A few years ago, I went from the crazy busy life of a business leader, husband and father to, what Warren Zevon called, “splendid isolation” in the span of only a few months.
The office job, where I spent 90% of my time interacting with others, presented the normal challenges of any leadership role with its share of disengaged employees and micromanaging corporate types. My 45-60 minute commute in rush hour traffic didn’t necessarily wash me of my stress before I got home to a marriage that was crumbling.
Seemingly overnight, my job was downsized and my marriage ended.
I was alone.
It felt like I had gone from sixty-to-zero in a nanosecond.
But, at least initially, my glass was half-full. “Finally,” I thought to myself, “I have some time to myself without worrying about how my actions were affecting others.” Sweet!
I kept in touch with friends and former work colleagues and reveled in those things that newly-divorced men revel in: non-stop ESPN, socks not making it to the hamper, eating store-bought brownies for breakfast and not wearing pants on days with a “t” in them.
It is said that you can go a day without sex but you can’t go a day without a good rationalization.
I hadn’t really appreciated how much I had depended on the daily interaction with others (good or bad) until it was gone. That social component of my life had been eliminated, seemingly overnight.
Twenty percent of Americans report feeling lonely. At first, I didn’t feel lonely at all. I kept harkening back to the day my parents dropped me off for my freshman year of college and wanting them to leave so I could blast Aerosmith’s Rocks album as loud as I wanted to.
But as that honeymoon ended, I started to experience why loneliness was such a key contributor to being unhappy.
If I teased out the people in my office who had been nice to me simply because I was their boss (which, in retrospect, was more than I thought – naive me), I honestly believed there were still a few left that felt like genuine friends that I wanted to stay in touch with.
They weren’t in the next office or in a cubicle by the window. There were no streamers on the office door on my birthday and I couldn’t distract Kim with my laser pointer. I couldn’t easily compare empty nest stories with Linda or talk office politics with Bob.
They had moved on with new jobs and their families kept them busy. My kids were now grown. One had graduated from college while the other had just started. Both were as communicative with their old man as any father could hope for but, because we weren’t under the same roof anymore, the frequency of conversations was minimal and usually in text form. Fairly or not, I clung to every interaction with them like a Titanic survivor clutching a life preserver.
As I found my unhappiness in my new circumstances growing, I blamed it on situations that I couldn’t control.
That’s what we do, right? If we’re not happy, we blame it on something outside ourselves.
It’s because of this stupid traffic or because the company we work for doesn’t provide adequate resources, or the dry cleaners lost our favorite shirt. It’s not our fault we’re in a pissy mood – it’s everyone else’s.
The F Word
Mosts people don’t like to be alone with their thoughts.
In one study, 64% of men, when given the option, began to self-administer electric shocks when they were left alone to do nothing but think!
What in the world are we so afraid of when we’re alone with our minds?
However, I had looked forward to those moments of self-reflection and meditation. Yet, when I finally had the time for them, I ended up spending that time engaged in more frivolous pursuits (trivial, you might say). Facebook started taking up some of the time I could have spent in healthy introspection.
I fooled myself into believing that all my new online friends could take the place of those I used to see almost daily.
I texted my kids and friends who probably wished I’d leave them alone. I discovered new ways to organize the clothes in my closet (for the record, it’s polos, jerseys, dress shirts, jeans and then dress pants). None of it worked. It just wasn’t the same.
Why was I so afraid to pay attention to my thoughts? Of course, that’s what it was – fear. The ultimate F word. I didn’t want to admit to myself that I was struggling with negative emotions like fear and anger. I was strong, dammit! I wasn’t weak (physical appearance notwithstanding)! Losing a job and a spouse wasn’t going to get me down! Bring it!!
But it was more than that.
We are conditioned (especially men) to feel like we have to have all the answers and are ready to move quickly to the next thing.
Unfortunately, when we’re lonely, we think more and, the more we think, the more we focus on the negative. So, instead, we create a false busyness so that we can continue to be available to fix the world when inevitably called upon.
Finally, I woke up and remembered that a critical component of practicing mindfulness was the ability to invite in your negative emotions and explore them rather than pushing them away. The stress that was mounting, despite having the “me-time” I thought I wanted, was manifesting in my behavior (e.g., agitation, insomnia, etc.). I knew I had to dig deeper into what I was fearful of.
I’m lucky. Most people aren’t good at self-reflection. It makes them uncomfortable.
They think their time could be spent more productively. At work and in government, we now worship at the alter of meta data that supposedly can drive productivity and good decision-making. There’s more blood to be gotten from that stone!
As Americans, we don’t value turning the mirror on ourselves. We are a blaming culture and, if you don’t believe that, witness the political discussions on the news channels for five minutes.
It’s always someone else’s fault because it doesn’t feel good to admit that we each contribute to the problems we face.
Most political candidates would consider it career suicide to admit that they screwed something up and regretted their actions.
“Blame and deny” is the mantra of today.
However, the good news is that, if we are contributing to the problems we face, we also can contribute to the solutions. Not in terms of what others should do but rather in terms of what we can do, based on what we have control over.
Staying busy, whether on social media or taking on more work than we know we can handle, becomes a priority and we “don’t have time” to pull apart the layers of our negative emotions.
What we fail to grasp, however, is that our busyness also keeps us from fully experiencing the daily joys that our lives present to us every day.
We come home from work and pay glancing attention to our kids who are trying to tell us stories from their day, more to check off the task on a mental “Being a Good Parent” list than to be fully present for our own child.
We’re in such a rush that we find ourselves wanting our kids to “get to the point” and we don’t realize that the reason we’re rushing is so that we can relax! Our monkey minds are distracting us by telling us to rush the kids (and spouse) along so we can check our Facebook timeline or tune in Judge Judy.
Facebook is fascinating, right?
It was originally a tool for our kids to communicate with each other in a way that we, as parents, couldn’t see. But, like the selfish baby boomers we are, we ran them off so that we could reconnect with people we previously wouldn’t have crossed the street to see and to post updates that would embarrass the very kids we had just exiled (“Here’s Justin and his daddy peeing in the lake together during our fishing trip last weekend! Precious!!!”).
My Facebook friends run the gamut from the terminally depressed to those whose recounting of the events of their day would lead you to believe that everything is perfect every friggin’ day!
It’s usually something from the cousin’s wedding (“I love my cousins! If you love your cousins too, make this your profile picture for an hour.”) or checking in from the local watering hole with a picture that looks like an Aeropostale or Patrón ad.
Jeez – these people are so damn happy and I’m sitting here by myself changing the batteries in the remote control. What’s happened to me?
But most people like to paint a better-than-realistic picture of their lives in their Facebook updates, right?
You don’t see much about fights with the spouse, overdrawn bank accounts or the neighbor’s dog crapping in the yard but you know those events exist (unless they somehow gained access to The Truman Show).
We drink this in as if this partial picture really represents the full lives of our (social media) friends.
Then we compare it to our own life and, in turn, try to post something that will make people believe that negative emotions don’t exist in our world either.
The mental comparisons, conscious or not, never end and the cycle continues (“Looks like you had a great time at the Dave Matthews concert! I remember when I saw the Beatles, Timothy Leary, the Grateful Dead, and Jesus all at MegaSuperFanFest back in ’69…”).
Don’t get me wrong – I love Facebook. I have reconnected with people that I cared for a lot but never thought I’d hear from after graduation/wedding/bailing them out but the addiction we have with judging our lives compared to them is where we make the mistake.
That’s why I’ve started to pull away from Facebook but retaining contact with the friends that benefit my life.
The real challenge is to ask ourselves how many of these “friends” would we really feel comfortable with sharing our negative emotions and feeling like we would receive empathy and compassion in return. Not the “I’m so sorry” or “prayers” sympathy-template Facebook replies but a private message or phone call wanting to better understand what we’re experiencing, an honest sharing of concern and a genuinely-benevolent offer to assist in any way possible.
Do we need to have those kinds of relationships with all our friends? Of course not. It’s great to have people in our lives that we can share more superficial things with (e.g., the details of last Sunday’s game; those cute boots she was wearing).
But we get into trouble when we don’t distinguish between those who we can count on to add real value to our lives and those with whom we compare ourselves based on incomplete information.
Where Y’@ Now?
I’ve learned a lot over the last couple of years. Perhaps these pearls become more apparent with age although I’m not sure whether or not that matters.
I do know that I don’t have regrets. Every positive and negative experience I’ve had has shaped me and, sometimes, others. Whether one considers those tests from God or just the recognition that nothing and no one is truly independent, I know I’m insanely fortunate to have had this life. And, looking forward, it’s humbling to recognize how much I don’t understand.
As many mystics have proffered,
the highest knowledge is to know that you don’t know.
Like many, I spent the better part of my adult years fighting up the career ladder with each rung representing better pay and benefits but not necessarily increased happiness. It provided an opportunity for my kids to go to better schools and to live in safer neighborhoods but my satisfaction with my life didn’t keep pace with those external accomplishments.
It’s no secret that those who strive to meet intrinsic goals (e.g., enduring relationships with others) are happier in the long run than others whose pursuit of extrinsic goals (e.g., higher salaries, greater recognition) usually results in higher incidents of depression, fear and even chronic illness.
This became particularly striking for me when I read a study that concluded that
the event that provoked the most unhappiness in a typical person’s day was spending time with their boss.
Why is that? It reminds us that no matter how hard we work, there’s always someone else who has some control over our life. Even as an entrepreneur, there are still have customers to satisfy and financial obligations to meet.
Therefore, the issue becomes how we respond to that inevitable dynamic: the interdependence that exists with all our actions and decisions. If we can be satisfied in our jobs with that dynamic and mindfully work through the negative emotions that accompany it, more power to us!
We can choose to continue the pursuit of wealth with eyes wide open regarding the higher rates of anxiety, depression, physical illnesses and even drug abuse but only the most self-aware of us can successfully choose healthy responses to the stressors that are part-and-parcel of that goal. It’s not easy to recognize that those extrinsic goals are not going to bring the happiness that we seek.
“It is better to want what you have than to have what you want.” – Dalai Lama
As I struggled with a variety of physical maladies over the years, I began to realize that my goals were changing. I saw that there were prices to be paid to be the Director of this and Vice-President of that and I wasn’t willing to pay them anymore.
I became more interested in helping others learn how to stay healthy and happy as they pursued their goals. I took an active interest in mindful leadership and the skills that I could learn and share with others.
I refused to believe that people needed to quit their corporate gig and take up fly fishing in Montana in order to be happy (although that sounds pretty good, right?).
Even though I wouldn’t recommend a divorce and job loss as a test of these principles (that’s the understatement of this post!), I’m confident that I survived them intact by knowing how to more mindfully respond to their stressors than I would have even a couple of years earlier.
I like to think of how we manage stressors on a continuum with “mindless reaction” on one end and “mindful response” on the other. Helping others professionally learn the skills needed to push closer to the latter of the two end points is what drives me today.
My biggest challenge is to not let that creep too far into my personal life.
When I see friends having emotionally mindless and harmful reactions to issues in their lives, I sometimes have to challenge myself not to judge or “save” them.
None of us lives at the end of that continuum. I still struggle with self-compassion and mumble about what an “idiot” I am when I make small mistakes.
Being non-judgmental of self and others is one of the biggest challenges of trying to live more mindfully. Even Steve Jobs, a devout practitioner of mindfulness, was known as a jerk in the workplace.
It’s also easy to get so empathetic with those closest to us that we become overwhelmed by what they’re experiencing and our genuine desire to help them “fix” it. That has helped me understand the difference between empathy and compassion.
Having said that, in today’s world, we’re in dire need of a lot more of both as we confront more complex challenges as individuals and nations.
The formula, however, remains simple:
Love people, use things. Not the other way around.
If we can all manage to strive for that, each moment becomes a little more enjoyable, doesn’t it?