The Better Personal Quality That Was Lost

Shortly after typing up yesterday’s blog entry, I headed over to join the friends for that Thanksgiving day dinner I’d mentioned in the post closing. I’d been invited via direct message from the host, so I had no idea what it was that I was walking into as there wasn’t a social media event page whose guest list I could review in advance. I hadn’t really questioned it, and assumed that it’d be a gathering of the usuals when these sort of things come along. I arrived to a party of nine people, out of which only five I had anticipated. Three of them — the host’s housemate and two of his friends — left shortly after eating dinner, leaving me in very mixed company. On one hand, there was my best friend and two other good friends; on the other highly ambivalent hand, the best friend’s boyfriend, a former flame who was the first person I’d ever fallen in love with back in the final years of my age ending in -teen that I haven’t seen in ages, and his present long-time boyfriend/partner/whatever it is they would call themselves.

In other words: three people I would have chosen to spend the holiday with, and three people who are not a part of my life and effectively strangers but have some degree of history with that leaves me generally disinterested in socializing with them, given the personal sharing and “opening up” that doing so entails.

The initial leg of the evening felt stilted and awkward, something that I attributed to my general outlook on Thanksgiving day itself and not to the present company. That, and my sober state of mind. Shortly after the first hour, I decided to lend myself a hand a socially lubricate by helping myself to a few shots of whiskey. Not soon after I did so, I ended up in a “catch-up” exchange with Mr. First Love from my old past life. Admittedly, it was actually somewhat enjoyable, a brief glimpse (albeit a severely anemic imitation) of that closeness we had once upon a long time ago. Up until the question of family came up.

“How are your sisters?”
“I wouldn’t know, I haven’t had anything to do with my family for years now.”
“But what about all your nephews and nieces?”
“None of them either, they’re all just collateral losses”
“That’s unforunate, you used to be so close with your family…that was always one of your better qualities.”

I responded with a cold and matter-of-factly tone that it was something that it was something that did unfortunately need to happen and ultimately nothing more than the price required to be paid in order for me to find and take on other far better personal qualities. Naturally, his follow up question was “…like what?”, but luckily more people came into the room, providing the opportunity to break away from the “serious” conversational topic at hand to something more general everyone could partake in…and in turn, sparing me from having to fill him on the events of the past years and sharing about present self to provide context.

From that point on, I grew increasingly disinterested as the night wore on. As much as I told myself that I should be trying to enjoy the moment like I’d intended to before leaving home, after that exchange, all I could think about was how I should be using that time productively rather than socially. All I wanted to do was to be home by myself and using that time and energy to exercise or work on my present goals rather than having face-to-face discussions whose underlying themes were how drastically different I’ve become from the individual they all remember me as, especially in relation to the topic of family that I’d written about just hours earlier. I stayed for a little while longer, but took my leave and made for home right around 10PM before calling it an early night and climbing into bed.

Now, as I’ve been typing out this narration of the last night, I’ve been asking myself “where am I going with this?” At face value, it reads like I had the loss of family (and Thanksgiving with them) that I was trying to get away from inadvertently thrown in my face and subsequently ruining the night. In actuality, it serves to highlight the big difference between my thought process when I’m thinking (and writing) to myself and when I have discuss myself with others. For instance, in regard to privacy, I’ll publicly post what I write when I earnestly reflect on myself and think nothing of it; but when it comes to actually talking about myself in face-to-face conversation with others, I’m very highly guarded and withholding. Similarly, when I reflect on my life, my past, and present person with myself, I think of all the things I’ve lost along the way and the struggles I’ve faced alone…but when it comes to sharing it with others, I exemplify that calm acceptance and empowered bravado I want to naturally default to when I’m thinking to myself, especially since that’s what I end up writing & posting. The lamentation of my first post in the day is what I think; the aloof detachment and general “nothing” with which I was discussing my non-existent familial relationships is what I feel. Effectively, living with the pain of memory without the burden of suffering. It’s not something that’s exactly new on a day-to-day basis, but it is the first time that the holidays haven’t caused it to go flying out the window and reverting back to old thought/behavioral patterns.

As far as the effort to reconnect with my ability/willingness to be warm & open with people and the holiday spirit goes, last night wasn’t a smashing success by any means. As they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Still, it went fairly well considering it’s the first time in years that I’ve made some semblance of an active effort instead of just being a hermetic turkey-day scrooge. But when it comes to resolving my outlook towards Thanksgiving, strengthening my personal self-awareness, and ceasing to pine for times & people long since past, improvements were definitely made.

Ingratitude

Growing up, Thanksgiving used to be my favorite holiday out of the entire year, even more than Christmas and its promise of presents. It was the day out of the year where family squabbles would be put aside and I was most likely to see all my siblings, nephews, and nieces gathered together under one roof. In our home, once everything was laid out and everything had taken their seats, it was my mother’s custom for everyone at the table to take a turn and express what it was that they were most thankful for that year — even the youngest children who barely had the cognitive & speech development to grasp the concept of being thankful got a turn to reflect and share. After dinner was done and the space cleared, the rest of the night would be spent in mass harmonious familial coexistence. Every year, I looked forward to that time of togetherness, to getting my turn to have everyone hear me verbalize how happy I was to have everyone gathered together and always çhallenging myself to do a better job than I had the year before.

When I lost most of my family after the fateful summer of 2001, my feelings toward Thanksgiving began to sour. For the better part of the decade that followed, I still had an active relationship with one of my sisters and getting together with her family was still something I looked forward to. Yet, in the recesses of my mind, I carried a private lament that the times of family-wide reunions would no longer come again. In the past handful of years that I’ve been completely separated from my entire family, fighting my way out of depression by myself and killing off my emotions in the process, that soured feeling towards Thanksgiving has turned into a yearly dread.

I still very much believe in the spirit of Thanksgiving, but like many other things in life, I’ve come to accept it as something that other people get to have and experience that I no longer get to. I see friends on social media sharing their get-togethers with family & loves ones and feel happy for them, all the while feeling the stings of the reality that it’s been a long time since I’ve felt that perfect sense of absolute unity and belonging myself, and the strong likelihood that I won’t ever get to again.

My attempts to look at things objectively and be thankful for the “small” things don’t fare much better — they come loaded with guilt.

I tell myself I should be thankful for my current job and the fact that I’m not stuck in a dead-end drudge like I was before, but immediately think of all the people out there who are.

I tell myself I should be thankful for the comforts of “first-world” life and the luxury of having a warm bed that I can sink into at the end of my day, but there are millions of others out there that can’t because they weren’t born in the right place/time like I was. To focus on that is effectively feeling relief that I’m not suffering as much as other people in the world are without having done anything special to deserve such an exemption.

I tell myself that there are plenty of people & friends in my life that I should be thankful for, but the ways that my experience with the disillusionment of unconditional love, support, and trust with my family and my efforts in removing myself from my own emotions keep me from feeling gratitude for them. To not feel thankful for them them now reinforces just how broken and incapable of basic human function I’ve become over the course of my life. To force myself to be thankful for them in spite of all the above feels like I’m relegating them as consolation prizes to a nobody.

Such is the way things have been for years now, and the way I refuse to let things continue. That is why this year, instead of holing up and shutting myself away for the day like has become customary, I’ve decided to take up an invitation to go spend Thanksgiving in the company of said friends.

Champurrado Flavored Coffee

One of my favorite Mexican seasonal foods growing up during the holidays growing up was champurradoa variation of hot chocolate with a thick consistency. While tasty, it’s consistency gives it a very heavy feel for a beverage and more along the lines of a small meal (think bowl of oatmeal). That, and the preparation process is a little involved, meaning it either has to be the holiday season or you really have a strong craving enough to push you to make some yourself if you’re drinking it.

Luckily for me, I’ve found a quick an easy substitute that as a bonus entails my true favorite drink: coffee.

Don Francisco's Cinnamon Hazelnut Coffee

You buy a can of Don Francisco’s Cinnamon Hazelnut flavored coffee, brew a pot, and pair it with a hazelnut creamer until it turns a camel brown color. In it’s own ways, it’s better than the real thing.

Sufferer’s Guilt: The Suffering of Others Does Not Negate Your Own

(Yesterday, I lapsed in the daily update goal I’ve set for the month. Nothing came to mind by way of a topic to write around. More accurately, a handful did, but I couldn’t find a structure with which to work it in as a progression of the last two. As I put my mind to thinking of one for today, one came to mind – one that, refreshingly, does not center around myself as the primary subject.)

After the last post I wrote about managing the lingering constant pain that things leave behind even after you’ve worked through them, the nature of suffering, and the need for self-compassion, the story of a dinner I hosted a few weeks back for my friend David, a serviceman in the Navy that had just returned stateside. We planned dinner for Friday at the beginning of the week, and as it ran its course, the event took on a social nature. What was meant to be a private personal get together became a group gathering. Immediately after getting home from work, I set to cooking a party-sized batch of fried potato tacos and sides of beans and rice to go with it. The night was a success and a very good time, and as it wound down to its end, it found only the guest of honor, myself, and two other very close long-time friends still standing.

As we enjoyed chill house beats into the early hours of the morning and basked in each others’ company, the conversation took one of those unexpected turns towards the serious. I’d been doing some pre-emptive cleaning inside so as to not have to deal with it in the morning. When I joined the rest of the group out in the balcony, I walked into the conversation as David was throwing out some sort of hypothetical thought experiment, I don’t recall what it actually was, that had to deal with the afterlife and the promise of paradise. He was pushing for Christian heaven with a veracity that felt almost missionary. We indulged, and with the other 3/4 of the participants being in the agnostic/secular humanist camp, had a very intoxicated philosophical discusssion (that probably wasn’t as intellectual as we all felt it to be in the moment).

After awhile, we called him out on his zeal and asked why he was so ardent about paradise-in-the-skies heaven. “I just want everyone to be happy” he answered as he entered the beginning stages of crying. Now, my friend David, he’s one of those one-in-a-million kind of good guys. Always quick to help out a total stranger, and generous to a fault. It’s something that you admire while at the same time feel frustration at his refusal to give much weight to how his good will often results in the neglect of his own best interests. Again, at this point we were into the early hours of the AM and were properly filled up on libations, so the three of us bore down on him with that “brutally honest tough love” and exectued it with a pack-like finesse. Or, in an unfluffed way of saying it: we ganged up on him pretty hard. I want to say that it we overdid it and were way harsher than we needed to be, but in retrospect, it was one of those times where the situation really did call for it. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have broken past that whole wanting-everyone-in-the-world-to-be-happy layer of misdirection and gotten to what was unconsciouslly really talking about.

David had been given up for adoption as a very young child, and though he had the fortune of, as I’ve been told to believe, meeting and having a good ongoing relationship with his biological mother over the recent years as an adult. Unbeknowst to us, which looking back is embarassing to admit I wasn’t on-point and keenly already aware of, that dinner took place right after the one year mark of the passing of his beloved adoptive mother.

Now, here’s where I can’t help interrupt the narrative with myself. I’ve been writing about my whole emotional-depravation stoic attitude ever since I first took it up. Though I’ve been left, as recently recapped, completely bereft of self-compassion and feeling, it hasn’t made me a completely caring asshole. In fact, falling into that black hole and pulling myself back out of it has made exponentially more compassionate for others than I used to be. Sure, I can’t empathize to that insane degree I used to be capable of, but I’ve also been down that depression spiral that I never would have thought could happen to me. And not only can I logically not be the only one, there’s plenty of posts and status updates on the web to back me up on this.

The three of us shifted over into supportive-caring-theraputic friend mode, and seemingly pulled off making him feel better about his mother’s passing. For a couple minutes at least, right before another unexpected left turn happened and we had him back to broken down and crying. This time, because he didn’t like himself — because he had to have been born defective in some way, enough to the point to where he didn’t want to be kept and was given up for adoption. While we three were once again able to collectively (and supportively) address why he shouldn’t carry the weight of his biological mother’s choice all those years ago on his own shoulders, the part that I did almost all of the speaking on was over the idea of not liking himself as result. If I’d had a tape recording of that moment, I’d be a transcription job and some supplemental writing & editing away from having a good few good weeks worth of content taken care of.

I drew on all my years of self-loathing and depression over similar-if-not-the-same thoughts he was throwing out, and didn’t stop talking until I felt sure that he was in a better place on that matter than he was before I started word vomitting all over him. I’ve been down that path, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone; I would become that overbearing supportive person I could have used to keep me from falling myself to keep anyone from having to go through that. Especially on him — David is too good for that. He’s the kind of person this world needs more of.

The night ended on a good note, and he messaged me with thanks the next day; that it’d been a very helpful and needed healing experience. Now that the story’s told, I’ll circle back to what it was that made me choose this to be my next entry and the meaning behind the post title.

Throughout the talk earlier in the night, David kept circling back to feeling so silly for feeling so sad when there’s so much greater suffering in the world. What gave him the right to feel sad about mourning his mother after all the time they had together when people across the world are going through such far worse tragedies. Very much like I was able to opine profusely on the matter of him “not liking [him]self”, so to was I able to do so on the idea that other people’s suffering would trivialize and invalidate his own.

As I spouted on about how objectivaly illogical and unnecesarily cruel to himself that notion was, all I had in the back in my mind is how often I’ve said the very same thing to myself. And I quote:

“Considering all the greater adversities that other people are facing and conquering every passing day, this tireless determination to tell the story of my own makes me feel that I must either be really in love with myself or addicted to dwelling in my past misery.”

As much as I’ve flip-flopped back and forth on the matter myself, addressing it with the pure objective clarity that comes with weighing in on someone else’s problems permanently locked me onto one side of the argument — in the end, fuck what everyone else’s problems are, you’re not stuck having to live everyone else’s lives. You’re a person and human being, born with the right to not have to be perfect, and with that comes hardship, sadness, pain, and sorrow. The fact that other people do, for whatever different reasons they may be, does not deny you the right to your own.

Pain Management

I recently started going through the archives of Back to Work from the very first episode and jotting down key takeaways and general notes from my listening sessions. In episode 3, there was a line that strongly stood out to me:

It is possible to feel pain without suffering.

Beginning to letting go of imperviousness and practicing true strength and resilience has been a little difficult. As Merlin and Dan discussed in the show, we associate suffering with pain when in reality they are separate, albeit closely related. Having to endure pain, whether physical, mental, or emotional, can create a state of suffering but doesn’t need to. The poignancy of the statement was impactful itself, but became even moreso when my brain synthesized it with one of my mentally bookmarked posts from my reads on Zen Habits. Leo Babauta wrote suffering to be a miasma that “causes you to be unhappy, to be stressed, to procrastinate, to be distracted, to be angry with people, to be dissatisfied with your life, to be overweight and unhealthy, to not exercise or eat healthy, and much more.”

Prior to that moment, I would have described myself as suffering-free after all the time I spending all that time wrestling with myself over the fairly recent past and no longer dealing with that old familiar internal turmoil. Yet those subtler manifestations of suffering have still been something I’ve been constantly having to stave off. Melancholy and misery no longer pervade my day-to-day life, but the suffering apparently still does.

Leo also writes that the antidote for those forms of suffering is to practice self compassion — which is the complete opposite form of self-motivation that I’ve been utilizing. My internal monologue is less self-compassionate and far more critical and berating. Shutting down and letting go left me coaching myself like a drill sergeant. It’s sufficient, but also an incomplete and far from ideal solution.

The pains of the past are something that I’ve accepted is something I’ll never be rid of, at least not until the technology in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind becomes a real thing. No one can ever be completely free of the most unpleasant parts of their past — memory is a double-edged sword like that sometimes. The thing that we are capable of moving past is the suffering those pains can induce. The full emotional shut-down of the past few years hasn’t been eliminated my own suffering entirely…and now that allowing feelings has become an option again, that self-compassion one of should one of first ones to get closely reacquainted with.

Strength

After acknowledging the truthful weakness of my nature a while back, I turned my attention towards getting myself to the point where I could see myself in the same light others do. Despite the lamenting self-critical tone of the majority of my writing (and by extension, the majority of my thinking), that’s not the persona I wear in day to day life. I follow that “fake it ’til you make it” philosophy and try to project that version of myself I really see myself as. Admittedly, the best I can muster is a cheap knockoff, but it’s sufficient. Still, after almost three decades of carrying the self-perception of a helpless incapable victim of circumstance, it was time to really start putting some realization behind that idealized self.

It all began with taking up the running habit. Over the months that I’ve been burning off pounds, building stamina, and gradually getting my body to match that idealized image I have of it “at goal”, it’s become easier to make enact similar changes mentally. The more I see my physicality reflecting the person I see myself as, the more natural my persona has become. At this point after all those pounds and miles, I no longer see myself as that depressed trainwreck simply pretending at being some better person I could never actually be.

But the transition from weakness to strength took a prolonged detour in a state of imperviousness. In some of my favorite television writing in the 6th season of Bones, they dropped a bit of dialogue that really resonated with me, with the lead character discussing the difference between being strong and impervious. In short, being strong is being able to withstand and thrive; being impervious is simply being detached and not allowing anything through.

As evidenced by most of the updates I’ve written in the past, I used to be in a really bad mental-emotional state. As much as I tried to accept my past and move on, I couldn’t stop living in it. It was easier to escape to the memories of what used to be (even with all the pain that came with it) than to face the prospect of having to keep moving forward in life and figuring out the person those experiences left me as. However, after indulging in that masochistic form of escapism for so long, I grew weary of feeling that way. Unable to sever the ties with the past, I got desperate and instead severed the ties with my emotions. It wouldn’t be possible to feel so depressed and perpetually downtrodden if I just didn’t feel at all.

Right around that time, an episode of one of the podcasts I regularly listen to mentioned a quote from to lyrics to the Dead Kennedy’s Your Emotions. “Your emotions make you a monster”.

That became my personal mantra, and in my efforts to rid myself of the melancholy, I also sacrificed my capacity to genuinely feel good things too. My readings on Greek Stoicism philosophy facilitated that process with its emphasis on objective reduction; feelings became nothing more than the waste material of the biochemical interactions going on in my brain that led to unhelpful perception more often than not. I shut that shit down hard.

In the recent months, I’ve been slowly allowing — no, retraining — myself to feel again. At first, I was extremely hesitant, worried that my old nature would come rushing back out and overwhelm me. Worried that I was still a weak fraud, and that all this time I’d spent on my so called personal development had been spent in vain.

I’m happy to say I was wrong about that.

Custom NaNoWriMo

Already, we’re three days into November. Thanks to internet culture, there are two events that run the entirety of the month every year. The first is Movember, where participants stop shaving and grow the biggest mustache they can over the calendar month. I don’t even try to partake, and likely never will — my Asian genes make it virtually impossible to grow anything on my face that wouldn’t be deemed a cute yet laughable attempt. There are teenagers out there that could outdo me on that front. The other is National Novel Writing Month, or as it’s known colloquially, NaNoWriMo. The premise here is pretty self-explanatory: write and “ship” a novel within the 30 days of the month.

Every year, I tell myself that I’d like to participate as a way to stretch and build (what I deem) my underdeveloped story telling and writing skills. The thing is, with all the daily responsibilities of life and my workouts, I’m hard pressed to think of any ideas for a story and the time to sit down, type them out, and refine them into a narrative. It sounds like a cop out, and admittedly is one to a certain extent. Yet on the other hand, being able to realistically assess your capabilities — and in turn, prevent yourself from coming down hard on yourself later for failing to meet lofty expectations — is a key part of productivity. Having failed to do any pre-planning this year and already being three days down, I’ve got no expectations of drafting and finishing a novel for this year’s NaNoWriMo. As a compromise, I’ve decided that I will try, but my main goal won’t be to complete a novel. My writing focus this year will be to make sure that I write a journal entry and a blog entry every day.

Weakness

A concept that I’ve noticed myself repeatedly thinking on with directness and clarity is that of “weakness”. Over the past months, it’s been something that I’ve been doing an extensive amount of thinking on and repeatedly procrastinating on drafting an entry on. After so much time continually shooting it off into the future, I’m well overdue to roll up my sleeves and give it my best shot.

When I first started really focusing my thoughts on the topic at hand, that first thing that came to mind was that familiar aggressive self-criticism: despite all the circumstances that caused it, the bottom line is that I simply wasn’t strong enough to not end up in a depressive spiral for an entire decade. To constantly see inspirational articles of people in the world conquering far greater adversities and thriving, finding myself with this very unflattering self-deprecating (and very public) writing log as the proof of the live I’ve led up until this point has been a source of both personal embarassment and resentment.

In turn, I found myself wrestling with the guilt of failing to recapture the strength that I once had. I recalled the memories of that time in my life where I knew happiness, and remembered feeling invincible in both character and mind. Yet, the more I reflected on these memories, the more I came to realize that I was recalling half-truths. Those times in the past when I was boisterous, opinionated, and outspoken…they were limited to the times I was around my family. I was free to be as arrogantly brave as I wanted to, because I had a nuclear arsenal on standby. If things ever were to go south, I had the assurance that the parents and siblings I looked up to would be there to back me up. The reality that I conveniently glossed over was that when I was physically separated from them, I turned into a docile sycophantic people pleaser.

If I jog the timeline all the way back to early childhood, I was completely soft, physically and emotionally. I had an extremely low pain threshold, and the sight of my own blood coming from even the smallest wound would send me into hysterics. As much as I was bold and outspoken, it was a confidence afforded to me by the comforting assurance that there were always people that I belonged to and would support me; my perceived strength back then was something borrowed, not innate. At my core, my nature was that of a pissant weakling.

A couple years ago, in one of those random conversations that take an unexpected turn towards a deep honesty I found myself having with my best friend, I remember him telling me that I was strong — the strongest person he knew. I recall feeling a brief esteem boost hearing that coming from him, right before being hit by an overwhelming wave of sadness at how untrue I felt that to be. Sure, I’ve exhibited resilience and resourcefulness that I never would have thought I had in me over the past few years, but the price I paid to do so is what destroyed me inside and sent me down that depressive spiral. I had to accept the loss of the life and identity I’d grown up with. I was forced to let go of all the people and relationships I was supposed to be able to rely on. Coerced into having to accept that the unconditional love of family and unwavering loyalty of friends was something that wasn’t real, or at the very least something the universe was determined to prove to me I wasn’t worthy of.

Revisiting those thoughts with my present frame of mind this year, I’ve finally flipped that perception. After all that time in isolation, going through those cognitive behavioral loops and rewriting the same old blog entries, I finally found the will to accept my reality and embrace the change into this new person I’ve been driving myself towards becoming. Before, it was out of a necessity that I resented, now it’s out of unbridled desire. Once upon a time, I was weak, and I knew it. I was insecure and utterly dependent on others for my sense of self and happiness. Now, the memories of my personal past, even up to just a few years ago, feel like the recollection of a previous lifetime. If I re-read my old updates, it’s almost as if I’m reading something written by a complete stranger.

During a recent play-through of Kingdom Hearts II a while back, there was a line of dialogue in a cutscene that stood out to me:

awakenthroughweakness

And so though it may have taken me far longer than it should have, through the copious amounts of weakness I once owned, I’ve carved out an awakened something new inside myself — its antithesis, an infallible reserve of mental-emotional fortitude and strength.

Return to Form

At this point, it’s been well over a month since the last time I posted an update. In the time since, I’ve meant to buckle down and post an entry many times, but I’ve been in a weird place this past month. It was not unlike those old behavioral loops I used to be prone to, only without the nagging rumination and general mental “funk” of times past. After all the insane amounts of running I did in August & September and all the social activity in my off-time during those months, I simply burned out. I lost touch with my drive, my thumos, and stopped working out regualrly and abandoned my self studies, opting for escapism instead and losing myself in video games and Netflix.

Throughout that time, I kept telling myself to pull it together and get “back to work”, but I didn’t. Couldn’t. I completely lost interest in myself and my projects. I kept trying to think of all the things I had running about in my head that I wanted to get out and commit to text, but was unable to muster up the intent to get it done.

Now, in what feels like a literal blink of an eye, I find myself at the start of a new month. I finally it together enough to write out one of my “life snapshot” entries in my offline journal, and seeing my current reality reflected back at me hard coded in words has jarred me back to my senses. There’s still so much to do, and time, as always, continues to tick away.