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Showing Up Is Not Enough

Life’s greatest lesson.

A year ago, this week, I took a trip to Phoenix. It did not go as planned. I was a beaten man back then, a drunk, a lonely wildfire blazing across America, pillaging my past and the depths of my own misery: attempting to understand why the people I loved kept leaving me, and why I had no interest in keeping the people who loved me.

“I’m a good person,” I thought to myself in between endless Fernet shots. “I’m talented. I show up. I work hard. I have everything I want. I do everything I want to. Why am I so miserable? Why do I feel so lonely?” And, for as elemental and elementary as those sentences all sound, strung together like wispy affirmations, couched within them lies a profound lesson — a lesson that starts with an observation.

Reread the bold text. Now, I want you to imagine that you heard me say those things to you in a bar. What would be your first thought? Would it look like this?

Me: July 2017

Thought so. Those are the words of a very broken human — the kind of shattered mess that finds the shards trying to shank each other. The fundamental flaws in this line of thinking are myriad:

  • An assumption of intrinsic “good”
  • A presumption that talent is of value in a vacuum
  • A karmic philosophy that concludes you get what you work for
  • An expectation that filling one’s space and time with satisfying things and people will lead to happiness
  • An overwhelming and overarching sense of virtue and entitlement
  • At the same time, a self-cruelty that undermines the virtues themselves

Why do I share all this with you? Have I really grown as a person since then? After all, the following snippets still feel true: I’m a good person. I’m talented. I show up. I work hard. I have everything I want. I do everything I want to.

Perhaps you’ve noticed I spent the better part of the back half of 2017 taking you with me on a quest to answer the final two questions: Why am I so miserable? Why do I feel so lonely? Perhaps you’ve noticed I’ve spent most of the first half of 2018 actively presenting my findings. It culminated in a 15,000-word monolith, penned in two eight-hour sessions on a Saturday and a Sunday, where I ignored my phone, my life and my hygiene to unspool it all:

TL;DR — The self is an ocean. It is both the water and the coast that contains it, and both the water and the coast exert equal force on the way they shape each other.

To back all the way down from that elegiac metaphor: Goodness is not enough. Talent is not enough. Hard work is not enough. True joy requires none of these things. Overcoming loneliness requires none of these things. Success itself won’t solve it, even if you climb all the way to the top of the mountain — that mountain’s just a treadmill. Succinctly: showing up is not enough. It takes more than that, but also less; it takes minding the waters before your waves come ashore. I want to tell you what that looks like.

I was out at lunch with three friends — all women. That’s an important call-out, because of what I’m about to tell you: Our meal quickly devolved into the three of them sharing stories about how little the men in their lives do for them. How lost they get in grocery stores. How much they’ve let themselves go. How poorly they manage money and schedules. How little they help around the house. How perplexed they are by laundry machines. How much they expect. I was not shocked by this information; I’ve had these kinds of conversations with women one-on-one before. It was, however, the first time I’d heard women — in real life, not on Twitter, where this dialogue is quite common — have this conversation with each other. The tenor was different. I listened, as it cemented a realization: For men, particularly white men, the bar to clear for being a functional human is incredibly low. Why do I bring this up?

Their husbands — I know two of them well — are good people. They’re talented. They work hard. They have everything they could want, and they do everything they could want to. They live in nice homes in pretty neighborhoods. And yet the fellas unwind with a six-pack of beer at night, or bungle attempts at romance and/or self-reliance, while the wives come home from work to do the domestic and emotional labor it takes to maintain the home and a tenuous grip on their own sanity. No wonder “wine”-related swag marketed toward women proliferates on Pinterest. No wonder #selfcare is so trendy across the country. Again, this is not news, but to see it tangibly embodied, and articulated as a sort of “we just sort of understand that this is how it is, and we wish it wasn’t like this, but what can we do,” was eye-opening. These men are just showing up. In a way, we all are.

Capitalism and Patriarchy, particularly in their most caucasian and heterosexual forms, sort of box men into a corner: we’re often force-fed a narrative that in order to find true joy and acceptance, we need to race down a path of “dominance.” We must develop skills. Make things. Go places. Work ourselves to the bone. Win things. Earn things. Buy things. The faster we can check all these boxes — high-status job, hot wife, big house, smart kid — the better we did at “leveling up” A+ 13/10 very good boy. It’s an immense amount of pressure, a narrow focus — and a misguided one. We find a lot of men now cracking under the weight of their own ambition, or giving up entirely … mailing it in, in every sense, hoping to end an unwinnable argument against their better halves, inner demons, and society at large with a “well, I tried, didn’t I?” These are the men — we are the men — who were taught: I’m a good person. I’m talented. I show up. I work hard. I have everything I want. I do everything I want to. I deserve happiness. I deserve love. No. You do not. We do not.

Leave it to a straight white American sexual predator like Woody Allen to live by a maxim like “Showing up is 80 percent of life.” Leave it to us to believe him. It is not. Nor could it be.

The truth is, honestly, showing up is like 10 percent of life. Max. The other 90 percent is how you show up for it. What do I mean by “how?” I’ve done a lot of thinking since I first read the words “how you show up” by friend and fellow scribe Amber Rae, author of the acclaimed Choose Wonder Over Worry.

How we show up is, ultimately, how we exist, how we contribute, and how we are measured. Capitalism and the white hetero-patriarchy have allowed some of us — for clarity, people who look like me — to show up however the fuck we feel like it and expect to be gifted the world. We expect the coast to erode to our will with our every wave. We are perverting exceptionalism with excellence. We have been poisoned, and we are perpetuating that poison through our own behavior. What kinds of behavior? Let’s examine a day in my life — one of my “I’m just going through the motions” days — for reference:

I wake up hungover, 30 minutes before work, still smelling of booze and cigarettes from the night before, grab an un-ironed, un-tailored shirt hanging from the rack and a balled up pair of jeans from the floor, and speed to work, taking a toll road, tolls I don’t plan on paying.

I coast through the first half of the day in a dehydrated daze, mainline three cups of coffee, fire off some emails, and I’m famished by lunch. I gorge on some fried chicken for lunch, nod off into a nap some 45 minutes later, and sleepwalk through some meetings. I steamroll through project after project, and bite off more side-projects than I can chew, to soothe my self-loathing (I tried!). My mind starts glitching and short-circuiting as I move further our from the night before, my mood cratering by the time I punch out at 4:59.

At home, I desperately try to catch up on my other work, toggling between scrolling my social media feeds and actually being productive. I let calls go to voicemail. I snap at myself for being “like this.” I send fiery texts to friends asking how to soothe this existential ache, and, unsatisfied with their unwillingness to provide concrete answers to indefatigable questioning, I post an even more fiery 4,000-word dissertation on existentialism to Medium, where I’m showered with praise for my “realness” and crackling prose. Satisfied and validated, I slam a six-pack of high-ABV IPA, chain-smoke on my balcony, and drop half-a-bar of Xanax to fall asleep around midnight, but not before baking a pizza or some kind of 1,500-calorie food delivery. The cycle repeats itself. The glitches become features. The neck-beard grows.

Do you yet see how this is problematic? Yes, I make enough money. Yes, I make many happy memories — through travel, philanthropy, volunteerism, passion projects, writing, concerts, novelties. But when you take it all away — the success, the stories, the magic — I am face-to-face with myself, and the reflection frightens me.

I can excuse it as “depression” and “anxiety” — very real dispositions with which I’ve been saddled due to my brain chemistry and a childhood that only through therapy did I learn was abusive and toxic, and a lifetime of being browbeaten by opportunities I felt entitled to that didn’t arrive, mistakes that haunt and harass me in a constant fire-hose of negative self-talk and inward-directed self-cruelty. Yet because I look like me, I am not held to any standard and have no accountability for my own behavior. I face no real consequences, except my own misery and loneliness, which feed into the cycle even more. Maybe I’m not alone in the way I feel in those moments. Maybe I’m not alone in the way I exacerbate my own sadness and isolation, and perpetuate the cycle of mediocre men gobbling up more than their fair share of acclaim, wealth and opportunity. I suppose by writing, this is my way of finding out.

But things changed for me, didn’t they? After all, if no less than a best-selling author I’ve met in person once could comment on the way I show up *(and, to be fair, all I did was make kind find her a poet to perform at her book signing, make mildly entertaining small-talk, and act as what she termed a “room captain”, like I said the bar is incredibly low) then there’s more to my life than what I just described. So, what’s different? Let’s get into it. Let’s talk about the rules that govern How I Show Up. (And how you can, too.)

Rule #1: Give A Shit About How You Look

Women have been doing this shit for centuries. They haven’t had another option. You know why “salads” are gendered so feminine? Because we’ve been forcing women to care about their weight to avoid judgment. I’m all for the upcoming salad movement. Give me some cucumber, some dill, some tomato and some olive oil. While I’m at it, give me some fruit, some chia seed, some sustainably-sourced fish and some acai bowls (I believe “acai” is Portuguese for “Instagram.”) And, fuck, give me all the avocado toast.

Also: that Silicon Valley startup slacker chic? Let’s scrap that shit. Iron your clothes. Trim your neck-beard. Find a crisp shirt that fits and some slacks to match. Accessorize. Shower early and often. Brush your teeth. Floss. Visit a damn dentist. And a doctor, while you’re at it.

Rule #2: Give A Shit About How You Feel

You’re not tired, you’re probably dehydrated. Drink more water. Eat better foods. Do Cardio. Yoga. Meditate. Have a bedtime and stick to it. Lay off the booze. Stop smoking so damn much.

You’re not stressed, you’re probably sloppy. Maybe clear the beer cans up from around the house. Do the dishes. Deep clean every now and again. Actually do your laundry and fold it.

Also, actually feel the things that you feel. People who look like me have diverted into two camps:

  1. People who deny and suppress all their negative feelings, and over-compensate for this through sexual dominance, athletic prowess, pathological accumulation of wealth, power and status — occasionally physically or sexually abusing the people around them. (Your classic “alpha male,” also the white supremacist in the White House.)
  2. People who feel all their negative feelings, loathe themselves for feeling it and not having it all figured out, lean into them, often express or project them in unhealthy ways, unintentionally (though, sometimes intentionally) emotionally abusing the people around them. (Your classic “beta male,” also Marc Maron, also me on a bad day.)

Master your emotions. By putting in the work to understand yourself, you’ll understand what triggers your mood swings, changes in mindset and behavioral glitches. Study yourself. Go to therapy if you need to. Read a real, paper magazine for your news. Take control of your mind, your heart and your soul, and be consistent in the way you treat yourself and others.

It’s okay to take actual care of yourself. It’s not selfish or self-indulgent to want take charge of your health and emotions: It’s selfless. It’s an act of kindness to yourself and the world around you. It’s a lot more difficult to be an asshole when you’re acting like a healthy, complete, fully-formed grown-up. Preventative maintenance keeps the car out of the shop.

Rule #3: Value Life Equally And Above All

This is Egalitarianism. Some of you probably call it socialism — which is truly bad branding (too Soviet!) and not at all going far enough with regards to how you re-imagine society and your role in it.

We’ve warped pathological individualism. We value revenue over real life. We value profits over people. We value share-prices over sharing. We see our humanity as something to escape from, and we actively work to dismantle it in others, and — in doing so — we destroy it in ourselves. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Actively listen to other people: people with different experiences, beliefs, skin colors and identities than you. Also, maybe listen to your friends and family instead of just waiting for your turn to talk. Cultivate real relationships in real life rather than just yelling into the fucking Internet about how much everything sucks. (You, too, progressive white dude-bro with the man-bun.)

Be grateful for the world around you, and work to improve it. There’s no shortage of problems to solve, but solutions are in short supply. Be your own hope. Bring your whole self. There’s ways to get involved often without you having to do anything too dangerous or time-consuming.

This worldview, this “value all life equally and above all” brings startling moral clarity. You can easily discern the intrinsic difference between right and wrong, rather than just seeing how people react to what you do and gauging it from there. You can appreciate the world more and what it gives to you. You’ll trick yourself into recycling your plastics. (And those beer cans.) You’ll enjoy dogs and cats more. You’ll understand culture: how it operates, how different cultures see things differently, how different people react differently to the same situations. You’ll know true humility, curiosity and empathy.

Show everyone, regardless of who’s choosing to take time out of their day and yours to interact with you, the same high level of respect you’d want shown to you. Be kind. Be gentle. Behave appropriately when situations call for it.

I started this journey in August 2017, with a simple resolution — or, rather, resignation letter.

The quest hasn’t been perfect, or easy. I’ve had some drunken nights since then — often in other cities, or to gather up the courage to play cover songs in front of strangers — and I’ve had lapses in my preventative maintenance. I’ve had some dark days, but the clouds part quicker, and the storms are less severe. By and large, I’ve been pretty clear on developing healthy habits that put me in control of myself. In fact, here’s the full list (it covers a lot of what we’ve already talked about, it’s just more actionable, so it’s the proper place to go if you’re curious and want to learn more):

So what’s happened since? I don’t know, man, where do you want to start? I’m operating at a fucking all-time high. I’m kinder. I’m calmer. I’m happier. I’m healthier. I’ve lost weight. My blood pressure and resting heart rate are lower. And, you know what? I make the same amount of money. I’m more productive than I’ve ever been, without feeling like I’ve had to work so hard to do it. I suppose I do have less sex … but that sex is better than its ever been.

I’m a good person. I’m talented. I show up. I work hard. I have everything I want. I do everything I want to. I’m not as miserable. I’m not as lonely. I’m less broken. The shards are scars, but they’re healing. The red flags are only flying at half-mast now. I’ve got a long way to go, but this is a goddamned good start, and — like I said earlier — the bar to clear is incredibly low.

The self is an ocean. It is both the water and the coast that contains it, and both the water and the coast exert equal force on the way they shape each other. It takes minding the waters before your waves come ashore to shape your ocean the right way. Showing up is not enough. Do the emotional and domestic labor required to shape it. It’s better for you, better for humanity, and better for the world.

(But … probably worse for the “wine”-related swag industry that’s marketed toward women. Oh, well.)

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