Month: September 2013

Perchance to Dream

“What job would you have if you could have any job in the world?” I was asked recently. On the face of it, the question is a fun little exploration that lets the mind wander through a playground of the ideal, picking up little scraps of hope and insight along the way. It’s a great question to ask, because it puts one in a position to ask, “What in this world matches best with my personality?” Afraid of dogs? Vet or mail carrier is probably not for you. Love talking about anything and everything at length? Politics or radio might be a good fit. Are you accustomed to pain and degradation? You could be a star in BDSM porn or customer service!

It’s a great thought process for kids (with the notable exception of those last two options) because they have their whole lives in front of them. For a thirty-year-old, it’s a completely different question because, perhaps due to a change in brain chemistry at this age, the question sounds eerily like, “If you’d had the passion, talent, or natural ability, and hadn’t been met along the way by constant rejection, what would you like to have done?” It may sound like I’m dismissing the exercise out of hand as unadulterated masochism, but that’s not the case at all. It’s actually quite freeing.

As a kid, I used to daydream that I unearthed an alien spaceship, gathered some friends, and went off to explore the universe. We met aliens of all sorts, fighting some and befriending others, and braved dangers and wonders only the mind can create. And yet, for some reason, not one thing–not the space pirates, not the brain leeches, not the giant lizards that puked lava, not even an entire galaxy of sucking black holes–none of it was as dangerous as returning to Earth. Upon every return, we encountered overwhelming hostility, inadvertently led something dangerous to Earth, or in some other way had to endure undue hardship. Almost every day, I would daydream a new installment of these adventures until I had lived for years on that ship.

But it’s time for a reality check. I can dream up a bunch of jobs I’d like to do, but what are my qualifications? One idea I’d had was to try and carve out a niche for myself as a humorist. I can write words and and speak sounds, but this post was meant to be humorous, so unless there’s a job out there devoted to making people depressed (aside from being Lars von Trier), I may need to shelve that one for a bit.

What do you see, Justine? A theater full of unhappy people.

What do you see, Justine? A theater full of miserable people.

Now, if there were a job out there for a spaceship pilot, I’d be golden.

Of course, there is a school of thought that says a job is a job, and it doesn’t need to be anything you love. You do your work and go home, and in the off hours you practice your art or whatever it is that makes you feel human, even if, for your entire life, those efforts go largely unappreciated. It has worked for many. Einstein did it. We even create fictional characters like Dexter, who can work one job and then go and rack up a decent body count after work. But Einstein finally broke out of his doldrums and earned a professorship, and even Dexter felt the irresistible urge to go full-time.

So what do you do when you choose a profession in which only one out of about ten thousand actually make a viable living? You make backup plans. And you make backup plans for the backup plans. And you make backup plans D, E, F, G, and when you run out of letters, you create a new alphabet. You try not to let plan B fall through, but when it does, you pause, break something you care about, and then move on to C. By mid alphabet, the urge to break stuff is gone and you’ve practically picked up the next plan before the one before it falls through–and whether or not that preemption is the cause of the failure, or whether or not the dissolution of hope is destructive is anyone’s guess.

Pictured: plan n+1

Pictured: plan n+1

You try or pretend or try to pretend that you’ll be as happy with plan Q as you would have been with plan B, but as you put on your boots and prepare for plan R, it hits you. No plan will ever be as good as plan B. Ever. Plan A was always a dream and is reserved for the gifted few. If you can even remember what your plan A was, congratulations. Plan B tasted so sweet, a plump fruit picked from the vine that grew from the ashes of A, and you chase that feeling again, hoping that adventure into new territory will resurrect a long broken dream. Maybe you’re right. Maybe you’re wrong. All you know is that there’s a universe of stars out there, each one with wonders to terrify and delight. And behind you, on solid ground, is only heartbreak and the longing for something that never was and can never be. So you set out and never look back, just an object in space.

A Disorganized Post on Apologies

“I’m sorry.”

Those words have almost no meaning to me now, and if you hear me utter them, I probably don’t really mean it. Sorry.

The obvious explanation for this is over-repetition. I work customer support, and the phrase I’m sorry and its variants, I apologizeI’m very sorry, and please accept my humble apologies, among others, used to mean something to me. I would have to actually feel guilt or shame to use them, but now I can say and write them without hesitation. I don’t even make that little pause before writing the word “humble,” which is something that used to stop me cold. “Humble” is the kind of word that makes one stop and ask themselves, Wait a second. How sorry am I really? But I have spoken and typed apologies so many times that they are now just words, vibrations in the air or a collection of black symbols on a white background, and nothing more. More damning, perhaps, is that these are apologies given for inconveniences or hardships that cannot be traced back to anything I or my company has done.

And it’s invading my personal life. I find myself apologizing for things and then, a few seconds or minutes later, realizing that whatever it was I apologized for didn’t need one. It feels a little bit like being a machine. If a occurs, then do b. If x occurs, do y. It’s very clean and simple–and also completely devoid of any real human interaction. Likely, you have these same experiences. We’re just on autopilot, always saying things we don’t even take a moment to think about, let alone inject with any sincerity, because that’s what the situation calls for.

Y'know, like the rules of a game. (from Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Waterson)

Y’know, like the rules of a made-up game.
(from Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Waterson)

And just like the rules of a game, we tend to accept insincere apologies, almost especially when they’re insincere. I realize that I’ve had an easier experience apologizing for things that might have maybe been tangentially my fault than for things for which I was actually responsible. Think back. When is the last time you had to apologize for something that you did, something that was especially dumb, mean, careless, lazy or dishonest? Did I’m sorry or even one of it’s more sincere brothers or sisters cut the mustard, or at some point did you have to ask, “I said I’m sorry! What more do you want?!” I’ll make up a statistic here, and say that “head” is the answer 53% of the time.

No one trusts I’m sorry anymore. We all know it’s insincere, because we rarely use it when we really ought to. I wouldn’t believe me, so why should anyone else? It’s the same as any other ideas that have strong associations attached to them. Hate is a good example. “I hated this,” a customer will write. Really? Did you hate it? You know what I learned I actually hate? Leeches. I hate how fast they are, how I can’t feel them against my skin, and how they worm their way into the smallest crannies and in between the fibers of my socks. Seeing them on me fills me with rage, panic, extreme unease, and turns me into a clown as I hop around in circles shouting, “Get ’em off! Get ’em off!” The fact that they’re sucking my blood is incidental. So if your experience with our services made you want to puke and pass out and set fire to a large swath of land, then yes: I am genuinely sorry (I think). If you were put out a couple bucks or mildly inconvenienced, I will simply tell you I’m sorry.

The trouble is, we use ideas with strong associations (like regret, love, and hate) like a hammer and anvil to bend and shape other people to our perceptions of what is right and good. You hate something or otherwise take offense, and the Script tells me I’m supposed to say, “Sorry.” If it’s not my fault, though, I don’t care, but social convention says I can’t tell you that, so I go with, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Still, by ‘being sorry,’ I’m on the defensive, if not admitting to some imagined wrong, then at least far more open and vulnerable. I don’t remember being bullied too much in my youth, but I still find myself constantly apologizing when I should be arguing, dismissing, or walking away. Generally, on paper, I’m pretty much an open book, but in practice I hide and stifle more of my genuine thoughts, desires, and opinions primarily because apologizing for them is far more distasteful than the idea that I might be misunderstood.

This would certainly explain the deny-deny-deny model of politics in the last half century. The US government refuses to acknowledge drones and illegal wiretapping even after the cat has long been out of the bag. Japan refuses to acknowledge that “comfort women” during the Second World War were more akin to sex slaves. Why? Because it puts them on the defensive. Once they admit they’re wrong, they admit imperfection and invite doubt. On the other hand, who can blame them? There are still areas of the world that are fighting conflicts that have gone on for centuries, all because “I’m sorry” was and could never be good enough. So we all just carry on, singing the song and going through the motions, making up the rules as we go, because that’s our condition.