Tag Archives: Human experience

What Matters More Than Your Relationships?

the most important things are not things

(Image/esterpartegas.com)

As a child dreaming about the future, I imagined myself in life scenarios I believed would make me happy.

I dreamed of being an adult. Independent! Freedom to do whatever I want with my own money! I thought going to a job and being paid for my time would be better than going to school and hanging out with my friends every day. I thought having my own house would be better than living with adults who could restrict my choices. I thought having my own money would be better than my parents financially fulfilling life needs and occasionally just giving me some.

I dreamed of owning a big house. I won’t even want to go on vacation if I live in paradise every day! I didn’t know I was hopelessly incapable of keeping even an average-sized three-bedroom house clean and properly maintained on my own. I didn’t know about hedonic adaptation, and how we all adjust to every positive life change over time, and then it stops feeling as awesome as when it first happened or something was new. I didn’t know that could also happen to rich people who could buy anything they wanted.

I dreamed of fun things like having season tickets to all of my favorite Cleveland pro sports teams. I can go to every game! Awesome! I didn’t know how much I wouldn’t like hunting for parking spots downtown, or sitting outside in the cold for hours, or how watching games at home in 2016 would in many ways be a superior experience to driving to the stadium or arena; nor did I know how much my emotional attachment to my favorite teams would fade as life introduced me to new things to care about.

Some People Think Relationship Stuff is Dumb

They don’t care. It’s simply not on their radar.

I was out with friends recently. We were kicking around some important relationship ideas over beer and food when Jeff sitting to my left used a pause in the conversation to ask Ryan for his thoughts on the Batman v Superman movie. We all laughed and joked about Jeff’s less-than-subtle conversation pivot to something which didn’t bore him to death. But move on to comic-book movie discussion, we did.

One thought stuck with me: If Jeff’s wife ever decides to divorce him, he’s probably going to care so much more about the conversation we just had than he will about movies.

My divorce not only put me on the path to understanding how common human behavior leads people who were once in love to dislike each another so much that they’re willing to go through life’s second-most stressful event (according to the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale) in order to get away from their spouse; but also helped me achieve what I feel is a more appropriate and healthy perspective on life—one which prioritizes THINGS THAT MATTER.

Everyone will decide for themselves what matters to them. There are no universally right or wrong answers.

But there is strong evidence that most people are incorrect in their guesses about what will make them happy, and that elderly people who die slowly but alertly on their proverbial deathbeds express many of the same thoughts and regrets in their final hours of self-reflection.

How to Live a Regret-Free Life

A Hospice nurse interviewed several dying patients in an effort to compile commonly shared wisdom about how to live a life free of regret. Money, Career, Fame, Big houses, and Cheap sex were all conspicuously absent from the list, which actually looked like this:

1Live a life true to yourself; not the life others expect of you.

2. Don’t work so hard.

3. Express your feelings courageously.

4. Stay connected to friends.

5. Give yourself permission to choose happiness.

Perspective is really important.

That guy who just cut you off dangerously and rudely in traffic is a huge asshole who needs to learn how to drive, UNLESS we later discover he was rushing to a nearby hospital because his small child was undergoing emergency surgery and he didn’t know whether his little son or daughter would live or die.

When I was in my late teens and 20s, I despised “little-kid” things. Like Barney or The Wiggles or going to some elementary school performance where a bunch of kids who don’t know how to keep their shirts tucked in properly and are objectively terrible at singing and dancing are supposed to entertain me by singing and dancing.

You suck, little kids!, the younger me thought.

But then I became a dad. And watching his favorite kids’ shows is now (usually) a fun thing to do. Attending his little-kid school performances is (always) an absolute must.

Perspective.

Interview a hundred men and ask them what they want out of life, and a common refrain will be: “Success.”

Ask them to define Success, and you’ll get a bunch of different answers. I won’t pretend to know how other guys define it. I only know that it’s common to observe in men the tendency to avoid any activity or situation in which he perceives a high probability of failure—like how I’m afraid to go skiing in front of a bunch of strangers, or to play in a golf tournament if I don’t know what to expect from my swing after not playing for a while.

This Men Avoid Failure Thing is important in the context of a man’s marriage or dating relationships. Men often withdraw and/or actively avoid conflict in their relationships. We do this because our experience has taught us that we cannot succeed by having the hard relationship conversations. (Not because it’s not possible, but usually because we’re unskilled communicators lacking profoundly in the empathy department, so we just keep having the same fight over and over.)

Maybe that’s not just a guy thing. I don’t know.

Our Relationships Matter Most

I’ve written it a hundred times: I BROKE after divorce.

My head and body physically hurt. There was chest tightness and constant feelings of stress and anxiety that never really went away unless I was asleep or intoxicated. When I slept, I had bad dreams. When I drank, I blabbed constantly about divorce to both friends and strangers, and probably made everyone uncomfortable.

When your mind and body betray you every second of every day, NOTHING in life is good.

Work sucks. Parties suck. Dating sucks. Even spending time with your child sucks because it’s a constant reminder of your failings and the undeserved life sentence you just gave him.

Until I felt how true misery poisons, or at least clouds, every life experience, I never truly realized the importance of Mental, Physical, Spiritual, and Emotional health like I do now.

Mental health and addiction are huge factors in accidental deaths and suicides, and I’m woefully ignorant about and unqualified to discuss them.

But assuming some of these people took their own lives to simply get rid of the hurt, I think it’s a worthwhile exercise to realize that people who “succeed” and who are “loved” and who experience great fame and fortune and accolades ARE JUST LIKE US. Many of them had everything marked off on the Things I Believe Will Make Me Happy checklists shared by so many of us. But for reasons we can’t fully understand, they were so miserable they intentionally killed themselves or consumed enough drugs to end their lives.

Robin Williams. Philip Seymour Hoffman. Whitney Houston. Heath Ledger. Kurt Cobain. Hunter S. Thompson. Tony Scott. Ernest Hemingway. Marilyn Monroe. Junior Seau. Don Cornelius.

It’s staggering.

Until I first experienced true isolation, I never truly understood the critical role our human relationships play in our overall life experience. I’d taken it for granted every day because I’d always had it. In the context of our earthly lives, nothing is more important. You know it when it’s gone.

Perspective.

We neglect our intimate relationships and our families and our friendships in pursuit of “succeeding” at other things. Our jobs. Our hobbies. Our competitions.

And then sometimes we “succeed,” but no one’s around to share the success with.

And then sometimes we get old and die, lonely and afraid.

And perhaps all because of something as sneakily simple as HOW we thought about our relationships and what the word “success” really means.

Like many previous life lessons, it was one I had to learn the hard way. Maybe some others won’t have to.

Because it’s never too late to put our focus over there instead of over here.

Maybe that’s where we’ll find what we’re looking for.

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The Human Experience

(Image courtesy of sacredspacevillage.org)

(Image courtesy of sacredspacevillage.org)

I want to have sex with her. But I’m also afraid she’ll think I’m no good at it and tell all her friends. Or that I’ll get performance anxiety and FML. Or that we’ll do it and it will be great, but my Catholic guilt will set in because maybe God doesn’t want me doing this and now I’m a bad person.

I want to look and feel really good and be healthy. But I’m so tired and I’ll never feel good without adequate sleep, so I’ll skip this morning’s workout. And I don’t have time to go to the store right now for fresh produce, so I’ll just order a pizza. And Easter candy tastes good. And a couple beers can’t hurt.

I want to never stress about money again and I want to maximize my personal income. But I don’t have time to budget right now. And it’s fine that I eat out all the time because I’m spending less money at the grocery store. And I can always work on that thing that might make me more money tomorrow.

There’s always an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other.

There’s always a yin and a yang.

There’s always a tradeoff or compromise that needs made.

I was an only child.

I was really good at entertaining myself. I always enjoyed books and movies and video games, and I had a great imagination and could have fun alone.

I also loved going to play with my friends. There’s nothing I enjoyed more than laughing and playing and having fun with other kids.

But sometimes, I had to compromise because I was at their house and needed to go along to get along. Sometimes, all of my friends didn’t do what I wanted to do, and maybe we had fun anyway, but maybe sometimes I didn’t because their idea might have been crappier than mine.

Sometimes friends would be at my house and it would be great, but then at some point, they were infringing on my time and space and I didn’t really mind when they left because then I could do whatever I wanted again.

Of course, at some point, I always missed them and wanted them to come back.

I got laid off from my job on Jan. 1, 2010 somewhat unexpectedly, and prior to my divorce, that was easily the most difficult thing that ever happened to me.

Not having a job when you want one is hard. You lose self-confidence. Your shame level increases. Your wife starts thinking you’re pathetic. Your friends probably do, too, but they never say so because they’re your friends.

I’ve always liked my jobs in the context of “having to go to work.” Some people have to stand in front of machines or do really hard manual labor or clean up poop and pee all day.

I’ve always been paid to write stories. Regardless, going to work is a drag when you don’t really want to. I like writing stories, but I don’t always like writing stories in this specific location at this specific time and about this specific subject. I don’t always like doing what other people tell me to do.

But then one day, I was 30 and unemployed, and it lasted 18 months and I was totally miserable, not counting the valuable time I had with my son at home.

I will NEVER take my job for granted again!, I vowed.

But four years later, I pretty much take my job for granted and wish I didn’t have to sit in a cubicle all day.

Being single again and not in constant emotional agony has been an interesting experience.

Like with pretty much everything in life, there are things about it that are good, and parts that aren’t so good.

I’m a little bit like that only child again. I have a lot of freedom to do what I want, when I want.

And that’s good! I still have a good imagination, and I’m still capable of entertaining myself.

But you get lonely, too.

And I don’t mean Boo-freaking-hoo, I’m lonely and crying on the couch. I’m not doing that. But sometimes, you’re watching a ball game or a movie or reading a book while your son is asleep upstairs at 9:15 p.m. on Friday, and you think: Hmm. Life sure would be better right now if I had someone to spend this time with.

Do I crave conversation? Yes.

Physical intimacy? Of course.

Shared experiences? Best way to build connections.

But then I wonder if maybe she is around whether I’ll secretly wish she would just go home sometimes like I did back when a friend maybe annoyed me while playing in the backyard or on my bedroom floor.

I loved my wife very much. I was a lousy husband when I declined invitations to go to bed, or ignored her in favor of online poker or 24 marathons on Netflix, or because I was more interested in Monday Night Football. But I did love the woman in the same way I feel love about my family members and close friends.

And I was still capable of making her sad and miserable by intentionally choosing to do things that I wanted to do.

We’re capable of terrible things.

It’s okay to be selfish when you’re single. I need to be unselfish for my son, of course, but in the context of adult romantic relationships, I can do whatever I want and needn’t feel the least bit guilty about it.

And I guess that’s nice.

But we’re humans and we crave connection. I don’t mean crave like I really want it!

I mean crave, like we really need it.

We all want to be a part of something. To connect mentally, emotionally, spiritually with like-minded people and groups to achieve some end.

It’s why you buy the products you do. It’s why you live in the neighborhood you live in. It’s why you work where you do. It’s why you’re involved in your various hobbies and social groups and team sports and churches and relationships.

But it’s not okay to be selfish when you’re a couple. When you’re part of something greater than yourself. I know this as well as or better than most.

What if I’m always that selfish only child who doesn’t always like to share?

Of course I crave it now.

I don’t have it.

We always want what we don’t or can’t have.

But I’ll probably have it someday.

And what then? When the shiny newness is gone? When I think a quiet Friday night with my son sleeping upstairs and a book or movie alone is sounding pretty good?

I want her.

But I’m afraid of her.

I want it.

But what if I don’t always?

I want everything that I don’t have because that’s what’s missing! and if we fill the voids then we can finally be happy!!!

I think maybe we’re all a little bit broken on the inside. And I think that brokenness keeps us constantly filling “voids” only to discover that something’s missing feeling never actually goes away.

I am selfish.

I want, want, want.

Me, me, me.

“It’s always about what Matt wants,” she often said. The truth hurts.

The common denominator in all of my life pursuits that never ultimately brought me satisfaction is that I wanted things, acquired them, and still felt dissatisfied.

The common thread was selfishness. I want more.

Over and over again. Rinse, wash, repeat. I want. I need. Give me.

And it hasn’t worked yet. Not one time in 36 years.

Hmm.

What if we tried giving?

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