The Best Life Lesson I Ever Learned

On the surface, it seems so simple, but in reality it’s perhaps the hardest thing a person can do for the sake of another.

I had to be in about eighth grade or so when my English teacher handed out copies of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, and I’m sure I joined in my classmates’ groans of dread and consternation about having to read yet another book I probably wasn’t going to give the least bit of a damn about.

Editorial Note: Looking back, I find it somewhat amusing that I ended up finding two of my all-time favorite books, being Mockingbird and The Great Gatsby during this time. It wasn’t until I got to high school and was forced to slog through Isaac Asimov’s abysmally glacial space opera Foundation and Empire that I became more combative with my English teachers when it came to required reading material.

I had no expectations of even liking Ms. Lee’s first novel when I cracked it open. To be honest, were it not for the fact that I had a grade riding on it, I’d have probably just ignored it and continued to procrastinate with my video games and other welcome distractions I had at the time.

For whatever reason, though, that didn’t happen, which I suppose is a testament to not only the story Lee was telling, but also her ability as a writer to craft an opening that draws the reader in with enough interested curiosity to keep turning page after page. I’ve gone on to read a great many books over the years and one of the things I’ve found is a great many writers (including myself, I’m sure) haven’t figured that crucial element of writing out.

Considering we’re seeing the world of Mockingbird from the perspective of a narrator who’s harking back to her own fledgling adolescence, I know that made it much more accessible for kids like me, even though we were decades removed from the same time period.

For me, the genius in what Lee accomplished isn’t that she gave us a fundamental lesson to consider. An innumerable amount of authors have done and continue to that all the time. What sets her apart is she managed to present it in the first act of Mockingbird and all Atticus Finch needed was two paragraphs to outline it.

Living in the postmodern era of movies and sitcom-TV, the formula is tried and tested. Tell the story, reach the climax, and save the pontificating on what you’re supposed to learn and how to live your life for the denouement.

Lee went the opposite way and not only gives it to the reader upfront, but doesn’t waste time beating you over the head with it either. A person can pick up a copy of the Bible or some other moralistic and philosophical text and be bombarded with chapter and verse of how we’re supposed to conduct ourselves in regards to one another. Mockingbird has none of that.

Atticus conveys his message to his daughter in fewer than 50 words, without being condescending or pretentious, which I think is a big reason why it resonated so much with me at a time where I wasn’t willing to see things from any other point of view but my own.

What I didn’t understand back then was how a work of fiction could have a lasting impact on a person. Subconsciously, I took that lesson to heart because it managed to resonate in ways I couldn’t anticipate. At the time, I was still very naive and very angry about being shipped to the West Coast and not only did I not want to be here, I had no interest in relating to anyone.

It wasn’t until I began to practice empathy that I realized how powerful a tool it can be. To be able to step outside of my own prejudices and biases and assumptions and presumptions about a person or a group of people and consider things, even for a minute, from their perspective…?

All the years I spent in churches and Catholic school never gave me that sort of insight, and it’s not always an easy thing to do either. In fact, I’ve found plenty of times where it’s the absolute last thing I want to do when being angry or obstinate just feels so much natural and justified a reaction.

Then there are times when I’d try it to better understand the position of someone who opted to bully and harass me and came away with a whole lot of confusion because I could never figure out why, for all the things they had that I didn’t, they chose to single me out as the outlet for their antagonism.

Editorial Note: I eventually reached the logical conclusion that they figured the privilege they were lucky enough to have been given afforded them some innate right to be such unconscionable assholes. And as I’ve discovered, there’s really no amount of empathy in the world to relate to that.

The older I get, the more examples I see of how much we don’t like being empathetic or compassionate to one another. As a society and culture, we seem to have become so polarized and so fragmented into our own little factions that to consider the perspective of someone else, even if they’re a close friend or even a spouse, is misconstrued as being one step from either capitulation, subjugation or outright treason.

In a time where everyone seems so quick to align themselves with the endless supply of -isms and ideologies that are butting heads with each other at all times, you would think we’d recognize it’s a lot better use of our collective time and energy to be open to those other perspectives and points of view.

Instead, we don’t and so the conflicts just keep getting bigger and more hostile.

I’m not placing myself above this, by the way. I’m not that sanctimonious.

But I keep hearing and seeing all the time about how hard the concept of adulting is, and how much both friends and strangers alike really don’t want to put in the effort to do it. Like it or not, a big part of adulting involves being empathetic and compassionate to other people, no matter how much you may despise or disagree with them.

It’s not easy, but it does work, and the best part is you’re never too old to start.

Mutual Disappointment Society

Disappointment IAs much as I love The Princess Bride for its seemingly infinite quotability, there’s one line I’ve often overlooked, but has become more prominent in my life with each passing day, week and year.

“Get used to disappointment.”

It’s nothing new or unexpected to any of us, even when we’re kids. My parents made a regular habit of reminding me of how imperfect the world both was and is, while at the same time lying to my face about how when I reached a certain age I would somehow become immune to said disappointment because I will have attained everything I could want, should I be willing to work for them.

So I did work for them, sometimes a lot harder than I should’ve have to by comparison to other people I know, and while they were able to reach their brass rings, I’ve continued to have mine dangled in front of me, only to be snatched away at the last second like Lucy pulling the football from good ol’ Charlie Brown.

When that happens, it becomes impossible to not become drenched in anything short of pure, unadulterated disappointment. And when those around you hear of it, it’s also natural to have a certain degree of sympathy or empathy afforded to you because no one likes seeing a friend or loved one end up on the short end of the stick.

Over the years, I’ve learned to develop a relatively simple coping mechanism to deal with these moments with the reply of four rather basic words:

I’m used to it.

None of them really like to hear that, but the fact remains if I earned a dollar for every time I’ve had to say those four words, I have a hunch my life would be a bit more profitable than it is at present.

Over the years, I’ve had a lot of people try to convince me that a large part of life comes in dealing with disappointment. After all, as both the people who seem to have everything and the social media masses who idolize and adore them love to pontificate, we are entitled to nothing.

Still, I find it ironically infuriating that many of those same people walk around everyday enjoying their own shares of entitlements and things they didn’t necessarily earn either…but they sure like to think and act like they did.

If my experiences have taught me anything, it’s a question of who’s going to prove more of a disappointment first, me or you?

Depending on who you ask like my family, my ex-wife and every other person whom I developed a strong emotional connection to, I have a hunch most of them will use the word disappointment to one degree or another because I didn’t manage to meet their expectations, no matter how steep they might’ve been.

And to be fair, I could respond in kind for similar reasons. I’ve been disappointed by some of the most important people in my life every bit as much as I’ve disappointed them.

Almost everything I’ve ever been passionate about from careers, to hobbies, to relationships and even little things I have no functional control over, have ended in disappointment.

Hell, the only time I went to Disney World, ended up being a massive letdown…and I didn’t think such things were possible, especially considering I was barely 10 at the time and way too young to be so cynical and downtrodden.

From the time we’re born, we’re all brainwashed to a certain degree that while bad things cannot always be avoided, there will always be a constant flow of good things to offset them. Those things don’t often come easily and we may have to break more than just our backs trying to make them happen, but somehow they always do manage to manifest themselves.

To me, that’s equation’s always seemed to function in the reverse, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel the effect of having to face a seemingly endless string of disappointments on multiple fronts.

Now the contrarian argument, I’m sure, would sound very much like my Inner Youth Sports Parent. Quit your bitchin’ already, suck it up and deal and just work harder because nobody owes you nothing. And people love to presume that I think I’m owed everything because my life has been considerably more difficult than the average one.

One of the fundamental lessons I have learned and carried with me is that disappointment is a constant that I always have to be prepared for, no matter the situation because for whatever reason, I know the odds are better than good of it ending up being the final outcome.

I can go down the list, moment by moment, where things I wanted so badly to happen, things that I know would’ve probably changed my life and the ways I view both the world and everyone who occupies it, ended in the exact same way.

Disappointment, because I was reminded how I was never good enough. Not for a job, a relationship, a friendship, a family, nothing, and it didn’t matter how hard I’d worked, the effort I showed, or the passion I had at the time.

As gut-wrenchingly, heart-stompingly bad as that feels both in the moment and afterwards, the worse part is having to deal with all the cheap excuses and condescending justifications for why I once again get to be the poor sucker who’s deemed undeserving or unworthy and someone else doesn’t.

Each time, it always led to me trying to figure out what I did wrong or could’ve done differently. What could I have done to meet those expectations or demands, no matter how impossible they may have been to meet? Why is the one thing I seem to do better than anything, is end up letting everyone down?

At the same time, it’s a matter of dealing with my own profound disappointment because every risk brings with it a certain degree of trust and hope that once you take that leap into the unknown, that someone is going to be there on the other side to make sure you land on your feet. It can be a parent, teacher, friend, lover, employer, and so on.

And should they choose to let you fall instead, the byproduct of that disappointment is the destruction of trust and the erosion of hope. You don’t take the same risks anymore. Most of the time you don’t even want to try anymore, because really, what’s the point of doing so?

You know what’s coming, so why think things will suddenly turn around now?

Eventually, you just learn how to live with it. You force yourself to accept that no matter what happens, even if you manage to somehow do everything exactly the way you’re expected to, you will disappoint them and they will disappoint you. You reach a point of understanding that we have an innate ability to break each others’ hearts with astounding regularity because that’s how life is somehow supposed to work.

Once that happens, it gets a little easier, as insanely odd as that may sound.

I’ve stopped investing so much of myself in the pursuit of goals and things I want to achieve. I’ve had to learn not to care so much about people, no matter how important they are to me. I learned to become a bit more guarded, to make my emotional armor that much thicker, because inevitably I know I will find myself in this same situation of knowing I let someone down and then they let me down.

I can’t recommend it as a way to get through every day, nor would I try to, but I guess for now, it works for me.

After all, I’m used to it.

Blame Game

Blame Game IThis is something I hear in one form or another just about every day.

The idea that good people supposedly never blame anyone else for anything while bad people appear to blame everyone for everything.

And yet, good people also shouldn’t blame themselves for everything that happens which is beyond their control, while bad people supposedly are expressly because they do precisely that.

Now I know math isn’t my strong-suit, but let me make sure I have this straight…

A good person never blames anyone for things they do, no matter how horrible or painful they might be, simply because you can’t control them, and yet you’re supposed to shoulder the responsibility of why such things occurred, which is just another way of saying you have to blame yourself…

…except for the fact that you’re not actually supposed to blame yourself either, but you still need to hold yourself accountable when things happen to you because you can’t blame anyone else for your particular lot in life, right?

So when it comes down to it, clearly you did something to warrant being treated like crap by another person or persons, but you can’t call them out it, because you’d be blaming them when you should be blaming yourself for being the problem, but that’s wrong again because you can’t be held entirely accountable for what other people choose to do in regards to you…

I’m sorry, but, what?!

In my entire life, this is something I’ve never been able to get a straight answer on. Not from therapists, doctors, logicians, philosophers, my parents, Ouija boards or even the oft-reliable pool hall oracle that is the Magic 8 Ball.

This possibly explains why the majority of those few people who make up my ever-dwindling social sphere have never been able to understand why I’ve long opted for the path of least resistance and simply taken all the blame on myself for why everything happens in my life.

“But hang on, Dev…,” I hear you saying. “How is it your fault when you can’t always control what other people are going to do or say or think or feel?”

To quote the philosopher Simpson, Au contraire, mon frere.

If conventional logic is to be believed, then I absolutely have full control over what everyone does around me because they respond to the stimulus I present them. Therefore, whatever those reactions are is the exact result of whatever action, inaction, thought, choice, words, feelings or other emotives I express in that moment.

So following that logic, the lion’s share of the blame is on me, because I acted in that way in that moment, which correlates into a situation where the only viable feedback is negative, even if the stimulus I present is both intended and presented as a positive.

For example, if I were to say something like, “You look very nice today.”

No matter how innocuous or genuine I present that observation, the overwhelming majority of the time, I’m made to feel like I’m in the wrong because clearly I am someone who had alternative agendas or attitudes, thereby making me the asshole, when my intent was to just be complimentary.

Editorial Note: For the record, this is why I haven’t offered such a compliment in about 20 years and likely won’t anytime soon, even though I’d really love to be able to because I truly don’t see the harm in it. Everyone needs that little boost of self-confidence and acknowledgment that their efforts to be presentable and even attractive, if that’s their ultimate aim, are noticed. Hell, even I do every so often. It doesn’t automatically mean I am seeking mandatory time in the sack, either. Honestly, sometimes a compliment is just a compliment with no strings attached. I promise such things do still exist.

And if that’s the case for making a casual observation in the spur of the moment, the degree of difficulty goes up immensely as the subject matter does.

Now before I go further, I want to be abundantly clear on this, okay? I know who I am.

I am a thin candy shell of ironic humor, occasional charm and extreme empathy coating a center of massively insecure, occasionally passive-aggressive, emotionally hypersensitive, intellectually stunted and ragingly socially awkward pain-in-the-ass who is capable of incredibly colossal fuck-ups which yield considerable collateral damage at all times.

You don’t have to worry. It’s been brought to my attention more than once, thank you.

That said, the majority of my experiences with people, from my own family on down to my ex-wife and every other woman I was ever interested in a possible relationship with, to teachers, bosses, co-workers and on down the line, have ended with about 99.9% regularity of me being told the exact same thing.

“You’re the problem, chief. Not me.”

And on those rare occasions where I had to end them, I always had to present it in the following way, even when I had no earthly business doing so, as to not hurt their feelings.

“I’m sorry, but the problem’s with me, not you.”

The past six years of monastic living has allowed me a lot of time to think about this, as one tends to do when you find yourself passing the time having conversations with walls in the different rooms of your abode all hours of the day.

From my perspective, we’re always demanding accountability from everyone else, but we never have the stones to be open and say what we want because doing so would cast us in a negative light for all to see, which means we’d be in the wrong, which means we’d have to be the one to take responsibility and shoulder a share of the blame for why a particular relationship went sideways, rather than heap it all on the other party for things they may not have even done.

The reason why I stopped talking to my mother, for instance, is not because I am a terrible son who doesn’t care about my parents or is choosing to be vindictive over some long distant slight.

To the contrary, the last conversation we had ended with her, in about so many words, saying something along the lines of, “It has never been my job to care and the fact that you won’t conform to my demands or expectations means I will never show you any form of open affection, concern or compassion ever again.”

Editorial Note: For the record, I got that response after asking why she never thought to pick up the phone once in a blue moon and give me a call, after I did it with pretty frequent regularity since the day she put me on a plane and shipped me out of her life 25 years ago.

But there’s a way of looking at it where I am still at fault for both sides of the conflict. It may make your brain hurt, but it’s still there.

The fact that I finally called her out on it means I’m to blame because how dare I do such a thing and disrespect my elders? Whereas by also not caving in and cutting the relationship off, I’m to blame for being the openly petulant and disobedient child.

Depending on the perspective, I end up being the one with the problem and thereby the one at fault, either way.

And when you have to go through the majority of your life under the presumption that no matter what anyone else says, does, or doesn’t do, it all comes back to you because of your action or inaction, that is not a fun prism to find yourself always having to look through, because then it becomes a question of determining what you need to change in order to not be the go-to target for both everyone else’s blame and your own.

I have no problem at all acknowledging when I have been in the wrong about anything if there is a clear indication that I was, in fact, in the wrong. If I can’t be man enough to do that, then that’s on me and I’ll take it because I should.

Do I blame other people for things they’ve done which have negatively impacted me? You’re damn right I do.

Why? Because they chose to do them.

It was their actions, inaction, words, emotions, motives which fueled that choice and for that, I hold them accountable and I am not wrong for doing so.

Does that mean I’m totally free and clear then? Not necessarily. If I acted or behaved in a certain way which precipitated it, then that’s on me too.

But if I didn’t and you chose to act in such a manner against me of your own volition. Then that is squarely on you and it will stay there until you both own up to it and you do something to rectify it.

I’ve always been told relationships, both platonic or otherwise, are a two-way street. Somewhere along the way, you inevitably cross an intersection with responsibility for why said relationship falls apart.

And yes, your trip my be a lot shorter than the other person’s depending on the circumstances, but that doesn’t mean you get to avoid the turnoff either.

Insomniac #11 – On Blade Runner and Why World-Building Matters

I’ve been thinking about restarting my vlog for the past few months, but with that came the usual trepidation of anxiety I get whenever I had a new idea on something to talk about.

It wasn’t that I didn’t think it was interesting or worth examining. In fact, the idea of going through the process of assembling a vlog is something I was still very much wanted to explore.

The problem…was I found myself wanting to do anything else other than sit in front of my camera and talk into it while trying not to look like an absolute burk.

It’s a common perception that people who work in media are self-effacing narcissists and while I’ve met and worked with my fair share of them in the past eight years, I can say with some degree of confidence that I am not one of those people.

The reason why I started in radio was so if I had to talk, the audience would only hear me, but not have to sit there and wonder what the hell some pudgy, pasty guy with a receding hairline is doing clogging up their news every night.

And considering once upon a time, I did live theater and loved every second of it, you’d think I’d be okay being under a potential spotlight still. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The longer I did it, the more uncomfortable I got. I didn’t like looking at me because I’ve long held the belief that nobody else likes to much either. Coincidentally, there’s a reason why I have only one mirror in my house, and unless I want my full security deposit back when I eventually vacate, it’s probably for the best that it remain where it is in my bathroom.

Now I suppose if I looked more like Christian Bale, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Colin Farrell or some other guy whose first name started with the letter C, I might not be so self-conscious and shy about the rest of the world seeing me. As it is, though, I am…and I don’t know if that’s ever really going to change at this point.

But after taking some time off and seeing how some other vloggers have constructed their content, I figured I might give it one more college try and see if I can do so in a way I feel much more comfortable with. It took me about 15 hours to put this together, from start to finish, and for all the hiccups that came along with it over those two long days, I think if I’m going to keep doing it, I’ll be much happier doing so in a format like this.

You be the judge. Our lines are open.