But even Solomon, he says, “the man that wandereth out of the way of understanding shall remain” (i.e. even while living) “in the congregation of the dead.” Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee; as for the time it did me. There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he forever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar. (Herman Melville, Moby Dick)
As an introvert, it is a natural, perhaps inevitable, course for me to go inside myself, but I know that is not the way for everyone. Maybe being by themselves for any length of time freaks people out, like venturing into a cave of self where it’s dark and clammy and questions bounce back as echoes. I, on the other hand, have always been quite content to be by myself, and rarely, if ever, do I get bored, even if I’m just sitting somewhere not doing a goddamn thing but chasing my thoughts wherever they may lead. I consider myself lucky that the workings of my own mind, as wildly delusional as they are accurate in their perception and interpretation of phenomena, hold an endless fascination for me. No matter the amount of time I spend contemplating this, I never manage to scratch the surface of what I know or understand, about myself or the world. If anything, the opposite is true: I come away with an overwhelming sense of what I don’t know, which has the added benefit of keeping me humble.
It is not really possible to view our own minds without the distortion of our many psychological biases, which in turn prevent us from being objective about ourselves. Observe what happens when we are confronted with an unsavory aspect of ourselves by another person. This person, being separate from us, would presumably have a greater degree of objectivity about us, and yet rather than take this criticism as new information to incorporate with, and possibly modify, what we already know, we tend to reject such input and fall back on the rationalizations, justifications and storylines that comfort us about ourselves. After all, how do we know this person isn’t judging us out of their own snake bed of biases? Another difficulty in knowing and understanding ourselves, and one I confess that I wrestle with the most, is that in order to truly determine who and what we are, we have to go outside of ourselves and into the world. In other words, we have to measure ourselves against what we are not. For this reason, going inward can be a double-edged sword, paradoxically both liberating and constraining in its revelations.
Going inward has become a necessity for me, a survival mechanism activated after an extended period of outgoing behavior that went against the grain of my nature and was, therefore, physically and psychologically draining. This outgoingness came about as a result of work roles I adopted over the years, mainly for non-profit organizations that required a constant outreach in the form of public speaking and appeals to potential donors intended to increase awareness and, therefore, the financial and volunteer support of the organization. In a way, this spent feeling was the aftermath of an internal friction produced by the conflicting aims of extending myself publicly and defending personal boundaries to make sure I didn’t give the lion’s share, or best parts, of myself away.
Public outreach was a style of work that I never imagined for myself when struggling in college to figure out what the hell I wanted to do (something I never did figure out, actually), and yet I was doubly surprised to find that not only was I capable of speaking in front of any audience at any time (my involvement in youth theater came in handy), but I also enjoyed it, even if it did exact a cost that I became aware of later. These occasions of going outside myself to do what I had to do in order to draw a paycheck and realize a workplace goal taught me a great deal of new things about myself and what I was capable of. I learned a dark secret, which is that none of us knows what the fuck we’re doing and that to a great extent human interaction adheres to the “fake it till you make it” edict. At the same time, I have been shocked and honored in turn by people telling me that my public speaking inspired them in some way. Such moments appeared like a ray of sun escaping a dark and ominous cloud. They represented a true gift of knowing that I, trapped though I am in my own bubble and having always subscribed to Conrad’s line in Heart of Darkness that “we live as we dream – alone,” had an impact on another person. These unsolicited affirmations gave proof that sometimes we manage to pierce the veil (or strike through the pasteboard mask, as Captain Ahab would have it) of that isolation of self that confines us all.
Otherwise, this isolation left ample room for doubt that I was making any impact at all. Because I was never very good at reading the mood of my audiences when making presentations, I never knew for certain if someone agreed to cut a check to the cause or signed up as a volunteer because they were genuinely persuaded by my message, or if they offered their support begrudgingly because I or someone else had twisted their arm. Unwilling to dispense with the story of myself as an introvert, I never quite accepted how fundraising imposed on me the role of the telemarketers or Jehovah’s Witnesses whose unwelcome intrusion into my personal space I loathed, as well as their evangelistic insistence that I buy into a product I neither needed nor had solicited. In addition, I couldn’t shake this nagging suspicion that my work to drive resources to the organization was far removed from the organization’s real work of providing direct assistance to people, and after a while this nagging cognitive dissonance became too much to ignore. This internal conflict, in turn, instigated a personal revolt against an institutional mission that I had little to no say in creating or defining. That’s not to say I didn’t generally believe in such causes as the arts, health and human services and education – I did and articulated my belief into a decent enough dog and pony show – but I was a mere cog in the wheel turning the machine. Through noone’s fault but my own, I lacked sufficient agency to transform the work from a job into a calling. In the end, I was unable to convince myself that being paid to care and convince others to care is not the same as actually caring.
Things came to a head during my work on behalf of public education, a cause I truly believed in like few others and a job that, in the best of times, was as challenging and rewarding as any I had ever had. First came the Great Recession in 2008, and then in 2010 the Republican Party in NC took over both houses of the general assembly and the governorship, which resulted in immediate and draconian budget cuts to all levels of public education in the state. It’s one thing to be attacked by forces you can’t necessarily control, but it’s quite another for the institution under attack, paralyzed by inertia and complacency, to be utterly incapable of adapting or putting up any kind of defense. By the time the economy turned to shit and hit the fan, I was an employee of our local community college, and it was disheartening to see the institution’s culture devolve into the demoralization and paranoia of not only those laid off but also of those who survived the budget cuts only to assume more responsibilities for less pay. It seemed to me that the ones able to withstand this barrage of demeaning bullshit against the education profession were those who either had a calling for the work or, for financial reasons or whatever, had no choice but to stay. Since neither condition applied to me, and the campus culture had turned so toxic as to eat away at any individual or collective agency by which the victimized employees might defend themselves, I chose to leave for my own sanity’s sake.
The decision to quit something can have the effect of burning away superfluous aspects in order to reveal the essential aspects of our identity and personality that remain, like an ecosystem-cleansing forest fire. For many of us, the world is, as Wordsworth lamented, too much with us. We tend to overly rely on external signifiers to define who we are, or the legends we might be in our minds, as exemplified by the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the politics with which we align ourselves, how many likes and followers we have on social media, and so forth. In this context, more is better. Indeed, there can never really be enough. We often attend to these material signifiers at the expense of internal drives or needs that we end up ignoring or suppressing in our acquiescence to the tyranny of immediate gratification. Quitting my job was an intentional step toward stepping away from this external dynamic so that I might examine the role and purpose work had at this juncture in my life and the future.
I must confess this exploration hasn’t revealed the prettiest or most flattering picture. Perhaps one reason it wasn’t so difficult to take this pause in my career is that I didn’t have much in the way of a career to speak of. You can’t give up what you don’t have, right? During my college years, I majored in English because I loved to read and write, but my far-off, all-encompassing dream of being a novelist left no room to consider what other professional avenues were made possible by such a degree. In fact, aspiring to be a novelist meant, to my romantically ignorant and unrealistic understanding, foregoing the career track altogether and taking shitty hourly wage jobs in order to conserve my best energy and my mind’s freshest grey cells for writing. By the time it became clear, after about a decade of this and four rewrites of a novel from scratch, that I wasn’t really cut out to write novels or fiction of any kind, I was also confronted with the realization that I had done next nothing to lay the groundwork for any kind of fall-back career. Sure, I had taken a wide variety of jobs that called on different skillsets, worked each and every one to the best of my ability, and picked up a hodge-podge of valuable new skills along the way, but this stood in stark contrast to the path taken by a lot of my friends where they settled on a particular field, industry or company and spent their time moving up the ranks and incrementally acquiring more power and pay. After all this time of supposedly devoting myself to my craft, I wasn’t even that good of a writer, let alone the great one in the mold of the literary heroes who inspired me. Ironically, satisfaction with my writing – a relative term – didn’t come until years after I had given up on writing for an audience and wrote strictly for my own pleasure.
I have the greatest admiration for those who switched tracks in their professional lives to pursue different careers, but I’ve never had a Plan B. I’m not sure why. Either it’s a gaping hole in my brain’s executive function, like those who can’t perceive color or read other’s facial expressions, or it’s a move that reveals unforeseen options that a fallback plan would only obscure. Rather than view jobs as career building blocks, my approach has been to apply whatever talents I have to the situation at hand. I’ve always appreciated how any job, no matter how menial, provides innumerable ways for one to exercise talents above and beyond the specific skills required, provided one is curious, pays attention and keeps an eye open for learning opportunities. Still, I’ve always resisted investing any more of myself or my time than necessary. My ultimate stance could be boiled down to: “I’m just visiting.” The signs increasingly pointed to when it was time for me to move on, or I might luck out and get recruited by a networking acquaintance for a new opportunity just when I had become dissatisfied with the old one. Perhaps this was my way of holding out hope that in this wayward fashion I would back my way into a career of sorts, but that never happened either.
As intoxicating as quitting can be, you can’t make a habit of it, or you risk losing yourself to an extreme of inaction, quitting to the point of standstill. I vividly recall a very stressful time during the writing of my college honors thesis on Melville when I toyed with the fantasy of abandoning that project as a way of relieving the intense pressure and self-doubt I was feeling. Somehow, just holding on to the possibility of release enabled me to gauge the intensity of the pressure, where my actual breaking point was, and what the stakes were for abandoning this particular project. The stakes in this case were very high, indeed. I needed to do this to prove to myself that I could write something meaningful about the author whose novel Moby-Dick had lit my soul on fire. I especially needed to do this to prove my advisor, a professor who had no faith whatsoever in my abilities, wrong. (His final words of “praise” upon completion of the thesis were, “If you had told me at the beginning you were going to turn in something this good, I never would have believed you.” Gee, thanks…I think?)
In adherence to Newton’s third law of motion, the act of detachment creates an equal and opposite reaction. In other words, detachment ultimately returns to attachment, like a snake eating its tail. Detachment is a sloughing off of aspects that are not-me, until I am finally left with my naked self, the one thing it is not possible, barring suicide, to quit. A move away from things not-me is, presumably, a move toward me, and a move toward me is a move inward. I don’t know if inward is the natural direction for this process or if this is due to my introverted nature. I just know that such movement creates the mental equivalent of an isolation tank by shutting out all external noise and the forces of habit they induce so that I can concentrate on what drives or inspires me. This process enabled me to see, for instance, how so much of what I do stems from a sense of obligation and a need to please or curry favor with people, and yet I discovered that more often than not the favor curried was disproportionate to the effort I put forth to receive it. It was, in other words, a matter of diminishing returns. I realized that if I found myself in a situation where this was the case, and whatever enjoyment I got from the process was insufficient to bring the situation back into balance, I needed to extract myself, for the good of the organization and my own wellbeing. Conversely, I figured performing the necessary due diligence before joining a group might prevent dissatisfaction all around and save myself the need to quit later.
This, too, is an equal and opposite reaction from my pattern of rolling the dice and jumping into situations out of blind faith that things have a way of working out one way or another. If I had been more honest with myself, I would have recognized this impulse as simply a way to get from point A to B and not something conducive to a long-lasting arrangement. Then again, without such leaps of faith, I wouldn’t have taken part in some of the rewarding experiences I have had. There’s no right or wrong answer here, no clear guide or map on how to navigate through life. I know our actions are an indistinguishable combination of thoughts and feelings generated internally and stimuli received externally. What it boils down to is that I increasingly felt the need to take stock of myself outside the context of external obligations pulling me in directions I’d rather not go and generating thoughts and feelings it was not healthy for me to have. Coincidentally or not, this was happening at a time when our culture seemed to have lost its collective mind in its relentless pursuit of ceaseless information, one thing leading to another forever outward. This continual pursuit of external stimuli, coupled with a shielding of oneself in the anonymity of an online identity, has the effect of severing many people from the common ground of our humanity and our mutual sense of decency by turning them into trolls that feed off the legitimate outrage and insult of others.
This pulsating outward is a pattern demonstrated in all walks of life and every strata of society. In a volunteer club or service organization such as Rotary, to which I belonged for more than ten years, the pattern played itself out in a tiresome and counter-productive conversation about recruiting new members to replace the ones we were losing at a rapid clip, rather than taking the time to figure out, given the current circumstances, what size of club we wanted to be and the type of members we wanted to recruit (quality over quantity). Around board tables of struggling non-profits the pattern invariably devolves into finding ways to bring in more and more money, without a clear sense of how that money might further the mission of the organization and whether its pursuit diverts time and energy away from other, more important work they should be doing. My economically struggling hometown of Hickory decries the difficulty we have in telling our story and promoting our community as one that might attract younger people to live, work and raise families, and yet the extent of our storytelling so far is to hang a few pretty signs around town highlighting local attractions, which amounts to putting so much lipstick on a pig. Our local economic development efforts travel the low road of zero-sum gain by hoping to entice businesses away from other counties and states, rather than investing in the (high road) development of our human capital, where true business and job creation happens. We as a nation keep talking about how we need to grow the economy, as if perpetual growth is really a thing and refusing to earn money and buy shiny new objects with it makes you a leech, or “taker,” on the economy.
Going inward and its commensurate process of detachment automatically put one at odds with these predominantly outward forces of culture and economics, and you can take it from me, being an outlier can do strange things to the psyche. Given the increasingly transactional nature of societal relations, encounters with people from our past can sometimes be awkward without our formerly mutual objectives to talk about. Since the external is the realm in which most of us live, work and play, removing oneself from any or all aspects of it can take one out of the epicenter of action – at least until one figures out that the epicenter of action exists wherever one creates it. Being an introvert does not mean that I forego connection; after all, it’s a need we all share as humans. However, one must shut out the noise in order to determine what real connection is and means. For this reason, I have resisted the lure of social platforms such as Facebook and Twitter out of fear that accepting friend requests creates superficial connections that I am then obligated to maintain at the expense of connections with those I see directly on a more regular basis. I still have a LinkedIn account that I was putting to occasional use when I still had a job, and though I still get the random connection invitation, they’ve lately been coming from people I don’t know and thus have little reason to connect with. Whenever I do accept the occasional connection request, the action feels empty, as if I’m consigning the contact to a dead end, a connection that returns radio silence or the echo of an empty house back at them, since I spend absolutely zero time in seeking new connections myself or feeding updates to the connections I have.
I work hard to silence those voices that continue to exert an emotional pull on me, as though we’re bodies locked into orbit around each other by our gravitational spheres. As creatures of habit, we’re constantly reminded of how hard it is to break that pattern. I am often cut to the quick by an “oh shit” sinking feeling in my gut, usually the signal that I’ve dropped the ball on something or that the hammer is about to drop on an impending catastrophe I have failed to prevent. In these moments I have to ask myself, “Is this real?” I look around and scour my memory for some responsibility that might have escaped my attention, but invariably it turns out to be a false alarm, or perhaps the faint “But wait, there’s more” pulsing of a phantom process that has long since been abandoned. I don’t know why we continue to carry the memory shards of incomplete or abandoned actions, frequently colliding with each other like debris floating in space, except that in reality nothing is ever fully complete or completely abandoned. Experiences never leave but rather take up a ghostly residence in us, popping up unexpectedly in our memories and triggering feelings we thought had been resolved.
Society doesn’t help in this matter by imposing norms that go against the grain of our stories and identities. I’ve been confronting an uncomfortable reality in my middle age that my shot at establishing a “career” for myself has passed me by. That’s not to say that I won’t ever work again, but if I do it will be because it’s something I enjoy doing, not something that takes me up another step of a ladder to nowhere. It’s a choice that I’m in the unbelievably fortunate position to make. I’m actually envious of those who’ve taken advantage of the opportunity to make something of their talents and to turn that into a prosperous and fulfilled life for themselves and their families. I don’t begrudge them any of the success they have had. But as strong as the gravitational pull is toward the career success of a friend or person I admire, I know it is an unfair comparison to hold up their success as a mirror to my seemingly meandering professional life. Their success, in other words, does not constitute my failure. It only does so if I assume there’s only one way up the ladder (or that I even need to climb the ladder at all), that is, if I frame life in terms of winning and losing when, to begin with, those two concepts are made up and subjectively defined by human beings. Achieving the pinnacle of a career and earning more money than one knows what to do with are single-minded pursuits that engage only the minimal bandwidth of life. We recognize their ephemerality by their capriciousness. Who ever said, upon reaching a particular goal, “I’ve made it as far as I can go”? No one ever, because in the pursuit of such material gain and self-glorification, there is no end. Just as the pursuit of information and connections on social media only lead outward to more information and connections, one can never have enough money or power, nor is there any shortage of people hurt and cast off by this economic and environmental (and informational) rapaciousness.
The prevalence of these voices and their dominance in our cultural life makes tuning them out entirely a serious challenge. A world too much with us can never be blocked out entirely. Fortunately, I have recently stumbled upon a couple of practices that have been extremely helpful with this: mindfulness and meditation. I can’t claim to be a faithful or expert practitioner of either of these, and so an irony right off the bat is how mindful I am of falling far short of reaching guru or master status, which is just me and my Western mind always attaching a goal or end result – ka-ching! – to whatever I do. The point of practicing mindfulness and meditation is that there is no point. Each of these bring me to a focus on the present moment in which nothing happens but my breath. In this moment, breathing in and out is all that matters, not the appointment I have scheduled in the next half hour, not the thing I promised to do for someone but keep putting off, not the lost opportunities of moments past or prospective opportunities of moments to come. These thoughts still come into my mind and try to sweep me out of the moment, because that’s how the mind works. The object is not to keep thoughts from entering my mind (that, in itself, is a deliberative action that takes me out of the moment) but to allow them in and acknowledge them without engaging and dwelling on them. To dwell on them and chase them down their respective rabbit holes is a form of rumination that I did not come to realize until recently was the cause of many of my problems all along.
As an introvert, I had always ascribed a supremacy to the mind that it never deserved, because that was my space where I felt the most comfortable and in control. In so doing, I had always believed I could reason my way out of anything, never suspecting that due to the limitations of reasoning itself (or, rather, the paradox of applying reason to reason) I was more often than not reasoning myself into my problems. This resulted in me turning anxiety-inducing matters over and over in my head in a very misguided attempt to “solve” them or discover their origins. Little did I know that doggedly pursuing matters over which I had little or no control caused them to spiral into the self-fulfilling outcome of depression, which was a form of defeat and, thus, demoralization over my failure to solve the essentially unsolvable proposition that is life. Rather than exist for any specific purpose, we just are, and whatever purpose we find is the story we tell ourselves about our significance. I had spent the majority of my life convincing myself otherwise, pumping up my ego and intellect to take on a task against which it was not just woefully inadequate but downright dangerous. Meditation has enabled me, yet again, to quit that particular course of action, to rid myself, for the most part (again, I’m no master or guru), of the fairy tale notion that life unfolds according to a kind of arcing storyline, complete with a beginning, middle and, presumably, happy end, and instead to allow what is to just be. Most importantly it has enabled me to see that the cracking of the whip over my back was by my own hand.
Maybe life is a perpetual process of expansion and contraction according to the flow of life’s circumstances and changes. At an earlier time of identity formation, along with the adoption of values and principles that go along with that, I saw my intellect as an entity I was building like a fortress and thus needed to guard and protect. My mind was constantly abuzz with introspection and rumination, examining to the nth degree every single thought and feeling that came into my awareness, all of which was for my benefit and mine alone. My mind may have been raging internally, but I felt it extremely important to reveal none of that on the outside. To do so was to give something of myself away that I could never get back, something that in the hands of another person who had no idea who I was could potentially be used against me. Facts that were taken in and internalized became my truth, as though such a thing had a tangible propriety and, therefore, would diminish my identity if I ever revealed them.
It took me the longest time to understand that when I speak my truth or reveal something about myself to another person, I am not giving anything away that can’t be regenerated a hundred times over. In fact, instead of leaving me, that truth not only remained a part of me but actually became magnified in the sharing and the exposure to other’s truths. I might reveal a very private part of myself to someone, but there was nothing another person could do to take that information and change the fundamental truth of that revelation, or reflect it back to me as a funhouse mirror distortion of myself. The relentless questioning of this taught me to put my faith in a certain immutability of self that requires little to no investment in ego and persists in these interactions with the world. The more I understood – and felt – the more open I became, and with increased openness came a newfound resilience. As an introvert, I was still not inclined to offer information unless someone requested it, but now whenever someone asked, I no longer had qualms about sharing it, no matter how sensitive or personal. As truths, they stand alone; they’re something I can do little about or change. Revealing them not only coaxes me out of my comfort zone but also transmits a receptive signal to others who might be wrestling with the same issues of identity and finding one’s place in the world
And so an adolescent contraction into self became an expansion in adulthood. And now it seems my approach to middle age may be prompting another contraction. All this would come off as self-help mumbo jumbo if not for a quite real and tangible outcome from disrupting the pattern of rumination, namely the ability to discontinue my use of anti-depressant medication (again with the quitting!) that had been part of my routine for well over a decade. In fact, I had resigned myself to the possibility that I might be taking this medication for the rest of my life, which was enough in itself to send me into depression. This fundamental shift in my psychology and world view, resulting for all I know in changes to the wiring of the brain itself, has helped me to view life more as a constantly moving, ever-changing stream of moments and experiences, ones that don’t inexorably lead to certain destinations or goals but rather flow in and out and through me like my own breath. If I happened to have missed out on an exciting, lucrative career or a chance to “make a name” for myself, it doesn’t diminish my life in any way, because it has left other doors open to tangential, equally rewarding experiences that a person singled-mindedly pursuing a specific goal would fail to notice. The only thing that diminishes me is measuring myself against others and attaching myself to a desire for something they have.
But we humans are forever on the lookout for grass greener than that on which we stand. Whatever conditions or circumstances we are currently experiencing, we tend to use that as a frame of reference against which to devise something different, something out of the ordinary, that breaks us out of the prison of the comfortable and familiar. Thus, in an expansive state, I am outside of myself looking in, while in a state of contraction I am on the inside looking out. Perhaps this vacillation is the necessary friction from which new revelations of self and states of being arise. After all, remaining fixed in one state or the other is tantamount to a kind of living death, a denial of the world’s constant flux and our own multitudinous selves that we can’t begin to comprehend. As I once again contemplate venturing outward, I will this time be more mindful of how I experience and engage with external influences. It’s one thing to pursue change actively with a set agenda (“You too can lose 50 pounds in a month!”) and quite another to make oneself receptive to change in whatever form it may take. Change for me at this stage of my life could take the form of an unforeseen business or work prospect, a volunteer opportunity, a new topic for a blog post, or even a radically fresh perspective on an old problem. Indeed, these days I am more receptive than ever to exploring, ever so tentatively, new ways in which my core self interacts with the not-me people and elements in the world. Hopefully, in conjunction with my newfound practices of mindfulness and meditation, I can stop myself from filling the vacuum of self-doubt and uncertainty too quickly, lest I miss out on life’s mysteries and revelatory wonders in my rush toward preconceived conclusions or making other plans.