Two Score and Seven

Color photo of the author at forth-seven years old, the sun shining on his face in front of a blurry background that includes a tree and the back of a house
The author on the forty-seventh anniversary of his birth.

I’m not getting any younger. A literal deadline is looming over everything I do, and I’m certain I won’t get everything done that I want or need to do. At the same time, I know that I can’t control it or slow it down—my last day could be today—so there’s no sense in worrying or rushing. I have all the time I need to focus on the things that are most important to me. As always, the trick is identifying what’s important.

Looking back at my last birthday post, I don’t feel as old as I did then. I still feel old, but I’m more secure in my oldness. I guess. That’s to say, the challenges I see in front of me day-to-day are not age-related, per se. I look back on that sweet summer child and his perspective, that his forty-third year was “…especially challenging”, and I want to look him in the eye and say: You only think this has been a hard year, buddy. I’ll see you in 2020 and we’ll talk about challenging.

It seems like I had a pretty good plan for what I needed to do,1the changes I needed to make. I needed to be more active in my life, rather than coasting. But while I seemed, on some level, to know what the goal should be, it took about two and a half years to get to the point where I managed to start making any real progress. Additional obstacles in the intervening time included family crisis, existential dread, and a global pandemic.2But in the middle of all that I found a way to move forward and it’s refreshing to be able to say that.

Fear is the mindkiller.

Underlying everything was fear. Fear of failure. Fear of making things worse. Things that bothered me, conversations that I needed to have but didn’t, actions I needed to take… It was obvious that something had to change—I had to change—but I didn’t do anything about it. Because I was afraid. And that fear was something I couldn’t get past. At least, I hadn’t been motivated to really dig in and push through that fear, to let it pass through me and follow its path.3There’s a saying that we only change when the pain of not changing is greater than the pain of that change. I finally reached that point early in the pandemic, in May of 2020. What change did I make?

I finally started therapy.

Yes, finally. I was another perpetrator of the time-honored tradition of empirically knowing the solution to a problem, yet not executing on that solution. I’ve watched other people make progress through therapy. I’ve read countless articles, blog posts, and tweets about the benefits of treating one’s mental health with as much respect and importance as physical health. We know we’re supposed to go to the doctor when we feel sick. I learned that the same care needs to be given to our mental struggles. I knew all of this, for years. But it wasn’t until last year that I made the decision to act on that knoweldge. The pain of not changing reached a tipping point. I reached out to a therapist, and started doing the work.

And now everything is great. The End.

Of course everything isn’t great. That’s part of doing the work: realizing that I’ll never be finished. There’s no “end state” where I’ve figured it all out. Therapy, for me, is about having accountability for the things going on inside my head to someone outside of my day-to-day life. Someone trained to point at the things I think and the things I do and reflect them back at me, so I can see them from another angle.4Some of the things that I’ve learned about myself and how I process my feelings, and how that process influences my actions, have made a real, tangible difference. I don’t always get it right, and I’m always going to be a work in progress. The key word there is progress. Forward, intentional progress. Baby steps, right?

And so it begins…

Starting is easy. I’m really bad at finishing. This is the latest thing I’ve realized about myself, and targeted for improvement. I just don’t follow through on a lot of things. I have ideas, I start doing things, and then… That’s it. Good things sit unfinished until… They just sit unfinished. This blog is the perfect example. I started it with the best of intentions: a place for me to regularly publish things that I write. An outlet for self-expression. The last post before this one was a year ago. Great follow through, my dude. I have a lot of notebooks I’ve collected through the years, a significant percentage of them partially filled with the beginnings of stories that have never gone anywhere. Some are good, some are terrible, so precious few are finished.

I know part of the problem is lingering fear that whatever the final form will be won’t be good. It’s a real fear, and it’s also just…how it is. Most things anyone writes (or builds, or paints, or draws, or…) will be crap. But just like other areas of my life, I can’t let the fear of something not measuring up get in the way of finishing what I start. I have to believe that something finished that isn’t any good is better than something amazing lying there unfinished. Looking at things that are unfinished is much less satisfying than looking at something fully-realized that I can say is done. Anyone can have a great idea, but coffee is for closers.

Corrollary to my inability to finish is that I’m also really bad at setting goals. Somehow in forty-seven years of my life I haven’t really learned how to set personal goals and, you know, complete them. If you could see my to-do list right now (with which I’ve had some success on a day-to-day basis) it would have a lot of entries like:

  • Monday
    • Everything from yesterday
  • Tuesday
    • Everything from the past couple days
  • Wednesday
    • Everything from the past three days
    • A bunch of new stuff that I may or may not get done

Long-term life goals, though? Where do I want to be in five years? Creative or home-improvement projects I want to take on? I agree those things are important, but so far have had little success in turning them into reality. So my goal for the future is…set goals. And then do the work to follow through. I guess a goal to set goals is as good a place to start as any.

I admire people that are able to finish things. I almost wrote “finish things with ease” but I know it’s not easy to finish things. That’s the whole point. There’s truth to the idea that anything worth doing takes hard work, and maybe I’m reaching the point where the fear of hard work is outweighed by the pain of not finishing things.

Right now I’m not sure how to finish this, so I’ll just

  1. “Do more new things, and when I do the things I’m already doing, do them better.” 

  2. These are new friends that have overstayed their welcome, but I guess I’m getting used to them. 

  3. “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 

  4. “You’re afraid of making things worse if you say something, but what could be worse than what you’re feeling right now? What if saying something makes it better?” That kind of thing. 

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