Every January 1st, birthday, start of a semester, 1st of the month, Monday morning, or other arbitrary marker, countless people across the world declare that are going to get their shit together — like, now.
From henceforth, everything will be different. Immediately.
It’s a nice idea. In theory. The idea of having your shit together is vague and means different things to different people, but it’s usually some amalgamation of being stable:
- Financially (i.e. spending under control, saving money, no ‘bad debt’, on track with paying off ‘good debt’, regular income)
- Physically (i.e. eating properly, exercising, avoiding/limiting alcohol and other drugs, in good overall health)
- Mentally (i.e. happy, content, not depressed, accepting of yourself, confident, self-assured, embracing amor fati)
- Socially (i.e. in a solid relationship, socialising regularly, getting on with people, making friends, happy family)
- Spiritually (i.e. whatever that means to you: fulfilled in some capacity)
- Professionally (i.e. in an enjoyable, satisfying job, progressing well, learning & improving.)
For some people, having their shit together means being happily married with a little brood of kids, a paid off mortgage, and shiny hair. For some, it means managing to pay the bills, get laundry done, shower once in a while, and smile sometimes. For some, it means passing out drunk on a front lawn less than three times a week.
For most of us, it’s more of a mindset. We know it when we feel it.
For moments here and there, we think we’ve got the hang of it. It’s that feeling on a Sunday when your apartment is clean, the cat is flea-treated and napping peacefully, the plants watered, inbox in order, plans made, bank balance healthy, face mask on, whatever.
In Going Sane, a book about what sanity means, Adam Phillips raises an important question.
Is sanity about accepting yourself or about changing yourself?
“Should the project be to attempt to cure ourselves, or to accept ourselves as we are? Should we, in short, think of our madnesses, our symptoms, as a toolkit we have evolved for dealing with reality, for getting by; or should we think of them as a kind of truancy for our lives, an evasion of what we need to do, a weakness?”
Are our flaws, our inability to ever truly get our shit together for long, “an integral and necessary part of our lives or are they superfluous?”
In short, getting your shit together is not about being perfect or infallible or trampling down your natural urges.
We all know that’s impossible and when we chase it, we’re just using an unrealistic image to beat ourselves over the head.
We are using the belief that we could be perfect as an excuse to dislike ourselves at a fundamental level.
We are building a glorious marble statue of who we could be, if we weren’t ourselves.
Because getting your shit together is really about growing up and becoming an adult.
Children don’t have their shit together. They are chaotic bundles of confusion, stumbling wide eyes through the world, motivated by pleasure and unquestionably following their whims.
Phillips beautifully describes this as an ‘original madness’ and the process of growing up as like the Biblical concept of the fall.
We fall from childhood and find ourselves in a world where we are not enough. We can never be enough.
Suddenly, we cannot do as we wish. Suddenly, we know that pushing against the boundaries will only harm us. Suddenly, our emotions cannot overwhelm us and we must suppress them.
Suddenly, we must start the project of undoing everything we learned about the world in childhood. Suddenly, we are possessed by the desire to do things we saw as wrong, disgusting, impossible or simply not our domain. Suddenly, we are full of shame.
With that shock fall from childhood, we discover so much that we don’t like about life.
Phillips writes that for the adolescent, “one of his moods, one of his most gripping preoccupations, will be a sense that life is impossible, that life doesn’t work…that life is too painful.”
Because no one could possibly love adulthood, at least not at first. You’re no longer allowed to play all day, sleep when you wish, pout and have others concede.
Worst of all, you are faced with the insurmountable task of understanding everything that happened to you as a child and what it means for your future.
And you find yourself imprisoned by the defaults you developed at an early age. The ultimate task is to “convert childhood trauma to adult triumph.”
“Part of the project of adolescence”, Phillips writes, “ is finding out what makes adults so addicted to life.” Part of getting your shit together is moulding a life you can be addicted to.
A life you don’t want to lose. A life that somehow still involved what Phillips describes as the “infantile pleasures of being loved, adored, stroked, held, cuddled, infinitely attended to and responded to, and thought about; of only sleeping and eating and playing” because “these are the truly satisfying pleasures.” Despite the unavoidable truth that you can never have your shit together if you do too much to chase infantile pleasures.
These pleasures are, well, pleasurable because they let us be in a state where we are enough. We are complete. There is nothing but the joy of the moment. To get our shit together, we must turn away from that sense of wholeness.
“All blueprints of what people should be like are at once denials of reality and attempts to create it anew.” The image of a person with their shit together is that denial of reality. The urge to be them is our attempt to recreate ourselves.
We can never hope to manage both. But we can hope for something even better.
Although Phillips offers a few different definitions of what sanity means, one stands out: “Sanity is a talent for not letting whatever frightens us about ourselves destroy our pleasure in life…The sane create, the mad merely suffer.”
Because that’s what it really means to get your shit together.
Understanding what you’re afraid of. Understanding all the things that you count as not having your shit together. Understanding that those urges will always keep bubbling up and derail your efforts to get everything in order.
And not letting that ruin things. Letting it be part of it all. Figuring out what matters, and what you should focus your energy on and what you should let go.
Which is a lot. Our time and energy are limited. There’s only so much shit we can get together. We can’t have it all. We can have so much, but we can never have it all.
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