Peaking and Seeking

Peaking and Seeking

I often wonder if I’ll never be happy. Am I fundamentally miserable, I ask myself in the shower, on the elliptical, in the woods, behind the wheel—a single, simple question cutting through a thunderstorm of anxieties clanging in my mind.

Where others find contentment and peace, I find dissatisfaction, an itch to move, upend, disrupt. I packed a sunshiney life into a car and drove from comfort to uncertainty. At each crest, each summit, each opportunity to pause and bask in what I’ve done, I see a new peak. That’s the view I need.

Contentment feels always just out of reach.

But maybe that’s not the goal for me. Maybe summits aren’t as thrilling as the journey up, the mud on my boots and the rush of passing each obstacle, each scramble, each terrifying cliff. I prefer the labored breathing, strained muscles, and aching joints of a climb to the easy lolling of a peak. Both have their place, and the best photos are of views and elevation signs, of accomplishments, not of sweat. One might think this is my why, these moments of pause, but I climb because I like—I really truly enjoy—the discomfort of burning lungs. I move faster not to get there sooner but to take myself to the edge of pain, where I feel a delirium that’s as close as anything to happiness.

Someone recently described me as “a miserable person who will never be happy.” He was a man I hated—a 70-year-old who spewed racist and misogynistic comments and delighted in tyrannical control. His presence was a cloud under which I darkened.

I shouldn’t value his opinion of me any more than his opinion of, say, Black Lives Matter (which is that they’re “evil,” for the record), but the barb stuck anyway. In those eight words, he articulated my greatest fear, the melancholic strain that hums under every thought and blares in quiet moments. Am I fundamentally miserable.

Dissatisfaction rules me, and I choose pain, over and over and over.

“You choose growth,” a friend said, and I appreciated her generosity. She believes I’m chasing a higher ideal, and she could be right, I suppose. She could see something beyond my ken—the perspective of an outsider often tells more than our little eyes, our little selves locked inside our worn neural pathways, can ever discern. I want to believe her.

Still, it feels as if growth is a byproduct of my preference for ache. I strive not to achieve but because I feel safest pressing against limits, huffing, straining, shedding tears of distress.

Siddhartha eventually settled by the river, taking people to and fro, and glowed in the simplicity of such a small, repetitive life. I’ve met people like that, who shine their peace through wide smiles and warm eyes. They envelop you in their contentment and seem to offer a promise that you could find your own, if you would only allow yourself to rest.

I want what they have. I want my presence to become an embrace, a bosom into which you can sink and feel safe. I want to effervesce.

Funny that the peak I actually yearn for, the only end-game in mind, is not a summit but a valley. It’s the decision to stop scrambling, to ease into comfort, to revel in the simplicity of an un-striving life, and I’m not yet capable of such profound peace. Even at rest, I’m poised on ready haunches, taut, tense, prepared to spring after some next challenge or thrill. My presence agitates.

Yet—yet—we need agitators to fight. If Siddhartha lazed while his countrymen died, what was his enlightenment worth? At what cost did he shine?

I don’t yet have answers or know my role in this life. I don’t know what I’m headed toward. I know only that for the time being, I need to squeeze between boulders and leap over streams; to press forward, press harder, press limits, suppress needs; to pant and sweat and ache and bleed; to strain and never reach the realization of dreams.

Comfort in discomfort is as content as I can be.

Performing happiness

Performing happiness

My favorite days on the trip so far have been those spent in other people’s homes. A few friends have been kind enough to let me crash on their sofas, and dropping into the warmth of a place where people actually live—with its personality and memories and myriad little markers of daily life—has been such a welcome respite from the sterility of places where people stay.

Each time, I’ve left completely refreshed and on high, even when I’d thought the only thing I could stomach that day was isolation in the form of snack-scarfing and an epic Netflix binge. (God that sounds good right now.)

 

Earlier this week, I hit a low. Through a series of events that had nothing to do with me and everything to do with circumstances in someone else’s life, a person I love cut me out. It was done swiftly, unceremoniously, and without warning. This person had been among the most important people to me this past year—someone whose presence had direct and profound influence on my growth—and I’m left with a hole where friendship and unshakable faith had lived. My week was a thundering cloud of betrayal, grief, and heartache. I wanted to hide from the world and nurse my wounds in private, not roll around playing Happy Tourist for Facebook.

Still, the road needed to be driven. Work needed to be done. And people needed to be visited. I had no choice but to rally.

When you drop into someone’s home, you can’t bring a stormcloud with you. You can’t show up and mope and cry and complain about how DEVASTATINGLY AND UTTERLY UNFAIR it is that someone turned their back on you. I mean, you can certainly tell your story—and believe me, anyone who would listen this week heard mine—but you can’t wallow. You have to be alert to the moods and rhythms around you and try to contribute something positive, or at least be an innocuous addition, to the environment you’ve been welcomed into.

In the throes of my pain, the energy required to be even neutral seemed impossible. I remember sitting in my car in Portland before meeting a friend for dinner, which would be followed by a night on her sofa. Fatigue pulled my face into a sour droop, and I felt hollow. As I sipped the coffee required to work up an ounce of enthusiasm, all I wanted to do was curl into a ball and cry. I couldn’t imagine actually socializing like a human. I was a PAIN GOBLIN.

But then a funny thing happened. I did it anyway.

I went to dinner and behaved in a decent, verifiably human way. (I think? Maybe she has a different read on it, and I was unwittingly goblining it up.) We had nice conversation and went to her home, where her wife and children were so bright and beaming and lovely, my heart burst into a million pieces.

At some point, the effort to perform happiness turned into actual good feelings. I left elated, ready to face the world again.

A similar thing happened in Seattle. I was one again reeling from The Drama™ (look, I, too, thought I was too old for the phrase “blocked me on Snapchat” to feature into my life in any kind of way, much less elicit real tears, but here I am, MILLENNIAL AF) and didn’t necessarily want to take a ferry out to a remote area to stay with someone I barely knew. But I went. And I put on my happiest, most charming face, because the less you know someone, the more value you have to offer to earn your place on their sofa. Plus, I was determined to have a good time dammit.

You know what? We had THE BEST TIME. We enjoyed a lovely dinner overlooking the harbor, reveled in being the only two single women in a bar full of hilariously thirsty men (my favorite was the dude who approached and said, “My name is Lee, what’re yours?” then shook our hands and said, “Okay, I’m drunk, that’s all I’ve got,” before scurrying off to steal someone’s drink from the table next to ours), and visited a farmer’s market in the morning. The entire stay was a delight, and I once again left on high.

I’ve seen the concept “fake it till you make it” applied to happiness, notably from Gretchen Rubin, and I think there’s truth in it. Part of what I liked about corporate life is that it forced me to present as someone calm and put together, and in a way, I started to become calm and put together. I don’t know if it works the same for everyone, but I seem particularly susceptible to performing my way into an emotional reality.

On the road, when you’re alone for long stretches of time, it’s easy to let yourself become consumed in the emotions swirling around your own head. You don’t have anyone to fake it for.

As I plan my journey (and life), I’ll have to make a point of adding Performance Touchpoints along my path—time spent in environments that force me to behave like the person I want to be. To wit, I’m on my way to Vancouver for Design & Content Conference, where there will be friends and warmth and at least three full days of performing my Networking Best. I imagine I’ll leave there an emotional camel with a hump full of happiness that will carry me all the way to Minnesota and the comfort of my family.

As for The Drama™, I’ve mostly managed to put it out of my head. I’m coaching myself to remember that betrayal doesn’t erase all the good that came from a relationship. I’m still allowed to hold onto that and to the moments we shared. Whether or not we ever speak again, those belong to me, to us, and that’s all I can comfort myself with right now.