Sea turtle swimming under water.

Just Keep Swimming

Personal Diary

I remember seeing a newspaper headline once, asking something to the effect of “Why are optimistic people so insufferable?” Then, as now, it struck me as a truly bizarre thing to say. Why should we find happy people difficult to tolerate? I certainly don’t. For me, they’re a breath of fresh air and an example of how to embrace the chaos and unpredictability of life with a smile.

In my life there is no better representation of this than my grandfather. He is the ultimate vision of a grateful, meaningful existence. I don’t think I have ever seen him unhappy. Not in a plastic, “fake it ’til you make it” kind of way, but a sincere, beaming display of exuberance. He’s a human embodiment of the warm rays of the sun.

Unfortunately, I am not one of those people. I want to be, but more often than not I find reasons to feel gloomy and pessimistic; forever seeing risk instead of opportunity. I’ve written about Being Eeyore before, and unfortunately that’s a frame of mind that’s lingered over me like a little raincloud for the entire pandemic. All the same, it’s crucial to keep pushing forward.

“Trudging the road of happy destiny” is one thing. At least you’re progressing in a useful direction; doing your best to work through adversity towards brighter days and greener pastures. “Working and waiting to die” on the other hand, as a friend of mine once said, encapsulates the pain of profound despair and is an entirely different matter. Passive resignation of a hopeless and bleak future is no way to live.

So where does that leave us during hard times? “Just keep swimming.”

This is not to say my spirit animal is an animated fish with short term memory loss, but the mantra works. There are many additional quotes from popular culture we could also look to, from Monty Python’s “Always look on the bright side of life,” to Gandalf’s advice in The Hobbit:

“Always remember, Bilbo, when your heart wants lifting, think of pleasant things.”

J.R.R. Tolkien

The point is, finding hope sometimes means looking for it – through action. “Seek and ye shall find,” as they say.

This is where optimistic people are so crucial in the world, at least to me. They provide us pessimistic folks with an example of what a positive outlook looks like, when it can feel so foreign and fake.

Optimistic people aren’t insufferable, they’re irreplaceable.

Buddhist monk sitting

Gaining Clarity

Personal Diary

As bizarre as it sounds, “What do you want?” is one of the most difficult questions anyone can ever ask me. Not “what do you want?” as a roundabout way of implying “I don’t appreciate your presence here and wish you would go someplace else,” but as a meaningful inquiry into my hopes and dreams in life.

I used to pride myself on responding “I’d rather want what I have than know what I want,” but I’ve come to realise, while it is an honest answer, it’s also more of a shield to avoid answering the question.

I admire people who can easily rattle off a list of life goals without exhibiting any strain. Some of them even seem to relish the experience! I’m just not that way. I find it a truly stressful process. I need to sit alone, simmer, mutter, and grumble my way through a list, which gets edited, crumpled up, thrown away, and revisited numerous times before I’m eventually satisfied with it.

It’s meant to be an inspiring process that reveals the endless possibilities of life, but that’s rarely the way it feels to me. All the same, I think it’s a really important topic to meditate on, and revisit – especially when life beings to feel stale.

When I was in uni (aka college), I had a geography lecturer whose mantra was “Once you know what to think, you’ll know how to act.” He must have emphasised that phrase a hundred times by the end of term, and I’ve never forgotten it as a result. I learned a lot of valuable lessons in that class – some geographical, some not – and for that I’ll be forever grateful to him.

If you never spend any time contemplating what you think, want, or believe, how are you going to know what to do with yourself, what decisions to make, or where you’d like to end up in the world? In the worst case, you’d risk spending your life merely existing; whiling away the years until you realise it’s over and you never bothered to think about what’s important to you. That would be a real shame.

For me, clarity brings purpose, and aligning with purpose brings happiness. That’s why pursuing the question “What do you want?” is so important. It’s a process through which we find ourselves; achieving the goals themselves is merely gravy.

Running to stand still

General

I am absolutely appalling at relaxing. Today is my first day of a week off, and I spent the entire day on a list of tasks that didn’t need to happen. It was great to get them done, sure, but rest and relaxation were on the agenda too, and yet didn’t make the cut. Literally, I had ‘write’ and ‘nap’ as numbers 4 and 5 on my to-do list respectively, and I’m only just getting to write now, at the end of the day when I’m too tired to devote much mental energy to it.

I’ve learned through experience that short term goals are far more achievable than solemn proclamations that “I shall never do this again, as long as I live!” So for the rest of today, I’m going to sit on the couch and listen to music. Tomorrow, I sleep in, drink coffee and write in the morning, and then enjoy whatever takes my fancy after that.

When you live your life according to a never ending to-do list, obligations and commitments slowly assume a higher priority than serenity and contentment, and that just won’t do.

Déjà vu

General

I feel better when I write, but I find so many excuses why not to. And after a while, I forget it was even a ‘thing’ I once did, until I rediscover the joy, the release, the relief, and make another commitment to make it a regular practice again. It all amounts to a never-ending cycle of short lived, albeit well-intentioned, promises to myself, to reengage with passions I truly have that I never seem to stick with.

Re-reading the last few posts I’ve made here, it’s disheartening to see how little has changed since I I last contributed anything here 12 months ago. Work is still going a restructuring process in the wake of financial impacts from the global pandemic, which is also still taking place. Greater Sydney is once again in lockdown, and fingers are being pointed by politicians, newspapers, and social media, as to whose fault it is that we’re still in this situation 18-months in, while the rest of the world – it seems – is slowly emerging from the ashes.

I’ve spent the better part of the last year grappling with the seemingly Sisyphean task of trudging ahead in the face of never ending adversity. Rolling the metaphoric boulder continuously uphill, only to find another hill not far behind it. And all the while, the thought that a change to my perspective would improve my reality has not been far from my mind. Yet for some reason, diligent attention to my mental health has always ranked lower on the priority list than nearly everything else. Something I’ll get to later; only later never comes.

It makes me wonder, then, that rather than being a Sisyphean task, where a sustained burden can never truly be cast aside, I deal with something more along the lines of a recurring cycle of opportunity to make the right choices, and do the right thing, and ultimately treat myself more kindly. Each time around, I carry the opportunity to pause, recognise, and change. When I don’t enact it, the cycle is repeated once again. It’s not a boulder; it’s an unclaimed choice. Perhaps the sense of burden stops when I set the weight down, and consciously move on without it.

Dealing with difficult times

Work

All around me people are losing their jobs, and it’s impacting me far more than I expected it would. Breaking news last night reported that my last employer has announced 500 full time staff will lose their jobs, with potentially more to come. I was a casual employee there until April, and had I not managed to secure a contract position elsewhere until the end of the year I have no doubt I would have become an unemployment statistic myself.

Many wonderful people – some of whom I know, others I don’t – now find themselves in uncertain financial times amidst an ongoing crisis of global public health. It is difficult to see an optimistic way forward at the moment, which adds even more insult to injury. I worry there are simply not enough jobs available to soak up the impact to these unfortunate souls. And when my contract is up in December, I may still yet join their ranks.

The higher education sector has taken an absolute beating this year, as have many others, with many institutions having to make difficult decisions to stay afloat. I’ve heard rumours of other institutions folding completely.

We’re seeing arguments spill out into social media about who to blame, and I’m half expecting to see a string of industrial action events following the wake of the redundancies. In the end though, I worry they won’t do much to help the people who suddenly find themselves without work. When a university finds itself facing a shortfall of hundreds of millions of dollars, the cost cuts have to come from somewhere. There just isn’t that much fat in an institution to avoid impacting staff.

There was a time when a job in higher education equated to security for life. I no longer believe that; my experience has shown as much. The times are different now, and we must adjust to this new reality – unfortunate as it may be.

This has to begin with prioritising our mental health. If we cannot roll with adversity and still find moments of joy and peace we will truly struggle. I have known the darkness that comes from self-doubt, depression, frustration, anger, and despair. Even in employment they still arise sometimes. Resilience and perseverence are crucial qualities to cultivate, and they must be honed and kept strong. This requires constant action, meditation, and attention.

Part of this comes from helping others, particularly those who find themselves unceremoniously jettisoned from organisations and institutions. When I was first made redundant in 2018 I felt invisible, forgotten, and unimportant. It’s critical that we show people in similiar positions that this isn’t the case, and that they still matter to us. The dark times will pass, but until they do it’s crucial that we look out for each other.

Monk hands

The Illusion of a Clean House

Sobriety

I’m absolutely terrible at relaxing, I realise that now. I was up at 5 am today (a Saturday in the middle of a long-weekend) because I get grumpy when I sleep in. I don’t know why; I love sleeping in. But when I do I inevitably end up spending most of the day crotchety and ill tempered, as though allowing my body to rest is wasting time that could be spent on more useful endeavours like laundry, yard work, or doing the dishes.

Once upon a time I would stay up until dawn playing Baldur’s Gate, Morrowind, Icewind Dale, and other fantasy RPGs. I played guitar, wrote songs and poetry and would while away the hours day-dreaming about ideas for novellas and short stories. But somewhere along the line I went from easygoing and fun to dull and dreary, forever putting responsibility and commitment ahead of spaciousness and joviality.

Every spare second became an opportunity to be productive and useful – picking something up, putting something else away, planning for what needed to be done next, worrying about what I was omitting, forgetting, or ignoring. Lists, tasks, obligations – always living in the future rather than the present. It’s positively exhausting sometimes, but I can’t seem to stop the habit.

My son has been begging me to start playing World of Warcraft and telling horrible dad jokes again, because apparently I’ve become too boring, bossy, and judgemental – and I believe him. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy – and so it does with me.

In re-reading these words I realise what an obsession it’s all become. There is a line where being proactive and productive becomes something else – something less helpful and all together more restrictive; where the emphasis shifts from cleanliness to control. When I feel helpless, I clean. When I feel worried, I clean. When I feel inadequate or self-conscious, I clean.

It’s as if having a pristine house will let me live in the illusion of control for just a little while, until something is out of place and needs to be resolved. Then the whole cycle starts again.

In early sobriety I was taught about how lack of power was my dilemma; that alcoholics like me try in vain to control the world around them and when we can’t, we get upset and either lash out at others, drink to deal with the anxiety of life, or both. I seem to look at a messy house as symbolic, as if it’s an indicator of the quality of my life or how well I’m performing and providing.

I don’t drink anymore, but I still have to contend with the anxieties of life as much as anyone else. I do sometimes worry that I’m less capable of dealing with the stress than normal people, but that’s neither here nor there. I must deal with what is, not with how I wish things were.

A clean house will not help me deal with life any more effectively than a messy house, but seeing the world through a place of serenity, acceptance and gratitude certainly will. So today, when I “clean house,” I plan on doing it internally – beginning with my frame of mind.

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.

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.