As Ben Werdmuller awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into …
Stress has been a major part of my life this year, for obvious reasons. I’m no longer at the point in the year where I can claim to be ruled by grief with any real conviction, but it’s always there. Call me a high-functioning griever.
But the unhappiness I feel isn’t entirely the effect of losing my mother. It’s hard to compare, because it’s not fair to say there’s something deeper - that grief is already as deep as it gets, a sinkhole to oblivion just behind my eyes. It’s more that there’s another sadness that sits alongside it. They’re two different flavors, or two different entities that sit in two different universes with two different laws of physics. One is grief; the other is depression.
The manifestation of both of these sadnesses is that the world feels fundamentally wrong. In my grief, this is because my universe has lost its most important character, who I continue to reach for, make jokes with, and ask for advice like a kind of phantom limb until I remember. In my depression, it’s because I feel dissatisfied with the rhythms and timbre of my life. I can’t point to anything and say “this is wrong”, but in totality, wrongness pervades everything. There’s nothing to be fixed in either case because, in the case of grief, I can’t bring her back from the dead; in the case of depression, it’s hard to know where to begin.
My dissatisfactions go something like this:
One: my mother is gone, stolen by a terrible illness, which is an unfairness in the universe so profound that nothing is redeemable.
Two: I’ve been forced to play a game that I don’t particularly care for, knowing that the alternative is worse. The templated pattern of participating in regular society feels empty to me. Maybe this is because I was lucky (or unlucky) enough to be raised in a household that didn’t follow these norms. My parents didn’t have regular jobs; we didn’t settle in a single place; one year we traveled so much that I attended less than two thirds of the school year. We didn’t have money, and that was in part by my parents’ choice: my mother came from an upper middle-class family and my dad had a PhD in economics, and a comfortable life would have been easy for them. They opted out of the regular patterns and chose life experiences over wealth and stability, and knowing that there was an abundance of comfort and happiness in this, I don’t know that I can be content doing anything else. I honestly don’t know whether I’ve been ruined or freed.
Wealth is an empty goal. The people who chase it spend their lives gardening a number. What’s meaningful is choosing life: finding the things that spark and inspire you and following them. People talk about there not being reward without risk, but usually they mean in the sense of financial investments. Fine, but it works for life too: to be truly happy and truly yourself, you need to slip off the rails that have been set out for you. By definition, they’re not your rails. They’re someone else’s route: an aspiration that someone else has for the direction of your life.
I quietly admire the people who can feel comfortable following the regular path. Find a stable job, buy a house, start a family, get a dog, etc etc. And don’t get me wrong: I’d love to have a house, a family, a dog, and everything the etc etc implies. I want to do those things. And I think describing them in this way does them a disservice: starting a family, for example, is much more about - or at least, should be much more about - establishing a deep, mutually supportive partnership that becomes the emotional and practical bedrock of your life. I’ve always seen partnerships as being akin to being allies in an adverse world, and there’s nothing superficial about that. (A dog is just a dog, but dogs are great, so.) Still, something is missing, and I admire the people who don’t have that niggling dissatisfaction eating away at the core of them. They can just get on with it.
I wonder if it’s partially this: the traditional path is a deal that asks you to normalize yourself to a mainstream ideal in exchange for financial reward. You are asked to become a piece of a larger machine (both in terms of a business and mainstream society). The extent to which your natural self deviates from the shape of that piece, combined with the proportion of your life spent playing this part, is inversely proportional to your satisfaction in doing so. The more integral the piece you’re willing to play the part of is considered to be by the people who control the reward, the higher that reward will be, but your deviance from that norm remains the biggest deciding factor in how satisfied you are to play it, and therefore how sustainable playing it is for you in the long term.
Only the very lucky can find a place for themselves in the larger machine that is close to their actual shape. Everyone else must contort themselves into the available gaps.
And here’s where grief comes back into play: stress and sadness make you less malleable, less able to contort into the shape you need to be. Breathing requires exhalation into your full form. If you’re hurting, you’ve got to be yourself, whether that full self is considered to be valuable or not (financially and emotionally).
Everyone has expectations for me, in work and in life. The weight of fulfilling those feels heavier than it otherwise might. Mostly this is grief, but my dissatisfaction pre-dates this year’s crisis. I don’t enjoy disappointing people, but if their conception of me is of a high-earning engineer who is eager to follow the mainstream path, it’s wrong. I want to build a life from first principles following my ideals for what’s meaningful and good - fairness, equality, expression of one’s inner self and identity. It’s not clear to me that this is even possible, let alone desirable. (It’s desirable to me, but you’ve got to keep a roof over your head and food on the table. How do you do that well while deviating from the established path? Do I have anything of value to offer?)
And therein lies the true dissatisfaction. It’s inconvenient to other people for me to grieve, but too bad: I’m grieving. It’s inconvenient for me to not be the person other people want me to be, but too bad: that’s who I am. If I can’t have the space to be myself and to breathe in the way I need to, particularly in this moment, give everything that’s happened, then it’s the wrong life. But it’s not clear that I can provide enough value with who I actually am in order to make life sustainable. Am I valuable?
It becomes clear that community is the most important thing. Finding people who value you for you - not financially, but emotionally, and in the context of mutual respect and support. People in startup-land talk about finding smart, successful people to spend your time around, but that isn’t it at all. It’s not about cynically using people to gain points as part of some game. It’s about finding comfort and care. The goal isn’t to be rich. The goal is to find your people in a mutualistic way where you’re their people, too. Finding your place not in a machine but in a group where your true self is valued and welcomed.
These are the things I’ve been thinking about lately, while nurturing my sadnesses, and waking up from vivid dreams.