[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
I have a problem. You might have a similar problem, too, if you care to think much about it. My problem is an aching dissatisfaction; a constant, persistent notion that I should be more, that I should do more, produce more, laugh more, help more, learn more, live more.
And the problem with this aching dissatisfaction is that nothing is ever enough. No job is enough, no place is enough, no person is enough, no accomplishment is enough. This desire for more sits between my teeth, and it is a somewhat privileged place to sit. If I were focused on surviving, I wouldn't have the time or capacity to consider this ache. As it is, I feel certain that my potential is only halfway stoked, my fire a slow, soft burn rather than a raging flame. Oscar Wilde said, "To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all." And that is the thing that frightens me most; to simply exist and not live. To live as if waiting patiently to die. To go through the motions and not really feel or do or think about anything deeply and intentionally. What a strange conundrum. What a rut. The dissatisfaction existed before COVID, but the lockdown surely deepened it.
I was dating someone for months with little intimacy. Why? Because live and learn, that's why. But recently, I moved to a new place- my own place, a tiny place, half a mile from the ocean. I live in South Orange County now, where rich people go to retire, where children grow up not knowing hardship, and where military men gnaw hungrily at the prospect of a date with a living, breathing woman.
I met a marine, not on purpose, who was smart and tall and strong and interesting. I expected nothing, which just goes to show that expectations are often the thing that ruins a good time. He told me he's moving to DC in a few months. I told him I'm traveling for a month or so, without a solid return timeline. Sometimes the problem with dating is that the pretense of forever weighs things down, makes any forward movement seem impossible. We chatted and each drank an old fashioned. The conversation was easy. At one point, a large smelly man brushed his hard belly up against me, cutting into our conversation about politics with a pasty declaration of support for Tulsi Gabbard. The marine and I laughed it off and left the bar for a walk around the neighborhood, which took us back to my apartment. We spent the night together, and he left with a promise to text me later. He also left his watch, a leather-banded Timex that is still on my windowsill.
And later he did text me, "yesterday was fun, I hope to see you again! And thank you, I needed a night like that." I responded in kind, not expecting to ever actually see him again. Our spur-of-the-moment date felt like stepping out of my life for a minute; felt like an escape from my normal, regimented routine. It was a distraction, sure, but it was a lovely, fulfilling one. Another problem with the aching dissatisfaction is that distractions seem enormously palatable.
We are all distracting ourselves all of the time, with technology, alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, food, work, pick-your-vice. And I've been there, certainly, when the existential crises I grapple with feel unmanageable. When I'm overwhelmed with the largeness of life, the unending options, the many, many things I hope to someday experience or accomplish. We know we're distracting ourselves, and usually, we think it's bad, but I'm not sure that's totally true. Sometimes the pain or bleakness or struggles of life necessitate an escape, and the people who are in the most pain probably need the biggest escapes. This isn't a condemnation of the people, but rather, of the pain.
Seth Godin wrote, "Instead of wondering when your next vacation is, maybe you should set up a life you don't need to escape from.” This is a wonderful notion. To create a life that doesn't require an escape is a difficult thing. It takes strategic planning, failure, discomfort, and considerable effort. And sometimes, creating a good life is a slow burn. It can take years, and progress can feel incredibly, infuriatingly slow. I want my fire to be raging, all the time, but maybe a slow, steady burn is best.
My only takeaway is this: distract yourself if you must, but it might be better to commit yourself to experiencing life, to building a reality that stimulates, interests, and engages you. And to spend time with people who do the same. To pursue anything less is to sell yourself short. To distract yourself to death is to waste this one wild, precious, ephemeral life. And to grapple with an aching dissatisfaction or longing for more is utterly, beautifully, human.
P.S. Check out The Book of the World, a Contemporary Scripture, a compilation of quotes assembled by a mysterious, anonymous author.