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Everything's amazing and nobody's happy- Louis C.K.
“To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything.”
― Ernest Becker
A few years ago, a patient of mine wondered out loud why he was unhappy. After all he was a successful lawyer, involved in a loving relationship with a partner, lived in one of the nicer neighborhoods in Brooklyn and had a group of close friends whom he saw socially. So what was wrong? "Something just doesn't feel right. I have the gnawing feeling that something should be different," he said.
Who among us wouldn't recognize themselves in that comment? I know I certainly saw myself in my patient. There is something universal about what my patient felt, the underlying feeling that something is missing from our lives, that somehow we are never whole, that at any moment our existence could end without any warning or fanfare. It is what the French existential philosopher, Albert Camus, called "the absurd," which
arises from the human demand for clarity and transcendence on the one hand and a cosmos that offers nothing of the kind on the other. Such is our fate: we inhabit a world that is indifferent to our sufferings and deaf to our protests.
Lately I've been feeling how fragile I am and by extension how fragile humanity is. I mean that in two senses, the physical and the emotional. The physical is the most obvious one. Any moment an unseen accident or disease doesn't take us from this earth too early. Or escape an untimely death, we get older, and our bodies decay. Our hair grays, our teeth fall out and eventually we die. And so will everyone we know and cared for in this life. If one really feels the anxiety of death and sits with it knowing one day you will pass on, it is a terrifying and groundless feeling.
The other is the emotional. What we call "personality," is the projection of ego-- of our beliefs, desires, fears, everything we've learned to ward off the anxiety and terror just beneath the surface. Most of our days our personality does just fine. It lets us be friendly at work or have a jovial conversation with friends over drinks.
But sometimes the armor of personality is pierced and we get just a hint of the fear underneath. Maybe your significant other or your work will trigger something and for a few moments you feel helpless, weak and afraid. And maybe you react to that feeling with anger or frustration toward someone important to you. Or maybe you shut down and feel depressed. Luckily for a lot of this feeling only lasts awhile. Maybe you have a drink or see a movie with your wife and everything sort of feels better. Many of us can get away with that sort of living for most of our lives, fully protected from the anxiety just underneath the surface of our existence.
If you somehow are one of the lucky ones to live your whole life with your defenses fully intact well, let me congratulate you now. Most of us aren't that lucky. At some point in our existence, the ground falls out from beneath most of us. Maybe it's the death of a parent or the end of a relationship or maybe it is a more gradual build up to your "existential crisis." Maybe one day you realize that you have no idea what you're doing and why you're doing it. All of sudden you are faced with an existence without your defenses and it overwhelms you. You are completely helpless and exposed to the impermanence of life and that despite all your attempts to feel safe and secure, you are alone.
When the ground falls out underneath, when we fully the feel the fragility of our existence and how impermanent the world really is, I believe it is one of the most important moments of an adult life. It is no coincidence to me that all of our religious and cultural myths are filled with similar stories. Jesus being tested in the desert in young adulthood. The Buddha leaving the comforts of his palace to try and find an answer to suffering. Malcolm X being arrested and having to kick his heroin habit before he could accept Islam. It is then we have the first chance to grow up and live an authentic life.
Most of us want to avoid these experiences at all costs, but as I have gotten older, I have realized that the opposite is true... feeling your groundless existence for the first time is sacred. For the first time we have to let go of our ideas of self and future and face all our deepest fears-- feeling of unworthiness, feelings of helplessness, feeling a deep insecurity that maybe everything will not be all right and there will be no one there to save you.
People often use terms such as, "I don't know who I am anymore," "I have to find myself again" or "I've lost myself" when they are feeling this way. This is not a coincidence. The overwhelming anxiety one feels has made it impossible for our old personality to be. We are naked, faced with our own mortality, our own groundless existence fully for the first time.
This feeling doesn't last of course. How could it. We would go mad. We recover and go back to our routines, block out this basic anxiety in everywhere imaginable: sex, alcohol, video games, work and more. But when we start to live with our old defenses and distractions, that gnawing feeling that something should be different returns. We have a sense of what psychotherapists like Winnicott call "the false self," the self that does everything it needs to survive but cannot experience the authentic, spontaneous act of existing. Living out of fear may make us safe, but it never allows us to feel what it's like to have an vulnerable, open-hearted existence.
So what to do? I would like to suggest something radical. Do nothing. Let everything in. Feel every emotion for what it is. Don't try and drown it out with the outside world but befriend it. Let it destroy you and break your heart over and over again. Be as vulnerable as possible. This brokenhearted quality is central to living an honest, authentic life, not a life given to you by the conditioned, crazy capitalist society at large. We are all in the end just damaged children who want to love and feel loved. Do not lose sight of that.
This is not an easy path and requires something that is difficult for many of us: compassion and love for ourselves. To not blame, judge and shame our actions but accept them as they as you might for a good friend. This is not an easy and most of us will shy away from it because it points to a fact: at its core life can be sad and disappointing. Who wants to admit to that themselves? That things haven't always worked like we wanted? That we have been hurt over and over and often times are just trying to get through a day then feel that hurt again? As the Buddha once said in his fire sermon, "all is burning." Everything changes and is continually changing. There is nothing to hold on to. The security we all crave at one level is illusive. But take comfort.
This probably sounds antithetic to common sense. To live this ways means is a dizzying experience and filled with anxiety. But to challenge the meaning of one's life is what being human entails. As someone wise once told me, "show me your fears and I will show your salvation." And even among your anxiety the opposite of what I said earlier feels true: life will not forget you and it will not let you fall on your path.
Yes, I realize I am being purposely vague about how exactly to start living a more vulnerable, open-hearted existence. That's because the answer to that is complicated and will be a frequent topic of more upcoming blog posts. But the first thing I suggest is solitude. To swim inside yourself for hours on end. I don't mean distracted time spent alone like playing a video game or going shopping. I mean a walk for a half hour where or 15 minutes of writing about what the hell is happening inside of you. Maybe I mean a meditation practice for 30 minutes a day or therapist with whom one shares a connection with and letting the feelings that come up from your therapy, guide your solitude. It is learning the language of our feelings so you can own them. The semantics are what you have to decide on for yourself and as I said I will write more about it in the future. I think this kind of work is essential to not only one's own happiness but the happiness of everyone around you.
In my work with the above patient, we began to explore many of the things I have discussed here. And eventually he started to see how his deep anxiety was protective because he was terrified to be seen as vulnerable to anyone in his life. Some of that was because he was male, as being a male in our society often means showing no vulnerability because it is perceived as weak (I will have more to say about that in the future.)
It had led my patient to relationships that started out promising but quickly fizzled as they seemed to lose their authenticity quickly. My patient began to realize how deep down he felt unworthy of love and that only way he could accept love was to earn it. And so he tried hard to please everyone while letting no one into his vulnerable core because it was too frightening. It was a long process but with time he began to accept himself as he was. And he began to live more authentically and vulnerably. Things have changed since then. He doesn't have a perfect emotional life but he is more vulnerable and open to love and heartbreak than he ever was.
An amazing change in perspective starts to happen if we can start to live in a more vulnerable, authentic existence. Granted it is not easy getting to this place. We are distracted over and over again by life. But at some point if we let in our fears and learn to be with them and yes, love them, we began to emerge brokenhearted but somehow whole, wholer than we have ever felt.
You don't have to take my word for it. Truthfully I am learning this as I go along like many of you. But there are others who have been through similar things. Louis C.K. knows what I'm talking about. (Watch the video clip for the whole bit below. It's pretty great.)
"You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That's what the phones are taking away, is the ability to just sit there. That's being a person. Because underneath everything in your life there is that thing, that empty—forever empty. That knowledge that it's all for nothing and that you're alone. It's down there.
And sometimes when things clear away, you're not watching anything, you're in your car, and you start going, 'oh no, here it comes. That I'm alone.' It's starts to visit on you. Just this sadness. Life is tremendously sad, just by being in it...
..then I said, 'you know what, don't. Just be sad. Just let the sadness, stand in the way of it, and let it hit you like a truck.'
And I let it come, and I just started to feel 'oh my God,'and I pulled over and I just cried like a bitch. I cried so much. And it was beautiful. Sadness is poetic. You're lucky to live sad moments.
And then I had happy feelings. Because when you let yourself feel sad, your body has antibodies, it has happiness that comes rushing in to meet the sadness. So I was grateful to feel sad, and then I met it with true, profound happiness. It was such a trip.
The thing is, because we don't want that first bit of sad, we push it away with a little phone or a jack-off or the food. You never feel completely sad or completely happy, you just feel kinda satisfied with your product, and then you die."