We make life more complicated than it needs to be. In the most vibrant and optimistic time in human history, we live without hope. And I’m including myself in that “we.”
Last week, my Beloved and I celebrated our 19’th wedding anniversary. And you might think after 19 years, it’s getting a little old… and maybe in some ways, it is— comfortable, that is. And I’m good with that. I hated dating, hated life before marriage, never want to go back to that life. Because there is a lesson—if I had learned it from the start—that would have made those years a little more bearable, a lesson that finally allowed me to meet and marry Margaret, my wife.
Unfortunately, I’m still learning that lesson, even though I wrote about it in Love through the Eyes of an Idiot. That’s right: I don’t follow my own advice, even when it’s good advice, many years after I supposedly learned it.
Early in my adolescence, I had established a bad pattern. And throughout the Love-Idiot book, you’ll see this pattern repeated, repeatedly, over and over again, like a thunk thunk thunk rapping against your skull. You’ll find it hilarious, exasperating, or endearing. (Or a mixture of those.)
I would have a crush on a girl—always the wrong girl, by definition, because I was completely uninterested in any girl that might have been the right one—and then I’d obsess over those feelings until they warped out of control. Like, “The antimatter injectors are stuck, Capt’n! We’re gonna explode!”
For example, at 19 years, old enough to know better, I met a beautiful, tender redhead, “Enola” (not her real name). She stared up at me through deep brown eyes, from a sensitive and quiet heart, and smiled dimples like sun rays in a sky freckled with starlight— when she smiled. That’s a starry-eyed memory: she rarely smiled.
I knew she had been through a bad experience, although I didn’t know what it was, and she was empty inside. But I never really knew what Enola was thinking. So what did I finally end up doing? I promised myself I would always love her.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with feeling deep affection for another human being, even deep romantic affection. But to allow those feelings to take over your life without even finding out whether she will respect them, much less return them… That’s just stupid.
Many years later we reconnected briefly. (All hail the power of the Internet!) Fortunately, she did not remember who I was. That period of her life had been tough for her, and I regretted that I had been such an incompetent friend. But at least I had learned my lesson.
Several years after our self-involved experiences together (such as they were), I had finally reached the end of my rope, and I was willing to try something new. Namely: Take it easy. Cool it. This should not be a big deal. If I meet a woman I like, keep it casual. And listen, for God’s sake! We all seem to be preprogrammed to talk first and listen not at all. But the more you listen, the more you learn, and knowledge is power. Find out what she thinks about me before there’s a relationship, before there are feelings that might get hurt. This should not be a big deal.
This should all be fairly obvious to anyone with half a brain, which clearly did not include me.
The first woman I met after this revelation—you guessed it—Margaret. Sometimes, the minute you stop looking, the love of your life drops into your lap. After we met, I waited a couple weeks—and focused on other things—before calling her and asking her out. She didn’t realize it at the time, but that was all about managing my own feelings.
But there’s an even deeper lesson between the lines of this story— I just realized this in the past week: I was learning, all over again, how to slough off rejection. And I’m still learning, apparently.
When I was very young, I had no fear of adventure, of people, of rejection, of trying new things, of dreaming big dreams or of attempting bold pursuits. My biggest regret is that I lost that naïve fearlessness. When I pay attention, I find myself avoiding opportunities, because I’m afraid I’m going to do something I’ll later regret, that I’ll make myself look foolish, that I’ll be met with a nasty or dismissive comment. And I remember the things I regret more than the things I’m proud of. And I remember feeling foolish more than feeling like a king. And I remember the nasty comments more than I remember the supportive ones.
So what’s the answer? I’ve tried a number of techniques. None have really worked. For example, I might delay opening a certain email, because I don’t know whether the email will confirm my worst fears or boost my best confidences. The last time I received such an email, I imagined opening it and swelling with joy at the contents. This is a tactic that some people have recommended to combat self-sabotaging emotional patterns. Then I opened the email…
One can only go through that experience so many times before he begins to believe, at a gut level, that every time he talks to anyone regarding his work, he’s going feel incompetent and useless.
So that didn’t work. But maybe my answer lives on a different level. Twenty years ago, I needed to ask a girl out on a date before it was so big a deal that I felt crushed or elated by the answer. I needed to chill. Because it’s not a big deal. Maybe I need to bring that pattern into the rest of my life.
Popular culture tries to teach us that it is a big deal, whatever “it” is. We’re in the middle of an election season, and one only has to approach the edge of the presidential campaigns. Almost anything you thus overhear will urge you toward unfounded panic. I actually know people who believe that Obama represents the end of the United States, as opposed to Romney, whom others believe will bring about the end of the United States. (They said the same thing about Thomas Jefferson, by the way.) Both these beliefs are so wrong, on so many levels. But here’s just one: Any statement designed to evoke that strong an emotional reaction automatically shuts down your ability to think about it critically.
And that’s exactly what was keeping me from finding happiness in love 20 years ago. And changing that pattern was exactly what enabled me to set my life upon a new course. And that’s exactly what I need to do in other areas of my life and career in which I’m struggling.
What about you?