I was thirty-five, divorced, broke and miserable when I decided that I’d wasted my life following idle dreams. It was time to face reality and settle down — meaning to get real. I was sure at the time that I was doing the adult thing; boy I was wrong. My unhappiness had blinded me to the other meaning of ‘settle’ — to compromise oneself.
You don’t always get what you want; even if you do it may not be what you need. That’s why compromise seems so practical and grown up. But when happiness seems like a childish dream and cynicism sets in, it’s easy to settle for pleasure instead of joy, mere company in place of loving companionship and just more stuff rather than the wealth of life lived to the full. At least, that’s what I did. I told myself it was temporary — just until I found the real thing. The trouble is, settling goes against the grain and keeps you so busy justifying yourself that you soon forget all about the real thing. Say what you like about loneliness and misery, but they kick you where it hurts and get you off your backside. Settling smooths everything over in the most unhealthy way.
For years as a naïve young Catholic, then a hippy and finally a Buddhist monk, I’d indulged in notions of escape from this painful world into the transcendent bliss of the next. Now I’d woken up to the fact that I’d been on a fool’s errand. I left behind the issue of whether or not there was a better reality and focused instead on the real possibilities of here and now; I surveyed the options before me and determined to choose the best ones.
See how reasonable it all sounds?
In that far-too-rational state of mind, I chose a new wife (people said we looked great together), shelved dreams of becoming a writer to take a well-paying job in the technology sector, and tried to forget the lifetime of idealism that had brought me to my knees. Everyone commented on how fine I looked.
I clung to these superficial rewards, but deep in my gut I hated it from day one. Such is the power of human denial that it took me six years to admit that fact — to myself. Meanwhile I continued my slide into compromise, befriending phony people, ignoring memories of my undigested past and turning into a nervous wreck. The more I based my self-worth on that outer shell, the more arrogant and disconnected I grew.
One morning I found myself staring in the bathroom mirror at someone I barely remembered, but who threw me a smile of recognition. I saw not just the failed person I’d worked so hard to leave behind but also the child and young man from whom I’d grown. I knew this was my friend, or should be. I compared our situations, felt empathy for myself, and actually shed a tear. Six years of denial evaporated in an instant, and I acknowledged it quite simply with, “I’m back!” It was a happy surprise.
Nevertheless, that was the beginning of a tough year. I had to undo many mistakes, disappoint a lot of people and sacrifice all my hard-earned but ultimately futile gains. I came out of it chastised, leaner, far more honest than I’d ever been and — at long last — mature. I was also happier than I could remember, even though I was feeling pretty lonely.
Shortly after that I began writing again in earnest; I made contact with old friends from my ‘weird’ days, I took up teaching once again and rediscovered the power of being true to myself. It was an epiphany that just kept going. I thought of the Jimi Hendrix song, “I’m the one that has to die when it’s time for me to die, so let me live my life the way I want to.”*
Just remember, others may try to stop you, but only you have the power to actually stop yourself in your tracks — and then rationalize it. Have you ever done that? Are you doing it now? It’s not always an easy question to answer, trust me.
Watch out for denial; it’s worse than the devil himself.
* If 6 Was 9, from the album Axis: Bold as Love (1968)