I had a pretty terrible day not long ago.
I was dropping off my son at his mom’s house. Anyway, I went back to my car intending to drive home to pack up my apartment…
But the car wouldn’t start. The key wouldn’t even turn.
I tried turning the steering wheel and a few other tricks, but still, no luck. Frustrated, I called AAA and went to tell my ex what happened, because if I didn’t explain and was just outside of her house, you know, chilling—that would be pretty weird/creepy.
To her credit, she invited me in, but I declined. I could go into a long explanation of all the reasons I didn’t want to go in, but suffice it to say she just got engaged, not even two years after we separated (only six months, in fact, after the papers were finalized). #awkward
A half hour later the mobile locksmith shows up, but he can’t get the key to turn either. Not only that, but he doesn’t have the machine they would need to make a new one because it’s too expensive to haul around in the van and risk getting stolen. He says this all with a smile on his face, but I’m thinking “bless your heart” the way Southerners mean it (fuck you). It’s not his fault of course, but when shit isn’t going your way for a long enough time rationality tends to take a back seat to emotion.
Anyway, now I’ve got to have the car towed to another locksmith and it’s going to take 45 minutes at least before the guy gets there. My ex comes and invites me in again, and at this point it would be rude not to come inside, so I accept.
We make small talk for awhile. I ask her about how some of our old friends are doing—the one’s she got in the divorce. And it’s fine. I guess. Her fiancé even offers me a pour of scotch as a peace offering which I politely decline for reasons I won’t get into here.
Long story short, I get my car towed to a locksmith and don’t get home until 11. Then I wake up at 4 and can’t get back to sleep. Awesome.
But everyone has shitty days.
That just happened to be one of mine.
I’ve started meditating recently.
I use an app called “Headspace” (I know, I know—how millennial). I have to say, however, when I make the time/remember to do it, it’s fantastic. In fact now that I’m starting to string them together, I’ve found it makes me feel much less anxious. Meditation allows me the space to realize a lot of the stuff I worry about is nonsense. As cliché as it sounds, it allows you to see the forest for the trees.
I say all this because the day after my shitty day—after meditating—I had somewhat of an epiphany.
I was late, there was traffic in places there shouldn’t be, I was dreading having to stand in front of my students and teach, and I was in a downright shitty mood. As most people would, I initially chalked it up to bad sleep and the flaming wreckage of the last 24 hours.
But then it hit me: this isn’t just about my one bad day.
I wasn’t feeling bad because my car didn’t start or because it was going to cost me a lot of money to fix or because I woke up early and didn’t get enough sleep.
It was something bigger…
The realization came when I was thinking how annoying it was that my students were asking to go for walks everyday—
—that sounds pretty weird so I better explain. Sometimes, when my students are being either particularly turd-like or lazy, I take them for a walk (like a three minute loop). Walking is shown to increase brain function, creativity, sociability, etc., and frankly, sometimes it’s simply helpful to do something—anything—to disrupt a bad classroom dynamic—
—anyway, my students in 3rd and 4th period had become particularly attached to going for walks and had been asking for one everyday going on three weeks. Some of the kids just enjoyed the time outside, but I could see that in the others there was something else: they were reveling in apathy—gleefully relishing the fact that it took time out of class. Glorifying in the fact they weren’t learning.
As with most things, we love to bitch about teenagers (and millennials) for bad behavior—on their phones, bad mouthing friends, gossiping, driving like jerks—but if we’re honest, a lot of adults do the exact same stuff.
And what I realized that morning while driving to work was that this was also true of the reveling.
I’m not innocent. Most of us aren’t.
We eat, drink, party, watch sports, binge Netflix, and post photos of ourselves on social media doing all of the above, and half the time we aren’t present when we’re doing it because we’re on our goddamn phones. We repost and retweet kitchy memes about politics or passive aggressive takes on the opposite sex or pictures of our kids or cats or dogs, and then see how many likes we get. We make every excuse not to do productive things like reading books or giving blood or meeting our neighbors or reaching out to old friends in their time of need. But in the meantime we are entertained, gorging ourselves on screens and booze and food and hot takes and selfies and moral grandstanding. The absurd and outlandish have become mainstream and if you disagree look at the king who’s sitting in the White House.
And none of it matters. None of it. The banners and trophies and followers and groupies and fanfare and all the other transactional bullshit we expect for everything we do—it’s meaningless.
We aren’t solving problems or helping people.
We don’t have any real religious or spiritual values. Even a lot of the people who think they do, don’t.
No, our society isn’t wonderful or glorious, it’s just that a lot of us are rich enough to be comfortable—so we pretend it is: we pretend that all the photos and posts and victories by our favorite teams will add up to something that resembles a life well spent.
But it won’t. None of it will.
Because we’re reveling in apathy. Or if you want a more academic name we could call it hedonistic nihilism: a belief that nothing really matters but pleasure.
And if you want to know why people like Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, and Robin Williams commit suicide, or why some white male teenagers turn into maniacs who murder their classmates, or why opioids are killing so many rural Americans, or why so many of us have been treated for anxiety and/or depression, it seems to me that our shitty culture has a lot to do with it.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
No one forces us to spin our wheels on social media or swipe through dating apps or spend most of our waking life working so that we can buy shit we don’t need and the rest of it watching sports or “catching up” (as if it’s SO important) on Netflix.
And on their own none of those things is all that bad in small doses (although you know how I feel about swipe dating).
The problem is we don’t take them in small doses.
We heap them on like the greedy fat kid at the frozen yogurt store who’s “dessert” weighs 18 ounces and costs $10. Have you ever noticed how many people are on their phones while driving? I mean, we can’t even go from one place to the other without looking at a fucking screen—and again, I’m not claiming innocence.
So how do we stop?
By asking three questions. Full disclosure: they’re not my questions.
- What did you learn today?
- What did you do to help someone today?
- What are you grateful for?
Maybe that’s a start—simply asking ourselves these three questions each day. I mean, honestly, how many Americans read a book in the last year? You probably did, because you’re still reading this, but a huge portion of our population didn’t—it’s actually likely that many of our fellow citizens never read anything, period.
That’s the first thing we can do: what did you learn today? Is learning something new a part of your daily practice, or something you put off to watch Netflix? I suppose some of the better television shows and movies sort of count, but watching something passively is the laziest kind of learning there is. So…
Read a book.
Take a class at the community college.
Learn a craft.
One of the greatest things that happened to me post divorce is that I couldn’t afford cable. I have a TV and a DVD player for movies, but no television—not even a Netflix account.
And I’m fine. Better, actually, because now I just read, write, workout, or go out and meet people.
Next: what did you do to help someone today?
If you’re a parent, yes your kids count, but it shouldn’t stop there. And if you’re not you’ve got absolutely no excuse. What does helping someone look like?
Maybe it’s giving a homeless person some food, or a coat. It could be as simple as helping an elderly person unload groceries or lending your neighbor the lawnmower. The other day I brought a coworker her coffee of choice because she was having a bad week.
Other options: coach a youth sports team, volunteer once a month at a local charity, give blood, start a recycling program, fundraise for a cause near and dear to your heart. And I know many of you do, but I also know that most Americans don’t.
Indeed in a recent study, psychologists measured how people pursue happiness in several countries, including China, Russia, Brazil, and the U.S. Not surprisingly, most everyone became happier—in the other countries. However, in the U.S., when people tried to make themselves happier, they actually became less happy.
What the researchers found was that in other countries people reached out to their communities and/or did things for other people to become happy. And it worked. But in the U.S. we interpret happiness as an individual accomplishment, so people here just did things for themselves, which doesn’t work, especially when doing things for ourselves means buying things.
What does work is helping people, something we all can and should do more of.
Finally: what are you thankful for?
We spend a lot of time whining on social media, complaining, and being critical—which is necessary and again, I’m not claiming innocence—but how often do we express thankfulness, gratitude, and love without expecting something in return?
It could be something as simple as telling your spouse or partner you love them or surprising them with dinner or a gift. It could be reaching out to a teacher who inspired you or an old teammate or a coworker. Hell, if you spend a lot of time on social media, like and share people’s stuff—trust me, it feels good when that happens. Additionally, a thank you coffee or beer goes a long way towards spreading the love, and that act of kindness—of gratitude—echoes through the world, because that person, feeling appreciated, will do good things with it.
“The things you own end up owning you. It’s only after you lose everything that you’re free to do anything.”
—Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
Our culture has garbage values. We think happiness is the accumulation of possessions and people and accomplishments, but it’s not.
That’s consumption, not happiness.
I lived the greatest year of my life last year, and that included tearing my patella tendon and getting divorced and living in a crummy apartment. I was at rock bottom. I owned nothing but some old furniture and my student debt.
But goddamn it: I was free.
I didn’t have anyone telling me how to live and for once I wasn’t a slave to the popularity contest we’ve all been playing since high school—maybe even middle school. I wrote a novel (working on the edits now), got a short story published, redesigned my website, acquired a copy editor and a developmental editor, met a lot of powerful, beautiful women, and spent as much time as I could with my son and old friends I’d neglected while married. I read more than 20 books, lost 60 lbs, partook in a fundraiser for a battered women’s shelter (thank you Kat!), and am planning one of my own in the future for suicide prevention.
I’m not rich. My life isn’t perfect. I have the same problems a lot of people do and I certainly don’t have all the answers. I don’t have a girlfriend. I don’t own a house. I don’t even have a goddamn dog.
But I know the difference between reveling in apathy and living with a purpose.
And that, as Robert Frost famously wrote, has made all the difference.