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Why Try?

ocean with a ladle

So I read that doom and gloom article on the state of the world because of global warming. Since the changes that must occur to save the earth need to happen on a level that I cannot participate in–things at the policymaker level–I wondered whether my obsessive recycling makes a difference. Whether it matters if I recycle the rolls for toilet paper and paper towels. And every receipt and scrap of paper that my to do list is on. One could easily conclude that it’s all pretty hopeless. Or not true. Or irrelevant, since I’ll be dead by then. I don’t even have kids who will have kids who will be affected.

But I believe it’s true. And relevant.

Often people ask me a similar question about therapy. Doesn’t it depress me, working with all these unhappy people? And in my darkest moments, I wonder how much change people are capable of. Not so much my clients. I am narcissistic enough and they are young enough that I feel confident that they can change. But I wonder how much change is possible once you’re middle-aged like me, or older. Is it hopeless at this point? Have all the traumas, the mistakes, and the accumulated stress caused irreparable damage? Like slathering yourself with baby oil all your life rather than sunscreen?

In an article in Men’s Health they say that 50 is the new 20. But maybe they’re just saying that so you’ll keep buying the stuff in their ads.

I go through this cycle of thought many times. What am I doing? Is it worth it? Does it even make a difference to try so hard? It’s like having the goal of being good. Even if you’re earnest about it, it’s hard to feel good enough. Especially if you’re earnest about it, in fact.

So I went on a quest to find out what would be a better goal than trying to be good, and the answers were 1) to be self-aware and 2) to be loving. It’s like that quote about how if you have to choose between being right and being kind, choose kindness. Being good feels like choosing to be right. Being self-aware and loving feels like choosing to be kind.

But I digress. What does this have to do with wondering what good it will do to recycle? Or how much I can really help my loved ones and myself so late in the game?

I guess I treat every decision the same way. I try to choose what makes me feel like a better person, regardless of the result. Regardless of whether it is going to lead to success. Trying to save the earth, myself, and the people I love is choosing to be kind.

Sometimes it feels like trying to empty the ocean one bucket at a time. But I guess being in the water, trying to do something, feels better than standing there on the shore, feeling overwhelmed by the vastness of the problem. If it’s a choice between doing something and doing nothing, I choose to do something.

So I keep recycling. I try to stay hopeful about myself, my brother, and my life in general. Because what is the purpose of life, if it isn’t to try?

If That’s the Definition of Insanity, Then We’re All Insane


I wish I could say it only took 2 punches for me to come to my senses. I have been knocked down more times than I care to admit and kept on fighting, even when I should have thrown in the towel. But I’m not going to beat myself up about that anymore. Someone has to be in my corner; it might as well be me.

It was Albert Einstein who said insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. With all due respect, he may have been a genius when it comes to mass and energy, but he obviously did not know much about psychology. Because people do this all the time.

For example, I struggled with depression for decades before I went to therapy. I went on and off meds until I had a relapse that terrified me. I’ve been in countless relationships that should have ended before they began. I’ve been working on my forehand for 10+ years but keep hitting it the same way. And I keep buying all this dried fruit in an attempt to eat healthier and end up throwing it all away.

It definitely feels crazy when you’re knowingly making the same mistakes over and over, that’s for sure. But if everyone is doing it, then insanity is normal.

Plus, seemingly irrational behaviors have a certain logic to them. Here are some reasons why we choose to stay in the boxing ring:

1. We’re not supposed to give up. Have you ever seen a motivational poster that says throw in the towel after you’ve been punched in the face twice? Our culture glorifies the fight to the death mentality. If we don’t give up, maybe we’ll be like Rudy and finally get put in the game. Or we’ll be David and slay the giant. Or we’ll come back from 0-6, 0-5 and win the match.

It’s the people who persevere despite all odds who accomplish great things.

2. One trial learning only works for food poisoning. You only have to get sick from a bad crab once to develop an aversion to it. Everything else takes many, many repetitions before we get it right. That’s how tennis pros are able to make a living.

3. Our brains prefer the road well-traveled. The road was paved long ago in our neuronal pathways before we could make our own travel plans, and it is the only path we’ve ever known. That’s why recovery is a process, even when we’re ready for change: it takes time for our neurons to get on board.

4. Change is scary. It’s much safer to have a predictable yet crappy outcome than it is to venture into the unknown. What if I leave this relationship or this job or this city, foregoing comfort and familiarity, only to have things turn out even worse than they were before? How do I know it won’t be a big waste of time and energy?

We don’t know for sure. That’s why change is not for the faint of heart. It requires a tremendous leap of faith in ourselves.

So I’d like to offer a new definition of insanity. Insanity is having the courage to try something different in order to get a different result.

May we all strive to be at least a little bit insane.

Beginnings and Endings, Part 2

My job follows the academic calendar, so today is my first day back at work. I was never one of those kids who looked forward to the beginning of school. I didn’t care about seeing my friends; I didn’t want to have to do homework. I didn’t want to have to go to bed and wake up early. I pretty much have the same mentality now that I did when I was in elementary school. Some things never change, I guess.

My summers follow a distinct pattern: I have a hard time transitioning from being stressed and having to be super-productive to not having a whole lot that needs to get done. Boredom doesn’t do justice to the intensity of how badly I feel during that adjustment period. It’s more like, my existence is a complete waste of time. I have nothing of value to offer to the world. I know it’s is my inner critic talking, but it still makes me question my worth. I think that’s why most people would rather be stressed than bored: it makes you feel more useful.

However, by the time I have about 2 weeks of vacation left, I start panicking about having to go back to work. I don’t want to feel stressed out again–to be on call, have back-to-back clients, rush to get my nightly routine completed. By the end of the summer, I feel like I could quit my job altogether. But I have no one to support me, so that’s not an option.

This summer I had the added adjustment of being alone for the first time. Braking down on the side of the freeway alone. Attending weddings alone. Spending holidays and weekends alone. At least when I was working, I was guaranteed to see people every day. Over the summer, I had to make plans to motivate myself to leave the house, and sometimes I couldn’t do it.

Plus, I was also going through the steps to finalize my divorce, so I no longer had the illusion that I could return to the more stable state of matrimony. I didn’t date anyone or even have someone I could fantasize about dating. Well, I guess there’s Federer, but even in his case, the most I could imagine was being one of the nannies for his new twin boys. Not terribly romantic.

Despite the struggles with boredom, reversed sleep cycles, and solitude, I think the highs and lows actually helped me tolerate my emotions better. I would remind myself that boredom and loneliness are painful sometimes, but I’ll be busy eventually. (Usually the next day, because I played in 7 tennis leagues and captained 5 of them over the summer.) And when school starts and I’m feeling overwhelmed, I’ll remind myself that I have a long break to look forward to at the end of the term.

I think it also helped that I spent the past 2 weeks on vacation with family and friends. It was the highlight of the summer, but it was also hard to be around people 24-7. Now that I am accustomed to extended periods of solitude, I realize how much I need down time to feel sane. So by the time my vacation ended on Friday, I was ready to go home. Ready to catch up on tennis, blogging, and even work.

This summer was a good reminder of how, even when something seems intolerable, that feeling will pass. And you might even find value in the experience that you hated so much at that time.