Resentment

There is always regret when one has not done not just what one has wanted to do, but has dreamed of all of their lives. “If only I had started sooner,” regret whispers. “If only I had not taken that job, moved to that city, loved that person.” Regret is a whispered siren’s song, and it can lead one toward a sadness that is disastrous to the work.

Regret has a companion emotion, and once one figures out exactly what one needs to do, this other emotion can assert itself in awful ways. This emotion is resentment. Anything—everything—that does not help us attain our vision—our purpose—can cause us to feel resentment. For instance: a job that takes our time—our necessary and limited time—even if that job is fulfilling and valuable. Even if that job pays the bills. Our family can cause feelings of resentment. This is a deep dark secret: the people we love can be the people who awaken resentment in us. Because they ask—as they are entitled—for our most precious resources: our imagination, our patience, our time; our essential necessary energy to do the work at hand. And this is terrible. No one wants to resent for their family or loved ones. And yet, we do.

Anything—everything—that takes away from the energy needed to do the creative work that gives our lives meaning cause resentment. One must learn to carve out sufficient time to be fully engaged and to spend the energy at the work required to fulfill one’s purpose. This is true in any circumstance—with or without family, with or without loved ones, and with or without other work. Once one sees what can be done, one must change one’s life to fulfill one’s purpose.

Archaic Torso of Apollo

However, resentment is not located in those other places. Neither my child, nor my job, nor anyone else in my life is the actual wellspring of resentment. It comes from me. Of course there are stupid little human annoyances—the woman who sliced into the left lane ahead of me on I-95 today, then just as abruptly, sliced back through traffic across two lanes to make a sudden right exit. The anger caused by such behaviors only lingers for so long. Resentment comes from an inward driven anger that sharpens regret and turns it back out to the world. The clearest targets are those who are nearest us.

Yes, there may be times when those close to us do ask us to stop our most purposeful work for reasons that are worthy of resentment. They may question your sense of self, and cast aspersions on your work and aspirations. Sometimes people cannot escape the deep-seated injuries and resulting resentments that their injuries caused, and they struggle, not with themselves, but with you. Just as you may struggle with resentment. Just as I have struggled. And one must escape that false judgment, and not validate it in any way. For the most part, we are the main manufacturers of our own grief. We stop ourselves. We foist anger on ourselves and take handfuls of earth and shower ourselves in dirt. We manifest an anger that eats us from within.

I am not suggesting that one should not be angry. Anger can be a source of energy, a goad to action when complacency or sadness or depression has settled too deeply on the creative mind. I let that anger into my work—allowing characters to taste it and spit it where it needs to land. So too with me, I learn, daily, the difference between anger caused by genuine external sources and that which has simply emanated from some ancient sun within me.

When I feel resentment, I check my sources first, and realize that, more likely than not, that I am not doing what I need to do. I am not tending my work and my purpose as I should. I have taken—for reasons at once honorable and misguided—someone else’s charge and anger as my own. I put it down, gently, if I can, and get back to work. The way forward—to fulfillment, to joy—is here.

Balance

About a year ago, I wrote about the patterns that I had noticed in my life. I have tended to trust the signs that the universe provides for me—much of what I have written about my current book project attests to that. I can admit that there are times that I have misinterpreted the signs, or that the universe has played an awful game of three card Monte with me. And yet, what other choice do I have?

I walk the line between an abundant trust in my muse—or the universe—and a willfulness that is singular and purposeful. This comes with risks. There is a song by Coldplay, in which the singer challenges, “Go on and tear me apart.” It is a brave dare, and echoes a bit of Emerson that was shared with me recently: “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” What if all I get is torn apart and unsettled? I have lived too long under that flag to feel continued comfort in the “torn apart” life.

As I approach the end of this book, all the patterns (all right, most of the patterns—I am writing about a part of the world that eschews ideas of perfect resolution for a reason) come together. As the revision process takes hold, I rejigger, rip out, and rewrite scenes and conversations so that the whole points, gently and not too obviously (I hope) to the overarching pattern. The book is, finally, about patterns (Is it? Really?).

But life is not a book. Life does not (really) contain messages and patterns that point us toward happiness and success (Are you so sure about that?). Yes, there are patterns, but there are also many, many random occurrences and, perhaps even more challenging, patterns that unsettle us in ways that are distractions, that may even be injurious. At the moment, I simply cannot accept the notion that absolutely everything helps us grow and thrive. Some stuff, as my father pointed out on a particularly egregious day on the ocean, is just shitty. I throw shitty books across the room—the shitty life cannot be so easily flung into some other corner.

So, why feel hopeful? Because I am balancing between an awareness—too keenly felt this past several months—of the capriciousness and, well, shittiness of the universe, and the other more generous and affirming aspects of the exact same universe. Balance is not a passive activity. It may become seemingly involuntary, the way that holding your head—or a glass—level on a churning sea becomes second nature (your muscles are working all the time). I do not veer from happy to sad, celebratory to angry; they are all there, all the time, and for now, that is good enough. Of course, I seek—and will continue to seek—to tilt the balance to the more favorable side of things—and I am (Shut up, Doc!)—and that is because I feel that my purpose is to add to the balance of light.

Back to the tightrope.

The Wrong Side of the Bed

Some days it feels like there is no good side of the bed. I wander into the day with storm clouds surrounding me, and then the day just adds more; I go from grey to absolute darkness. Everything that people say, even people that I love and respect, just strikes me as wrong. Nothing is where I have put it (I work in spaces that I share, so this is—growl—fairly typical). It is too humid. Help that is offered is the wrong help, or worse, unhelpful. My face works itself into a deeply lined scowl. People charitably comment that I look tired. I know the code. I look angry.

In general, I am a happy man. I can find my way to a good feeling by hook and by crook. I take joy from a cup of coffee, and from the sound of my daughter’s voice. I rarely find myself in the place the Violent Femmes describe in “Add It Up”; in fact, just singing along (“Why can’t I get just one fuck…”) makes me laugh. The universe is like a perpetual gift-giving machine designed by the best toymaker ever.

Except. Except when the black clouds of contrariness gather around my head. And then storm. (It’s so bad that I cannot even manage complete sentences to describe the feeling). The first flash of anger brings attendant feelings of self-loathing and despair; I have failed again to keep the thunder at bay. This of course leads to more anger—at myself, and at whatever the temporary cause of it may be. Call worship service boring? Rage. Complain that the smell of cookies in the oven smells like something burning? Rage. The Juniors and Seniors decide to ditch detention on a day I skip an important meeting to sit for two hours with their recalcitrant selves. Rage. I can hear my mother, “I’ll wring your neck.” Thanks mom. Rage.

Anger is my forbidden emotion, and because in the atlas of my brain I have marked it taboo (here there be dragons), I am less familiar with the terrain than I should be. Okay, that’s a lie. I am terrifyingly familiar with anger. I walked over that ground for years as a child and adolescent. The flags of my furies unfurled when something or someone contradicted or existentially threatened the foundations of my moral universe. When I was a boy, those foundations were fairly straightforward and limited, and resulted in squalls of “That’s not fair,” which could pertain to the most trivial (“He has more soda than I do!”), to the substantial (“How can you throw him out of school weeks before graduation?”). The dictates of fairness required an even hand be dealt to all, and later incorporated a sense of esprit de corps (were all in this together). I clove to these rules tightly and took the breaches seriously.

And what isn’t fair to a first born son? We, who stand at the vanguard of the moral universe, who plunge into the morasses that our parents design into swampy labyrinths, who seek strength and consistency and meet frailty and disorganization—or worse hypocrisy. I learned early enough not to get angry when I encounter something that doesn’t simply challenge me (lesson from sailing #37: learn to confront challenges: sea-sickness, rain, rash decisions, doldrums, incapable crew, broken ribs; with aplomb. Because another challenge is coming in 5, 4, 3, 2…), or disagree with me. In fact, I run toward, perhaps too giddily, challenge and disagreement. It wasn’t always so, but learning to be gleefully devastated from time to time helped me become a good student, and (so I hope) a better man.

As I aged, I learned to grasp the essentially contradictory nature of life. I embraced Whitman’s charge: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” On the flip side, I expected others to embrace it as well. I attribute my general buoyancy to the multitudinous sea of possibility in which I swim, but I recognize that others must swim in narrower straits. Must you? Really? On stormy days, I do too. I feel as if I am repudiating myself, reneging on the promises I have made to myself and to the universe, failing at my calling and failing at my life’s sole purpose. I want to run away, and live cabin-bound on the rolling ocean, in the thickest forest, on the side of a stark and forbidding mountain.

On rare occasions, I draw on this narrower, “fatal vision” as Macbeth calls it. When I play poker, for instance, I find it easier to put on the fierce blinders of aggression. Sometimes when I write, I close the larger windows to focus on just this pane or that pane of vision. When I teach, I rein in my big confusing mind so that my students can see what it is like to walk on one path in one direction with singular purpose and clarity; that is the lesson they must learn now. After these experiences, I feel drained, in part because I have intentionally disconnected, and the angry hand is the one that flips that switch.

So, when the grey days come unbidden, from a bad night’s sleep, or illness, or some twist of half remembered dream or memory (do I have to wake up with THAT strange bedfellow today?), I feel less myself, at odds with the world, looking, like Ishmael, for hats to knock off, and eyeing ships bound for sea with untoward desire. But, the day passes. I remain a free man. In the morning to come, every side of the bed glistens with possibility again, and I am once again myself.