikely to be fatal, but it will quite possibly mean the end of his independence, something he's fought tooth and nail for over the years. We think this every time, though, and every time he manages a miraculous recovery, just slightly more impaired than before the latest event.

What I've learned from doing this over and over and over again is that I can start fretting now about how this might all turn out, or I can take the simple steps necessary to ensure his care, check in with the hospital, maybe revisit some of the information from last time.  I can go hold his hand and let him try to communicate using one or two words, which is usually what he's left with after these events.  I can laugh at the very funny two-way text exchange I'm having with friends, take care of a couple of tasks for the part-time job I recently took on, be grateful for the flurry of birthday wishes on facebook, go to dinner with my boyfriend and consider what a really rich, loving, mutually respectful life we lead together and how excited I am about the plans we've put in action.

I can't make my dad not sick, the best I can do is...well, the best I can do and falling down a rabbit hole of negative speculation won't do anything good for anybody.

It's not quite where I thought I was going with this when I started, but I guess it's actually pretty close.

This new year's off to a rousing start!


  1. Meghan, I love this post. You are one of those people I always want to chat with more, but never get the chance to. Anyways, I can so relate to what you've written. I am in a similar place. When I'm having a rough day being a mom to two young kiddos, when I'm missing my freedom or just grumpy about something, I keep having this thought about the little arrow on a map that says "you are here". Somehow that allows me to pull back and have a little perspective. I don't know if I'm making sense but wanted you to know I enjoyed your post...

    Also, I'm sorry to hear about your dad.

    ~Lynn S.

    1. Oh, Lynn, likewise! I feel like I could do a better job connecting with people, but my tendency toward flying solo often gets in the way. But we'll have our moment. We're family, fer cry yi.

      And you make very good sense and have adorable young kiddos.

  2. I feel like I just listened to you talk to me for ten or fifteen minutes, in a very smart and direct way. Brava. And bummer about your Dad. I think you're right about the miraculous recovery, only slightly worse off than before.

    And one other thing (at risk of cluttering up your comments). It occurred to me recently the reason we all like living so much, even when life is otherwise crappy-- and why we have happiness and laughter-- is that's how we're wired to experience the world. We're hardwired for joy, and all we need to do is look for it. It works whether we're secular or not. It's like that happiness we're responsible for you spoke of.

    This is an excellent post that made me think. Thanks!

    1. Your clutter is always a delight, clutter away!

      And yes, that's about the conclusion I've come to on the why we live front. It may not be possible to always be happy, but in the darker moments, we can at least turn the rudder in the right direction.

  3. Meghan! First of all, congrats on finally getting this out there enough that "Guy and I" are not the only people commenting. Your writing is wonderful, and I am glad that more and more people are coming to it. Congrats.

    Another superb post. I love this one. Thank you for sharing it with the rest of us.

    As often as I have written on the subject of religious faith, I don't think I have ever explained away prayer as beautifully, and devastatingly, as you do here. So thanks also for that. If I was to steal this vein of thought from you, which I surely will at some point, and you see something along the lines of "prayer is a complete abdication of social and ethical responsibility," know that I'm really quoting you.

    Love ya,

  4. Damn, man, you're gonna give me a swelled head and thanks for that! It's fun to see more people stopping by, and more comments beats straight up higher numbers every time.

    It's been interesting to me that our blogs are really fairly different animals but that we gravitate to so many similar topics, often at the same time. Great minds, I suppose...but really, it's a real pleasure batting ideas around with you, and your faith (um...) in this project from the start is much appreciated.