The dirty work of figuring yourself out.

“Like a castle in his corner in a medieval game, I foresee terrible trouble and I stay here just the same.” – Steely Dan, “Dirty Work”

Fact 1: Steely Dan is named after a sex toy.

Fact 2: That song is about a guy feeling used, and stuck, in a relationship where he’s the side dude. (Is “side dude” the male equivalent of “side chick?” I am not up with the permutations of today’s lingo, probably because I say shit like “permutations” and “lingo.”)

Fact 3: It’s an apt and poetic way to describe the feeling of knowing you’re doing wrong while standing in to witness the impending doom you’ve participated in creating.

Okay, so that last one may not be a “fact” per se, but given that it’s 2017 and we’re in a post-factual era, I’m going to assert it as truth and call you an enemy of freedom if you disagree with me. Terrorist.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “agency” – the idea that we choose our own adventure here on Earth.

So, there’s this feeling that lies midway between a bad choice and a helpless compulsion. I assume it’s universal, but it may not be.

Intellectually, you know you’re making a choice to do something that extends a cycle of negative consequence. Emotionally, you feel like a lifetime of mistakes is not going to be made worse by one more screw-up.

Time is linear. Today comes before tomorrow. Tonight comes after this morning. When you’re struggling with owning your responsibility for your failures, that timeline begins to present itself from an alternate perspective. Top down, you see today, tonight, and tomorrow as concurrent events. Outcomes are predetermined.

There’s a distinction between “making a bad choice” and “being compelled to start and finish the already-written sequence.” That distinction blurs over time.

The first domino, having fallen with just the tiniest spasm of your lower left eyelid, has set into motion an uncontrollable, predestined cascade.

You didn’t choose to have a twitchy left eye. It just happened. It’s beyond your control. You can’t be mad at yourself for something over which you have no input. You’re off the hook for the guaranteed negative outcome.

Your timeline plays out, like a movie you’ve seen a hundred times before. Impulse, action, reaction, result, emotion. You catch yourself rooting for a different outcome, but you know there isn’t one coming.

Usually, you get a bad result. Sometimes, you get especially unlucky: you get a positive result, which ultimately just presses your departure from this nauseating ride ever farther from today.

A lifetime of mistakes is not going to be made worse by one more screw-up, you remind yourself. Shit happens. You become adept at accepting your own apologies. You forgive yourself, but because you’re ultimately just the victim of a series of predictable accidents, you don’t examine your victimhood much beyond “shit happens.” You don’t examine any more than you would if you stubbed your toe or forgot your wallet at home. Boneheaded move, could happen to anyone, doesn’t define my character or my future or anything. Shit just happens.

That logic has preserved your ego and self-worth. It has also turned “one more screw-up” into “a lifetime of mistakes.”

The difficulty in life, it seems, is in balancing “now” with “someday.” Short-term gratification is necessary, but too much, and you’ll regret the hell out of it when someday comes. And saving up for someday through delayed gratification – be it with regard to money, happiness, whatever – seems like a great plan, but too much of that and you’ll arrive at someday unfulfilled, lonely, and sad.   Someday is coming whether you work towards it or roll down the muddy hill and smack into it.

The idiot regrets his idiocy only when it’s painful. But time and justification soothe pain pretty effectively. Everything is temporary – including embarrassment, guilt, and pain.

And knowing that, the cycle continues. Impulse, action, reaction, result, emotion. Even when that emotion is seething pain, the unbearable hurt is still fleeting, and the next impulse is already bearing down on you.

You know the cycle. You know what happens and in what order. The pain will be long gone by the time the cycle reboots.

What if instead, you find a way to bottle that pain before it sublimates into the atmosphere? Utilize your ability to see the timeline from the top down. Lob a firebomb through time to explode right at the moment of truth.

Right now, while it really stings, you trap the pain. Capture the moment, and use the predictability of the cycle to your own advantage.   Bottle the pain while it’s fresh and concentrated and potent.

You feel the little twitch in your left eye coming on. You see the dominoes from the top down, and see the entire sequence play out in a millisecond before the first one has even fallen. You pop the cork, and the flood of displaced emotion stings your eyes. The disappointment in yourself mixes with the thoughts of the plans you’ll have to rearrange based on your impending mistake.

You see the eyes of her, and her, and him, and her, and him, all silently wishing they could help, but not truly knowing what to do. You think of all of the people who admire you, ignorant to the obstacles you repeatedly throw in your own path.

This is a long millisecond, okay? Calm down.

You realize that the uncorked bottle has really had one monumental effect:

What used to be rationalized as a circumstantial set of accidents and outcomes, is now a proactive decision. It’s a choice, made with 100% of the possible results existing as clear and defined as your own face in the mirror.

It’s a choice that you make, knowing the outcome before you do it, knowing the harm to yourself, knowing the harm to your someday.

It’s a choice. It’s a fucking choice.

The longest millisecond of all time winds to a literary close, and your hand reaches out to stop the first domino from falling. You catch it and set it back upright. Nothing has changed about the rest of the dominoes – they are still just as susceptible to a twitchy left eye. Unchecked, your twitch will result in days or weeks or even years of work undone.

Hell, there’s no guarantee a gust of wind or a stray cat won’t come and knock them all down anyway. But there is a guarantee that if you don’t protect the first domino, they will all fall down. It’s cause and effect.

So your work becomes – from now on – to protect the first domino from falling.

Can you do that? Sure.

Will you do that? Yeah, for a while.

How do you turn “for a while,” into “absolutely?”

Good question. I’ll let you know if and when I figure that out.

One thought on “The dirty work of figuring yourself out.

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