An Obvious, Not-Obvious Thing

I think I was 20 or so when I first thought to myself, “The first step in growing up is realizing that you’re still a kid” or something like that.

Even at the time, that seemed very obviously like a Step Zero kind of idea: like, not even Step One in the actual program of working on the thing, but the step that makes you realize there’s a thing to maybe work on in the first place[1].

  1. … Though, in fact, I’m not at all enamoured with the idea of growing up for its own sake, and never have been. More on that later, ! maybe?

At the time I was still rather blindly invested in the idea of myself as being mature-beyond-my-years. That was a problem because, in fact, I wasn’t so much preternaturally mature as developmentally delayed in a way that completely hoses up the cultural signals of maturity.

Look past the Sexy Accountant Glasses and air of composure. Remind yourself that a fully-qualified adult would probably be wearing a shirt.

Like: it’s hard to get in trouble by doing stupid things with your friends when you don’t have any friends. Not getting in trouble can make it seem like you’re making good choices, when in fact you just haven’t had to make those choices in the first place.

It’s easy to follow the rules when you’re developmentally still at a stage in which you actually really like rules. This can make it seem like you’re a mature and prudent individual with clear foresight when, once again, you might not actually be equipped to make prudent decisions or be at all good at figuring out how your immediate actions might impact your long-term outcomes.

It’s easy to sound like an old soul when you basically learned how humans talk by reading books written by people who died a hundred years ago (and let’s not forget the social weirdness of growing up in the ur-nerdy, monomaniacal worlds of ballet and classical music, in which children tend to behave almost as if they come from another time, because the culture of the artform selects for a kind of old-world obedience). None of those things mean you have any idea how to have adult relationships.

Anyway!

When an actual 8- or 10-year old comes across that way, we assume that—appearances notwithstanding—they’re still not yet in a place, developmentally, that qualifies them to march forth into the adult world and, like, provide for themselves, navigate complex adult relationships, and … all that stuff.

When someone who’s 18 or 20 comes across that way, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Things Aren’t Always As They Appear. Instead, we congratulate them for their apparent maturity and are then flabbergasted when they make a disastrous hash of actually Adulting.

This can be just as true when the person in question is yourself. It can be hard to see our own deficiencies. We are, by nature, standing too close, so to speak.

Is there a better analogy for the process of trying to adult than someone (okay, me) decked out in a crown, a regal jacket, plaid jogger-style pajama bottoms, and moon boots?

Which brings me to The Obvious, Not-Obvious Thing.

I have spent a huge chunk of my life trying to prove that I could Live A Normal Life Despite My Differences/Disabilities, without understanding that simply acting as if they didn’t exist was, perhaps, not the best strategy. (Okay, full disclosure: I still do this on the regs. Long-established habits take time to change.)

As a result, I’ve basically lived a life in which I’m constantly angry at myself for the mentaphorical equivalent of failing to make it up the stairs in a wheelchair when there’s a ramp RIGHT HECKING THERE, for G-d’s sake[2]. Or, at least, there’s an easy enough way to add one.

  1. Caveat: there are, of course, still many, many situations in which there is neither a literal nor a metaphorical ramp. The fact that the culture at large behaves as if people with disabilities are failures in those situations is another post entirely, and one that lots of people have written better than I might. Likewise, deciding to climb the stairs in your wheelchair because you actually want to is a totally valid pursuit.

Anyway, lately (and belatedly, given that anyone who’s spent more than two minutes around Buddhism should hecking well know better, but there I go becoming attached to a concept again—specifically one about how I should or shouldn’t learn, which seems hilariously apropos), it has begun to occur to me to forgive myself, as it were, for being what I am.

Like … I might be able, with immense effort, to change some of these things to some extent—but why do that when there are other ways to reach the same goals? And why be mad at myself when I struggle? It’s not like being mad actually helps (in this circumstance).

In other words, it has begun to occur to me that instead of continuing to ram my metaphorical wheelchair into the stairs and be angry at myself for failing to climb, I can accept the metaphorical wheelchair situation and, like, add metaphorical ramps instead. (This seems relevant to this year’s intention, “Ask for help.”)

It has begun to occur to me that instead of fighting to change some of the limitations (for lack of a better word) that my brain imposes, I can accept that they’re there and figure out how to work with them—to harness them where it’s possible and to accommodate them where it’s not.

I guess I used to assume (albeit unconsciously) that I would “grow out of” things—that one day I’d learn how to do things the “normal” way (which is difficult enough for “normal” people, come to think of it) and … that would be that, I guess?

It’s not an unreasonable hypothesis—after all, at one point, I didn’t know how to tie my shoes, and then I figured it out and now it’s automatic.

Or, possibly, I’ve just engineered a life in which I never actually have to tie my shoes, because I never have to wear shoes that tie.

It is, however, an incomplete hypothesis, or maybe a complete one that I’ve overgeneralized. (Teaching has been helpful, I think: it’s made the idea of different people having different strengths and weaknesses real to me in a way that it wasn’t before.)

In the past, for example, whenever I figured out a way to actually get myself to sleep in an almost-normal pattern, I I would simultaneously feel pleased with myself (This is it! I’m finally doing it!) and incredibly anxious (But what if something happens and I can’t sustain it?). I would cling white-knuckled to the System I’d devised. Then I’d be terribly disappointed when, inevitably, something interrupted the System and my brain happily reverted to its night-owl default because, yooooo, chronotypes are a thing.

I felt this way despite understanding that last point (chronotypes are a thing, though they tend to wander a bit over the course of our lives and we can force ourselves, with effort and routine, to live contrarily to them).

Actual footage of me during the hours that many pundits claim are somehow magically the Universal Best Hours (spoiler alert: they’re not; it’s really more about finding the hours that are magically The Best for you)

It takes several weeks to condition myself to sleep on a different cycle than the one my brain wants, but only about two nights off-pattern to reset back to square one. This is frustrating, obviously—but it doesn’t have to feel like a disaster.

I can remind myself that stressing out about it only makes things harder, and that while more than a few nights in a row of sleep deprivation can have dangerous consequences for my mental health, I now know how to combine a handful of tools (strict sleep hygiene, medication, and sheer physical exhaustion) to make myself sleep. Ideally, I should actually apply them before sleep-deprivation-induced mania takes hold, but even if it reaches that point, I now have the safety nets in place to prevent actual disaster.

In short, I’ve learned to tell myself, “It’s going to be okay” and believe it.

And though I’ve been reading and hearing about it for years, only recently did I develop the ability to apply a measure of radical acceptance. Like, how hard can it be to say, “Ah! I’ve managed to get to sleep by 1 AM and wake up by 9 AM for three days running. That’s convenient,” without feeling like THIS IS IT! I’M FINALLY DOING IT! or freaking out when, inevitably, I don’t get to sleep until 4 AM at some point?

Really hard, apparently.

But I’m learning to both say and feel, “It was handy to be awake by 9 AM and well-rested for a few days, but it’s no big deal that it didn’t work out today.” (Admittedly, it would be harder to do that if the company weren’t on hiatus. But we are, so I might as well work on developing this skill while sleep-scheduling demands are still on easy mode.)

I can also be fine with understanding, for example, that I’m not good at the kind of abstract planning that Adulting requires, or at managing money (or literally anything else) unless I keep things very simple, or at making phone calls (I joke about this all the time, but I also spend a lot of time being annoyed with myself about it). And being fine with understanding those things could help a lot.

Like, it turns out that when you stop being mad at yourself, it actually really is easier to start looking for ways to approach problems and get stuff done, just like everybody has been saying since forever.

Is this the face of serenity, or is The Buddha like #smdh

So, basically, my current hypothesis is this:

Why not accept that what I am and where I am right now and begin working on building ramps so I can live without constantly feeling like I’m fighting an uphill battle?

I’ve also only just kind of realized that “accepting what I am right now” is different than “clinging to an idea of What I Am.” The first option leaves room for change and, frankly, for just being wrong. I might not actually understand all that well “what I am right now,” but if I accept that I can try different strategies until I find one that works, then it doesn’t really matter that much anyway.

If I can fail without getting angry at myself—that is, without judging myself—it’s not actually that hard to try again, or try something else, or to allow myself to rest before trying something else, or, you know, whatever.

And maybe I can even learn that it’s okay to fail. We can’t all be great at everything, and the world would be boring (and I wouldn’t have a job as a dancer, probably) if we were.

About asher

Me in a nutshell: Standard uptight ballet boy. Trapeze junkie. Half-baked choreographer. Budding researcher. Transit cyclist. Terrible homemaker. Neuro-atypical. Fabulous. Married to a very patient man. Bachelor of Science in Psychology (2015). Proto-foodie, but lazy about it. Cat owner ... or, should I say, cat own-ee? ... dog lover. Equestrian.

Posted on 2021/01/29, in adhd, adulting, ballet-adjacent, balllet, it is a silly place, it's neuroscience!, life, life management, mental health and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Dammit. Since seeing this post I’ve been looking for a piece I recently read by a philosopher-psychologist who talks about the need to avoid letting “the problem become the problem” and illustrating it with his own struggles with insomnia. So I’m gonna have to make a hash of trying to summarise him.

    Basically he eventually came to realise that his efforts to overcome his insomnia and – more importantly – his attachment to the outcomes of those efforts was aggravating his insomnia. He was basically so invested in ‘successful sleeping’ it was stopping him from sleeping. By coming to accept that he won’t always get a good night’s sleep (while still practicing good sleep hygiene of course) he was able to both improve his sleeping and make his sleepless nights more bearable.

    But the wider point he was making was that by applying acceptance to problems even as you try to overcome them you’re in a win-win. You’re likely to have greater success while growing your capacity to deal with failure. I guess the key is equanimity,

    I think when you talk about ‘adulting’ you’re generally talking about meeting what you imagine to be your responsibilities as a grown up. But as a Buddhist I’m sure you also appreciate the value of a beginner’s mind. I think there’s a lot of things it’s better not to grow up about.

    I’m having my own practice of radical acceptance put to the test lately. Some of it is holding up really well. Other bits not so much. The latter seem mostly to do with my notions of responsibility – especially as it pertains to my concept of love. I don’t know I’m ready to give up on love so I think the way forward for me has got to be to find a way to accept failures to meet the responsibilities I associate with love without feeling it as tantamount to betrayal. Or without abrogating the responsibility. I’m working on it.

    As far as practice goes I think vipassana has been what helps most with equanimity. Conceptually, anatta has been the big one for acceptance, though calling it a concept is kinda misleading. You’ve got to get it more viscerally and less abstractly than that. There’s no ‘being myself’. There’s not even ‘being’ really. Just becoming.

    • Gahhhh … I had just written a reply to this, and my browser ate it -.-

      Anyway, I think I’ve read the article in question, or at least a related article, and it’s actually been helpful in my own struggles with insomnia.

      “I think when you talk about ‘adulting’ you’re generally talking about meeting what you imagine to be your responsibilities as a grown up. But as a Buddhist I’m sure you also appreciate the value of a beginner’s mind. I think there’s a lot of things it’s better not to grow up about.”

      This is so true … and, honestly, I’ve always felt that growing up was overrated anyway. Makes me pause to reflect on the fact that my concern about adulting is, once again, largely about being hung up on outcomes–like, mostly from a place of fear. I’m afraid on some level that if I don’t get better at adulting, I will eventually wind up in difficult conditions because I won’t be able to keep a roof over my head someday. I forget that it is possible to live simply without much money, and that during the phase of my life that I would describe as best meeting those conditions, I was very content with where I lived and how I lived, and that it doesn’t make any sense to worry anyway.

      Like, we can’t control outcomes anyway, so it doesn’t make sense to keep mentally living in the future and stressing out about it. It makes sense to be here, now.

      WRT radical acceptance and love … that seems like one of the hardest places to put it into practice. Working on it seems like a sound approach.

      “As far as practice goes I think vipassana has been what helps most with equanimity. Conceptually, anatta has been the big one for acceptance, though calling it a concept is kinda misleading. You’ve got to get it more viscerally and less abstractly than that.”

      These are things I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. I’m beginning to understand that it’s a process. You don’t “get it” and then “have it.” You just keep getting it, little by little. I guess that’s a part of the “no being, just becoming” thing (which, thank you for those words; I needed them).

      A funny aside: according to a handful of former co-workers of mine who were born in India, one of my given names is from Marathi and means, among other things, “Equanimity.” It is, predictably, the name I’m least likely to use in any given context–partly because almost everyone butchers the pronunciation (which shouldn’t matter, I realize, but the combination of sounds that tends to result just drives me batty), but if I’m thoroughly honest with myself, also because I don’t feel entirely connected to the name in question. It’s not that it doesn’t feel “like me,” but perhaps on a visceral level maybe it reminds me that equanimity is a struggle for me (though, maybe, if I stop being so narrowly focused, I might realize that everyone does to some extent?). That’s pure conjecture–like, I honestly don’t really know what’s up there–but it kind of reminds me of the idea that when there’s a type of animal you’re particularly afraid of, maybe you have something to learn from that type of animal. If this name that means “equanimity” makes me uncomfortable, perhaps it’s to remind me to work towards equanimity.

      Or maybe it really is that I just think the way people mispronounce it sounds like nails on a chalkboard, idk.

      Anyway. Thank you for all of this. For all your words in general. I’m kind of at this point of feeling like maybe it wouldn’t hurt to try again to actually conscious practice Buddhism (as opposed to what I’m doing now, which is just kind of like, stumbling over the seeds of practice that are in there, patiently existing). Rather hilariously, I’m afraid to try to actually consciously practice because I’m afraid I won’t stick with it. That seems like the dumbest possible reason to avoid Buddhist practice, of all things ^-^

      But there it is. I’m too busy being attached to my self and judging that self, and getting in the way of practicing the path that would help me learn how to let go of that self.

      I will say that I think those seeds are kind of sprouting–like, I think bits of understanding have percolated up here and there–but I think also I have a long way to go before I really grok this thing. But then, beginner’s mind again, eh? It is good to be a beginner. That’s the first thing I’m trying to grok.

  2. This can make it seem like you’re a mature and prudent individual with clear foresight when, once again, you might not actually be equipped to make prudent decisions or be at all good at figuring out how your immediate actions might impact your long-term outcomes.

    This sounds a little like the conceit of consequentialism to me.

    Fact is every decision you make sprays out an ever branching tree of consequences that goes on forever (or at least until entropy erodes them away). There is always going to be a longer term outcome as well as loads of incidental outcomes you’ll never be able to anticipate.

    There’s a Chinese proverb about luck that I think applies equally well to the idea of consequentialist evaluation of decisions.

    I’m not saying you need to disregard consequences when making decisions or that experiencing consequences has nothing to teach you. Only that you shouldn’t evaluate your decisions from their outcomes.

    “You have the right to work, but for the work’s sake only. You have no right to the fruits of work. Desire for the fruits of work must never be your motive in working. Never give way to laziness, either.
    Perform every action with you heart fixed on the Supreme Lord. Renounce attachment to the fruits. Be even-tempered in success and failure: for it is this evenness of temper which is meant by yoga.
    Work done with anxiety about results is far inferior to work done without such anxiety, in the calm of self-surrender. Seek refuge in the knowledge of Brahma. They who work selfishly for results are miserable.”
    ― Bhagavad Gita

    • I’ve been meaning to reply to this forever, bc tbh this comment is such a good reminder and so immensely helpful.

      Like, honestly, one of the things that drives me crazy about mainstream Christianity, at least in the US, is that it’s not about doing the thing for the sake of the thing; it’s about trying to get to Heaven … though, obviously, like most people, having grown up in a culture that teaches everyone to be goal-oriented, I fall into that way of thinking sometimes (almost certainly more often than I realize). And when I first started trying to practice Zen, I think it was as much about trying to be a person I thought I wanted to be, which is probably where a lot of people start, but which is also completely bass-ackwards (I know … you start where you start, of course). I thought I was doing the thing to do the thing, but I was doing the thing with a specific end in mind, even if I told myself otherwise. I think that’s part of why my relationship with Zen has been so on-again, off-again (on my end: I’ve noticed that once any part of it gets into you, it’s always there, quietly existing).

      “There is always going to be a longer term outcome as well as loads of incidental outcomes you’ll never be able to anticipate.”

      ^This is a thing I really needed to hear. So many thanks ❤

      You probably already see it, but of course that's where I get paralyzed sometimes.

      Like right now, in fact–I'm contemplating an audition instead of just *doing* the audition bc getting the job would mean making huge changes to my life. I'm getting hung up on trying to parse out the ramifications, which is putting the cart before the horse. Really I should just do the audition, because if i get the job, I can think about that then, and getting the job doesn't obligate me to *take* the job. It's worth doing in its own right, regardless of the outcome.

      Like, the basic possible outcomes are:

    • I don’t get the job
    • I get the job and don’t take it
    • I get the job and take it
    • At this point in the process, it doesn’t make sense to think further than that.

      This is where it would be a good idea to approach life like I approach dance (or well, not always, but usually). Though I don’t think it probably looks this way from the way I write about it here, when I dance, I dance for the sake of dance. The result that dancing improves my skill as a dancer, or whatever, is incidental. I’m still learning to move from the experience of intellectually knowing about the practice of being in each moment for its own sake to actually grokking it and actually living it.

      Lots of room for practice. I guess that’s a good thing 🙂

  • 5 months short of 80, and still not sure I get what this “adulting” things is, and fear it’s probably too late for me.

    • I’m pretty sure that “adulting” isn’t the thing that really matters anyway ^-^ Fortunately, I’ve got a long time to test that hypothesis!

  • It’s worth doing in its own right, regardless of the outcome.

    Exactly. You love dance, right? You don’t need judges or audiences, especially not yourself. Just dance for the dance.

    I think you’re particularly fortunate in your calling. Dance is more than just a metaphor for life. Bring it into everything you do. Even when you can’t dance you’ll still be dancing.

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