Fighting For Your Life
Eight years ago, not long after Valentine’s Day, I lost nearly everything important to me, including quite a bit of my sense of self and identity. Grieving for the loss of those things eventually gave way to a long, hard path of reclaiming them in an altered, better form. The progress was not at all linear: five years ago at around the same time, I thought for sure I was losing everything all over again. Progress there was, though. I look back now and I can’t believe how many problems, large and small, have been solved, and how many great things have been built in my little life. So many of my dreams have been accomplished and I have a clear path to accomplish so many more.
Yet it’s come to my attention lately that I am more stressed than I’ve been in quite a long time. How could this be? So much of everything I’ve ever wanted has come true; I fought hard to make that happen over the years. When I reflected on this, however, something rang out for me: “I fought hard.”
Eight years ago, I was facing complete bankruptcy while eking out a living at a car wash and liquor store. I lived alone in a drafty, two room cottage and my remaining friends were not local. My degrees, for which I had borrowed nearly one hundred thousand dollars and spent seven years in steady contemplation, were stuffed in a box. I needed nothing short of a personal revolution, and I knew it.
So began a long period of intense battle: with my own work ethic, which had slipped in the long years as a student, with my provincial hard-headedness, which found it difficult to imagine a life elsewhere than in the Northeast, with my own expectations, which found something less than teaching a room full of excited, willing students to be unacceptable, with my fear of change and saying goodbye to finished chapters of my life, with my ideas of what the best kinds of friends could be, with the many people who doubted me along the way (shiftless, angry thirty year old career-changer that I appeared to be), with my lack of refined skills in any profession, with my own recklessness and inability to see the every-day details that add up to long-term growth, with crushing financial burden that made it difficult to indulge worthy investments in self-discovery, with self-doubt and the nagging feeling that I wasn’t worthy of the life I wanted, with confusing adventure and real life…
The list could continue. You might say that the one thread running continuously through my very fluid life from 2008 to the present was that of deep conflict: externally with the world, and internally to get better. And you know what? Despite many mistakes, defeats, and setbacks, caused in large part by myself, I slowly won every one of those conflicts. I am crazy in love, even after four-plus years. I have accomplished a lot professionally and personally and I’ve seen the proof: the achievement of my students and the lasting friendships I’ve made through my work and adventures over my short career. I have never felt more supported in my job: my school leader has repeatedly developed my skills and rewarded my hard work.
That continuous thread of conflict: could it be that it has finally unraveled? I wonder if my stress now is related to that: the War of Reinvention is finally over, and I’m having trouble coping with What Comes Next. My wife and my school leader both recently had conversations with me that amounted to the same point being made: “Relax. You don’t have to fight anymore.” That really stuck with me. I recall a lot of accounts of war veterans who have trouble re-adjusting to life as a civilian. Many of them cite the thrill of combat and the great sense of purpose they have in doing it for their buddies, even when the overall purpose of the war seems unclear or questionable. When they return, they lack that sense of purpose. It’s certainly a difficult one to top in terms of urgency. Perhaps my own problem is a far less noble and meaningful version of what they feel: the fight itself had come to define my life.
I’m reminded (in more appropriate and silly fashion, maybe) of my time playing the wonderfully addictive game, Diablo II. In this role-playing computer adventure, you created a character and built their skills in a pattern unique to the kind of hero you wanted, acquiring equipment for them that was both fun to use and suited to those skills. The best way to build the skills and get the equipment was through battle and the trophies that came out of it; you got “experience points” through killing monsters and those points could be spent on ‘leveling up’ your character and the individual skills you liked. I noticed a funny thing while playing this game: while it had a compelling storyline, fun graphics and play controls, and clearly defined objectives for victory, these often fell by the wayside. I wanted the leveled-up skills and the cool toys, so each section of the game became about rooting out every last cave and den with monsters and slaughtering anything that moved, sometimes repeatedly. I found it difficult to enjoy the story objectives while I obsessively and monotonously slashed and hacked my way to “level-ups.”
In that might be the key to my own stress and the stress of others who have attempted to “level up” in this great RPG of life. This is the only life we’ve got, after all. I’ve got so much for which I’m grateful. Maybe it’s long since time to bask more in those things. I’ve got a beautiful wife with a baby on the way, a beautiful little house, great friends and neighbors, an incredible job in which I get to make a positive difference in the world, and people at that job who know and appreciate that difference when its made. There was a time in my life eight years ago when I felt lucky to come home to my little cottage, exhausted from ten hours of labor in 90 degrees on black pavement, flop down on the floor with a cold beer, and smell the ocean air as it came through my window from the beach a ten-minute walk away. “Not everybody gets to live close to the ocean,” I’d say to myself, feeling grateful despite all the legitimate doubt and worry in my life.
Good call, old self. It’s a sad thing when a life has become almost entirely defined by fighting, after all. Those ocean breezes: that’s where it’s at, even through the toughest days, to say nothing of the blessed life I live now. It’s time to ease off on the quest for ‘skill points’ and trophies, and to realize that ‘progress for life’ does not have to equal ‘fighting for life.’