Grumpy looking pug

Being Eeyore

Sobriety

If I was a cartoon character this week, it would surely be Eeyore. I’ve been flat, uninspired, and utterly unpleasant to be around. As if I have my own personal rain cloud following me around everywhere, I seem fixed on forever finding the darkness beyond the silver lining.

I could provide a laundry list of excuses as to why my life feels like one big bother right now, but in the end that’s all it would be – excuses. At some point you have to admit that, yes, some parts of life are a downer, but in the end we have to move past them all the same. Otherwise you end up stuck like Eeyore, floating down a babbling brook of discontent, refusing to grasp at the branches your friends are extending to you to help pull you to shore.

You can either join the others and play Poohsticks, or continue to wallow passively alone in the river, dejectedly weighted down by the waters of your self-induced, soggy misery.

It’s times like this that maintaining morning routines and mental health practices are the most important. Even when it feels like you’re accomplishing nothing, and a grey fog of sadness hangs thick in the air, following through with daily meditation, stretching, exercise, conscious breathing and reflection are actions that help you move forward. Even when it feels difficult and uninspiring, you are still making an effort to work things through, and that’s surely something to be proud of.

Likewise for me is writing. I sat down to this post not wanting to write, but wanting to feel better. So I’ve approached the process as an internal dialogue in which I make an effort to grasp for hope, and seek the light that guides me out of the darkness. I didn’t set out to write about how life isn’t fair, but to talk about what I was going to do to try and feel better. And in the end, I did.

Inkwell and quill sitting on an old desk.

Writing as Process

Writing

I lay in bed this morning listening to the rain softly drizzling on our corrugated steel roof when a curious question floated through my mind. “Why maintain a blog that no one will ever read?”

It was not a self-conscious feeling of disappointment or longing for attention, but a sincere question. Phrased in a different way, I began to contemplate about the purpose of writing. Why is it worth doing? And particularly, why is it worth doing when what you contribute to the cacophony of public thought is never seen by anybody?

There’s no one right answer here, clearly. Everyone has their own motives for putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard. From private, leather-bound diaries to public blogs, it’s the process that’s important. But the question of “why write” is an important one to revisit periodically. The motives that lead us to pour out our thoughts may not remain the same over time, and it’s worth tracking your intentions, because it helps you stay authentic.

I’ve always said I write to think, but it’s worth unpacking that further. What is important about thinking? Why is it an avocation of value?

“Now, what do I feel like talking about today?”

When I first started going to college in the early-1990’s someone said to me: “It doesn’t matter what you major in. You’ll never use it anyway.” That statement stuck with me longer than I wish it had, because it led me to approach the experience with a casual, laissez-faire attitude in which nothing really mattered. I’d do my best; but in the end, my best was ephemeral. In four years time the whole affair would be over, good or bad, so long as I finished.

The result was 3 years of absentminded, half-hearted participation. I’d fall asleep in class, when I bothered to show up at all; my textbooks were as pristine and untouched at the end of term as they’d been at the beginning; I’d sit in the back of the class and spend more time doodling than taking notes; I even went to the pub before my exams once or twice. My heart just wasn’t in it.

It didn’t help that I had teachers during this period who seemed as disinterested in the process of learning as I was. One in particular stands out from everyone else in how little he seemed to care. He’d show up at the start of class ever day, shuffle lazily to the front of the room and lean casually against the blackboard. He’d gaze blankly and dispassionately out across the rows of students, draw in a deep, almost groaning sigh, and say “Now, what do I feel like talking about today?”

I don’t know about anyone else that term, but that class felt like an utter waste of time. A sheer formality and box to tick, where an instructor who didn’t want to teach droned on to students who didn’t want to learn. It was a perfect storm of pointlessness.

Then, in the last semester of my last year, I took a class on Environmental Impact Assessment. It had absolutely nothing to do with the Economics degree I was more or less sleeping through, but it piqued my interests and I decided to give it a go. It was a revelation.

“When you know what to think, you’ll know how to act.”

This man was everything that my other instructor wasn’t. He was passionate about his discipline, he was concise and effective in his teaching; but more than that, he truly wanted to be in the classroom, and he sincerely cared about us. He wanted to make a difference, and leave us with thought-provoking ideas that didn’t necessarily have clear conclusions. He wanted to get us to think.

It was this last point he came back to time and time again, in the form of a mantra he repeated ad infinitum throughout the semester. “When you know what to think, you’ll know how to act.” Use your mind, explore your opinions and subject them to scrutiny. Test your theories, and see how they hold up to reality. Don’t assume anything. What you think is important.

He shook the cobwebs from my mind and actually got me interested in discovering what I believe, and whether these beliefs are justified. He inspired an interest in contemplation and reflection that has been with me ever since.

As a result, I threw myself into studying with an enthusiasm that had been utterly absent previously. I discovered subjects that excited me and fueled my curiosity, and I learned that I really, really like to write.

At the best of times, my head is a jumble of conflicting thoughts. Writing provides me with the structure, scaffolding, and sequence I need to make sense of it all, which is why I find it such a valuable way to explore ideas. I don’t write to express my thoughts. I write to discover them.

Concerned man standing against a blackboard with strength depicted behind him.

Moving Beyond Fear

General

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

Frank Herbert, Dune

We are more than COVID-19. We cannot let it become all that we read about, all that we talk about, all that we think about. If we arrive at that place, life ceases to be, and there is only fear.

Caution and forethought are crucial during times like this, there’s no doubt about it. But surely there must be a point at which we set aside the topic of coronavirus and start looking forward again to existence in all its diversity and variety. Yes, we must stay vigilant. Yes, we must stay alert. But that doesn’t mean we must shelve our optimism, joy, and hope.

I make the mistake of reading the newspaper every day, and every day I immediately regret it. Yes, there are occasional pearls of wisdom that can be put into practice; useful suggestions that can make a difference in how we cope, and how we stay safe. But more often than not it’s an endless stream of fear-invoking articles about how many people are sick in the world, how many are dying, and how all the things we turn to for solace are failing us.

It is absolutely heartbreaking, and yet passively dwelling on the statistics, the uncertainty, and the chaos contributes nothing to the world, and nothing to our mental health.

Some people may need to see information like this; perhaps those who continue to live in denial about the severity of this pandemic and think it’s a perfect time to gather in droves on the beaches and in the pubs. But for those of us who have taken it seriously for some time now and are already doing our best to social distance, self-isolate, cough into our elbows, not hoard toilet paper, and be considerate of others – to us, these news articles do more harm than good.

Fear is a state of powerlessness, and living in powerlessness is neither enjoyable nor helpful. This is not to suggest we refuse to recognise the people, places and things we cannot control, but to make a conscious decision to accept them as they are and instead focus our attention on what we can control.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

Serenity Prayer

Being kind, helpful, and supportive; assisting the sick, the marginalised, or the scared; being present for our children, our brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents; offering a friendly ear to those that need it. These are all things that we can do, here and now. And they can make a real difference in people’s lives. They can help us come together as a community and inspire hope and happiness. But we need to be willing to move beyond fear and search for hope as a matter of daily practice.

It’s the active search for hope and unity, rather than the resigned miring in isolation and fear, that will start to pull us forward and bring us together. We will get through this. The question for each of us is: What do you want life to look and feel like for you while you are getting through this?

man standing looking out at the sky

Maintaining Perspective

Work

“I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”

― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

In a sentence, that sums up the last week for me. As I’ve said before, I work in online learning, and at the moment I am being kept extraordinarily busy. Too much so for my liking, in actual fact.

Despite my attempts at sounding wise on the topic of work-life balance, I’ve hardly been following my own advice lately, and it’s really wearing me down. Not so much emotionally, but definitely physically and psychologically. I’m working too fast, too hard, and for too long, and am rapidly running out of steam.

In saying this out loud, I realise that the effort stems as much from ego and pride as it does from professional pressure. Perish the thought I’d admit I can’t handle the chaos that’s going on around me, and that it might just be too much for me. That I might need help.

Two days ago I wrote about the risk of overwork becoming a badge of pride, and here I am guilty of the same sin. I wrote of how important it is to look out for colleagues, and to gently express your concerns when you feel they are falling into an unhealthy spiral of longer and longer hours. It’s perhaps most important of all to be willing to see the same faults and risks in yourself, and up until today I didn’t recognise that.

So today, looking ahead, I intend to leave my desk during lunch, spend some time with my family, laugh, breathe and recharge before returning for the second half of my workday. It’s good for my mental health, my peace of mind, and I believe for my physical health as well. It makes me more productive in my work too. But I think perhaps most important of all, pulling back for a breath and some sun helps maintain a balanced perspective about what truly matters in life.

Dawn rising over the clouds as viewed from atop a mountain.

Twilight Rising

Writing

I used to go to bed at dawn, bleary-eyed and befuddled. Now I get up even earlier than that, when the moon is still hanging high in the sky and has only just begun to make its sleepy descent towards morning.

For a long while, I hated this habit. Now it’s my peaceful time. The period when the world is asleep and I am left to my own thoughts, my own pace, my own breath.

I love these moments. The peace is thick and full this time of day. There is no urgency to rush or worry. Music lilts softly and the air is still. Family and pets lay blissfully asleep. Coffee wafts and the rocking chair creaks. There is space to simply sit and be.

Lego man looking stressed out.

On work-life balance in a time of self-isolation

Work

I’m noticing a concerning trend lately amongst many of my peers and colleagues. With remote working increasingly standard across many sectors and industries, the normal rhythm of a professional life spent in an office has flown out the window, and many people are starting to grapple with finding a new equilibrium. In my observation (and experience) this can very easily include not knowing when to stop working for the day.

Particularly for sectors where demands for skills and services have ramped up in the wake of COVID-19, when working from home the events or triggers that mark the slow down and end of the day frequently don’t happen; or they do happen and are ignored because there is too much to do. In either case, the result is similar.

Case in point: This morning I awoke to a flurry of emails from a wonderful colleague of mine that extended virtually continuously from the point where I clocked off (after working late myself) and didn’t stop until midnight. Her tireless efforts are greatly appreciated by everyone, but I worry for her physical and mental health if she continues this pace up for long.

Still recuperating from a week-long cold, I’m more conscious than normal of the need to look after myself, but even I am working faster, harder, and longer hours than I normally do. There are times when this is absolutely necessary, and helping the university sector make a sudden shift from blended learning to fully online in order to enable students to continue their studies is arguably one of those times. But we must be very mindful of the line in the sand that distinguishes an extenuating circumstance from the new normal.

In certain industries, such as academia, that line in the sand is faint indeed, and working longer and longer hours can become a badge of honour rather than an occasionally necessary unpleasantry. As colleagues and friends, it’s crucial that we look out for each other and raise concerns with others when we feel they are pushing themselves too much. We live in challenging times at the moment. Peer support is essential now, more than ever.

spiral

Regretful Epiphany

General

I write to think. I write to explore ideas. I write to help myself learn. Sometimes what I learn is unpleasant. Regretful epiphanies are no less important than those that inspire confidence. In the end they both provide opportunities for growth.

Rereading my post this morning, I’m fairly embarrassed at how self-absorbed it is. I was attempting to be funny, and give some insight into what’s going on for me at home right now, in all its monotony, but in the end it not only fell flat, but was deeply uncaring of the pain and suffering being felt and endured across the globe. That is not something I’m proud of. So much so that I’ve had to actively resist the urge to delete the post.

Yet pretending I did not write that post does me little favours. It doesn’t help me change, or grow. It tries to sweep it under the carpet, as though the mistake never took place. I don’t think that’s the least bit helpful in the end.

Instead, I decided to follow it up with another post, looking at what I was thinking this morning from a different perspective. That’s one of the really powerful opportunities in maintaining a blog like this. It takes the ephemeral – the impermanent – and preserves it. As the Jen from Dark Crystal so eloquently said in the 1982 film, writing is “words that stay.”

So what can I take from my regretful epiphany? First, the need to think beyond myself, and to recognise the opportunities that I have that others don’t. As much as the concept of ‘social privilege‘ may trigger outrage amongst old, white men, there is absolutely truth in it. As a medium-old, white man, I choose to see the reality in this, and own that to the best of my ability.

Moreover, ‘choosing to see the truth in it’ is not something that is done once and then disregarded, as if you can tick it off a to-do list. It’s something that must be chosen, and re-chosen day after day. To do otherwise is to risk forgetting the lessons in social privilege, and the return to a sense of entitlement that can sometimes arise. I’d also argue that entitlement breeds discontent, whereas recognising your privilege can inspire gratitude.

Living in a space of gratitude is not only better for one’s mental health, it can also help them recognise the suffering in others, and to hold compassion in their hearts for those that endure it.

In the end, I regret the underlying selfishness in my last post, but I am ultimately grateful for the opportunity to recognise my shortsightedness. I’m embarrassed that I displayed this error in judgement publicly, but doing so has ultimately kept me accountable, and that’s a good thing.

Man staring out the window, looking depressed.

Life in Lockdown

General

I’ve been sick for 5 days and am getting really tired of it. After a day or two of nervousness, and the thought “what if it’s COVID-19?!” ever present on my mind, I eventually read that the coronavirus doesn’t do sneezing, and was able to relax into the sniffling, snotty misery instead. But after stubbornly working (remotely) with a sore throat last week – doing voice work to boot – and then losing my whole weekend to bed and sneezing, waking up on Monday with the twin terrors of sniffles and headache still rudely hanging around has been a real kick to the spleen.

Today, my wife’s audible sighs in response to my excessively dramatic whining is a sure sign that I’ve entered the last and most treacherous part of any illness: the man-flu. So I’m trying to look on the bright side and stop taking myself so seriously.

Taking stock, we indeed have a great deal to be grateful for. Through a series of lucky breaks and coincidence, we’ve largely managed to stay in the eye of the hurricane, beginning with the impulse buy I made of a single massive pack of 36 rolls of toilet paper not two days before the panic buying started in my community.

I managed to shift my superannuation investments to a conservative/safe profile just prior to the market crash too, but strangely it’s the toilet paper purchase that stands out as my major contribution in the last 2 weeks. I don’t know what that says about the state of the world right now.

To be fair, we were running low already, and the shelves were stacked full then. There was still plenty to go around. Then the dark times came. The Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020 had begun.

But really, in spite of self-isolation our lives haven’t changed all that much. With my kids homeschooled and my wife and I working virtually entirely remotely already, the shift to being completely at-home was not difficult for us at all. The fact we’re all introverts was icing on the cake. Time at home is something we all enjoy.

My professional life is certainly stressful right now, but so far – thanks to amazing management at the two universities I work for – it’s been manageable. The last 2 years have been a whirlwind in that regard. I went from losing my job of 16 years as an educational technologist in 2018 as part of a restructuring to a total surge in demand for online learning experts in 2020 in the wake of COVID-19.

Universities are typically cautious beasts, highly suspicious of change. For the huge chunks of the sector to move their courses, units and programs online in one fell swoop in response to the likely shutdown of campuses across the country has been a marvel to witness – albeit a slightly terrifying one given I was (and am) on the front lines of making it happen.

This does represent a bit of a schism at home, since nearly everyone else has seized the opportunity to indulge in long-forgotten projects, new ideas, and napping while I run around like a headless (virtual) chicken from one work crisis to the next, but by now my family is more or less used to me acting like that. I’m still waiting for my Superman cape to arrive, but clearly it’s gotten lost in the mail.

Stay safe and healthy, everyone!

Older man sitting with his head in his hands.

On Pain

Sobriety

I may or may not have broken my toe last night; either way it was excruciating. And yet, in the thick of the expletive-filled, agony-soaked, writhing minutes after kicking the side of the fireplace barefoot, a thought occurred to me. Not only is pain a fascinating sensation, it serves an important purpose in life.

Pain sucks. It is not fun. I don’t mean pain in a BDSM “it hurts in a good way” sense, but in a helpless yet profound “please make it stop, I can’t take it any more” way.

Pain tells us, in no uncertain terms, that something is not right. It gets our attention immediately, and forces us to focus on the injury – whether physical, emotional or psychological. Pain is something not easily ignored, and in that way it quiets all unrelated thoughts and sets a specific aspect of our life in stark relief to everything else.

If we choose not to address the pain, most likely it will remain, if not get worse. It’s a bit of a divining rod in that way. When we pursue activities that cause or contribute to the pain, it’s abundantly clear. And when we implement strategies that reduce or eliminate the pain, that is also abundantly clear.

In that way, we see that pain can inspire change. Not always huge sweeping changes, but change nonetheless. If you land funny when you’re running and twist your ankle under unusual circumstances, you won’t necessarily have a deep and meaningful spiritual experience. But I do think you’ll be more careful on that stretch of road in the future, or try to be more mentally present when you exercise – both of which are change.

Pain isn’t necessarily physical either. When I drank, life got harder and harder. Hangovers were unpleasant, certainly, but the shame and guilt of things I’d said and done on a big night out were frequently worse so. The more I tried to fix my situation, yet continue drinking, the more I failed. This added frustration and confusion to the mix, which is discomfort in a different way.

When I found myself on the side of the road, being arrested again, the pain surged past the point where I was capable of ignoring it anymore and I realised I had to live differently. I wasn’t physically hurt, but the internal agony, shame, fear, self-loathing, and self-doubt were arguably just as bad. This provided me with the acute motivation I needed to start doing things differently.

Where it not for this sensation, I don’t think I ever would have had the inertia to carry through and do whatever it took to stop feeling what I was feeling. In that sense, the pain was useful – not fun, but useful.

Glass of whiskey

On my last drink

Sobriety

The night of my last drink began with a sigh, and ended with handcuffs. After an eventful seven year run – from 17 to 24 years old – the last chapter of my life as a young, practicing alcoholic amounted to more of a resigned, slow exhale than an impassioned death wail.

After two and a half years of debt in the wake of my first arrest and conviction for drunk driving, I had finally paid everything off. My car had been totaled, my insurance company had dumped me; I’d faced court, AA, MADD, drunk driving school, had my drivers licensed suspended, gone to jail, and even watched an autopsy – but it was all over. My credit cards were officially zeroed out, and I didn’t owe anything to anyone. But for the remaining 6 months of my probation, I was finally free. I was ecstatic, and I decided to celebrate.

Despite the significance of the occasion, I gave surprisingly little thought to where I would go, and in the end opted for a bar that I had passed many times, but had never gone to before. Looking back, the night was positively uninspiring. I remember very little of significance from the beginning of the night aside from one detail in particular.

I only ever experimented with smoking. It really wasn’t my thing. It makes your clothes smell, your hair smell, it hurts your eyes, and it makes hangovers that much more toxic the next morning. Yet strangely, I did smoke when I drank.

I remember being outside, smoking a cigarette and looking up at the moon. Not in a profound philosophical way, but with a sense of deep melancholy. The moon seemed so isolated and lonely, and I suddenly thought: “Is this all there is?”

No epiphany came. No sense of renewed purpose in life, or clear direction going forward. No realisation of my defects of character, or the danger I was to society. Just my own sad, inebriated loneliness, out on a street corner just before closing time. So I left.

I had no plans for how to get home safely. I rarely did. On the occasions where I tried to plan ahead I always ended up driving drunk anyway, much to my shame and regret the following morning. Somewhere along the line I stopped even contemplating it anymore. So I got in my car and headed up the empty road.

Four traffic lights later I saw the police lights in my rear-view mirror and diligently pulled over. No thought of panic or fear. No recognition that I was drunk behind the wheel of a car. No memory that I was still on probation. Nothing.

The short police officer rapped on my window, and was soon met with the miasma of my alcohol-soaked breath, which sent him reeling noticeably. I smiled, carefree, and said good evening.

“Have you been drinking, sir?” He asked almost rhetorically.

“Yes, I have,” I nodded immediately, without any qualification.

The puzzled expression on his face should have been a clear indication of the trouble I was in, but I was never a difficult or belligerent drunk, just a reckless one. After a few drinks, I loved people and was always happy to tell them anything they wanted to know.

“How many drinks have you had, sir?” he stammered finally.

Making a contorted face while I thought, I finally shrugged.

“I can’t remember. I lost count,” I admitted casually.

“Would you step out of the car, please?” he said slowly.

“Sure!” I exclaimed happily.

For all I know I could have asked him how his night was going too. That’s the sort of thing I did when I drank. Social, talkative, agreeable, aiming to please. Were it not for my pension for driving under the influence, and the occasional habit of sobbing pathetically during sad songs, I was pretty entertaining to be around on a night out. Self-preservation was utterly absent from my mind, as always.

In the next few minutes, I utterly failed every sobriety test they threw at me. I couldn’t walk a straight line, I couldn’t touch my nose with my finger, and I couldn’t even write the alphabet.

It was that last one that hit me – hard. I made it to the letter C before I realised I couldn’t remember anything after that. Suddenly out of the blue, I was struck by the realisation of where I was, the condition I was in, and what I’d done – and it shattered me.

Despite all the promises I’d made to myself to maintain and moderate; without any second thoughts, I had gotten drunk and then drove, again. I was utterly terrified.

I slumped down on the curb, and started to sob. How did this happen? Why did this happen? I don’t understand! I completely lacked the vocabulary and comprehension to understand why, again and again, I found myself doing things I wouldn’t do sober. I wasn’t a bad guy, I just made really stupid decisions.

In an instant, all faith and trust I had in myself vanished, and I became gripped by fear. I knew I had to change, but I had absolutely no idea how to do it.

“Don’t forget to read me my rights,” I said quietly, “I know that’s an important bit.”

“I won’t forget that part, sir” the officer said shaking his head.

More tears streamed down my face.

“I can’t do this anymore,” I stuttered.

“No, you can’t,” he smiled kindly and put the handcuffs on me.

The next day was 30 July 1999. I haven’t had a drink since.