By Samara Ferris
One day, while walking through the tree-shadowed streets of the Upper East Side, my friend Ron (whose hair was reminiscent of Einstein…fittingly, he was an agent for classical music conductors…) offered me a question which I’ve since pondered many times, “Why is it that intelligent people are often the most unhappy?” The question provoked a litany of names; artistic and bright individuals whose lives were wrought with sadness and anxiety. “Is it true?” I wondered. Since then, I’ve adjusted the reasoning a tad, realizing that intelligence is not the predictor of dissatisfaction in life, instead it is the hyper-aware person’s preoccupation with the constant weighing of options, with worry, with considering all angles, all possibilities all the time. “Am I entering into the right major? Is my career of choice going to make me happy? How will I ever afford a house? How can I ever get out of debt? Am I screwing up my kids? If I let them be carefree children will that affect their chances of success later? And if I drive them toward success at a young age, will that end up robbing them of their childhoods? Is this all just a Catch-22?”
You can spend your life constantly weighing every option, counting every penny and dime. You can forego the vacation or that cross-country road trip. You can never buy the good wine, you can live in fear of commitment and end up unhappily alone or you could live in fear of being alone and end up unhappily committed. You can look up Amazon reviews of this coffee grinder and that coffee grinder ad infinitum. You can spend your evenings generally collapsing from the day: from the day of constantly striving, pushing, driving, pulling, researching, doing. And sometimes, it is necessary to press beyond. But sometimes, it is also necessary to not give a f**k: to do the best you can do at that moment, and then to let go of the rest.
It hit me one day while I was busy accumulating ammo against my partner. I was busy feeding my frustration, waking up every morning to a sloppy kitchen that I had just cleaned the night before. You know the scene: an array of dirty silverware on the countertops, my good knife plastered with hodgepodge fruit and vegetable parts lying upon the cutting board next to a swash of squeezed lemon carcasses. My dishtowel—a gift from my mother—used as a cleaning rag, dirty dishes in the sink. This is my routine: wake up, go downstairs, assess the damage, get angry, suppress it, repeat the next day. But finally one day, searching for alternatives: it doesn’t have to be that way. He is the way he is. And I love him that way. We take care of each other, and we both take up the slack of the other here and there. What would happen if I just accepted this as part of the day, part of my contribution? What if I could not be angry? What if I could just accept that this is something I have to accept and move on? Or, what if I could leave the dishes in the sink once in a while and go outside and weed my garden, play with my herd of dogs (we have four, it practically necessitates the term), go on a hike, read a book, or just sit on the lawn and let the sun rain in through my eyelids, enjoying the pure simplicity of the summer? What if I could get out of the monotony of obsessing over the little things that do not matter and instead choose to live my life? What if I could stop trying to make myself into someone else and what if I could stop trying to make others into my idea of their better selves, and what if I could just do the best I can at the time to make a pretty good decision without obsessing over whether it is the very best or not? What if I could train myself to stop thinking sometimes and to just enjoy these fleeting moments and not give a f**k about the things not immediately within my control?
“But what if I am in the wrong major? This is serious, this’ll affect my whole life!” you say. “But I cannot possibly consider switching careers this late in the game, even though I’m miserable.” My high school science teacher once gave me very good advice. When I told her my most troubling problem: that I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up because I wanted to be it all. A writer. A chef. A painter. She told me, “First, you do one thing. And then, you begin to do another. And then, you do another.” When she said that it just seemed so clean and obvious. This frenzied burden of figuring out my entire life at the age of 16 stopped (or at least slowed), and I felt free. Someone had finally given me the license to do all that I wanted to do…or to do none of it. We need to give ourselves license to un-think. License to do what we want to do instead of lamenting the day over too many glasses of wine and too much Netflix. We can allow ourselves to be human, to figure things out as we go along, and to not have everything figured out from the get-go. You may not know exactly how things will turn out, but trust yourself to figure it out and you will.
For many of us, the recent events since last election may have caused you to want to hide under a down comforter and eat cake until you pass out, lulling yourself into calm through eating-induced apathy. Or perhaps you’ve just woken up from night terrors a bit too often, feeling the hopelessness creep deeper and deeper into your psyche. Every week is another battle, another disturbing story, another human life extinguished, another awakening moment forcing you to cope or be destroyed, slamming into you like a raging bull, ominous horns rearing, eyes red with rage. Well, YOU. CANNOT. DO. IT. ALL. So, stop trying. By trying to fix all of this, to fight all of this, we are wearing ourselves down, wearing ourselves out. We are losing control of health, of calm, of our ability to be effective. Do one thing. Focus on one issue. Take that thing seriously and do what you can when you can to protect those things that matter. Write to your Senators, call your Congress-people. Stand up for the things that matter to you and do so with sincerity and without caring what anyone else thinks. And when it begins to all feel like too much, like the walls are crumbling into sand and you can imagine yourself ostracized, homeless, broke—whatever—ignore that. Go have a popsicle. Learn to identify some trees. Get out of this little cell of yourself and know that YOU. CANNOT. DO. IT. ALL. But, you can do this thing— this one thing—well. This you can do. F**k the rest.
And yes, sometimes life falls apart. Sometimes your kids hate you. Sometimes you default on your loan. Sometimes, the weight of it all seems unbearable and it’s easier to transfer it all into some sealed vault deep within. Sometimes, happiness seems so far, so desperately, achingly far that you begin to regard it as a fantasy, reserved for others but no, not for you, and maybe, you think, just maybe, it’s not necessary anyway, just a meticulously crafted lie to keep us from seeing the bottomless cavern that is our nihilistic existence. I know that happiness can elude us, and often does. And sometimes happiness drifts far away to allow space for life to rearrange itself, as unbelievable as that seems when everything around you seems shrouded in shades of grey. Truth be told, good things don’t last. And neither do the bad things. No one will care at the end of your life that you saved 10 minutes angrily racing through traffic to get to the store before the lines formed. No one will care that you saved an extra $10 because you spent 3 hours cutting coupons and comparing brands even though you didn’t have to. No one will care that you sabotaged your own life…because, well, it’s no one else’s life but yours, so, it’s no one else’s responsibility but yours. Buy the good wine, dammit. Drink less but enjoy it more. Enjoy the crap days and the good days. Cry it out. Swear it out. You’ll figure it out, and you can come out swinging on the other side. The good and the bad? They both won’t last so enjoy the quirks and the things that anger you about your partner…he or she won’t last forever either. Fall apart once in a while. Wear those weird shoes everyone hates but that you love. Go to concerts and be the only one in the crowd dancing. Cry when you feel empathy with a lost human life. That is real. That is human. That is all we have. This is it. The one life, the one time around. Let’s not be whimps about it. Protest if you want to. Travel. Or don’t. Figure out what matters and what doesn’t. Care about those things that you really choose to care about and f**king forget the rest. Be honest with your kids. Write a book. Write a play. Be in a play. Or appreciate that we all work and we all have parts of life that suck. Accept that and move on. Move through it. Either stay in it and learn to enjoy it or get the hell out. Otherwise, you’re just wasting your time.
When I think about life, I think about my dad. Not in a Gone Fishing with pa kind of way, but in a way that acknowledges that my dad is one of the most unhappy people I know. In fact, he is miserable. He just…never could learn to be happy…or to be happy with not being perfectly happy, if that kind of twisted logic can make sense to you. Did you begrudgingly read “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller in high school? It’s reminiscent of that scenario, minus the intact nuclear family and the all-American kids. My dad trudges to a job he detests day in and day out for the past thirty-something years. He works hard, keeps his head mostly down, cannot understand why he cannot get promoted, and saves his money to pay for his empty 3-bedroom house in Tennessee still furnished ten years later with moving boxes (from moving in) and boxes of my brother’s and my toys, bins of socks, moth-eaten packages stuffed with old bathing suits, gloves, and pajamas still unopened as souvenirs from my parents’ divorce sixteen years ago. He arrives home tired and laden with the burden of helplessness and replaces the potential for joy with Trader Joe’s ginger snaps & chocolate almond bark while binge-watching The Simpsons. Life is a dream; in the sense of being asleep behind the wheel. When I think about my life, about wanting to turn and run, to hide somewhere, anywhere, to avoid hurt, to avoid failure, to avoid decisions, I just think about my dad. And when I do, I remember that life is too valuable to sacrifice to a couch. Too valuable to sacrifice to helplessness. Too valuable to sacrifice all of my time, creativity and potential for joy or at least potential for meaning to the wool-over-the-eyes warmth of complete non-doing. Time is too valuable to dedicate it all to something so thoroughly sub-par yet within my power to change. This life is real. And every day we are making it. Our choices matter. Our ethics matter. You don’t have to be perfect. But you do have to get dressed and show up. Not giving a f**k about the things that don’t matter (i.e.—get off the Internet and out of your head!) allows you to truly care about the things that do matter. If you care about American jobs, buy American-made clothes! Buy Danner boots, which are all still made in this beautiful country! Spend your money where you want to see your contributions go. Upset with the government for not banning GMOs? Buy organic when you can. Heck, even better, get searching and get to a farm or farmer’s market and get real food. Fresh food. And keep your money in your community. Stop relying on others to change the world for you. Every choice you make molds this world. That is something to give a f**k about. And, you may even enjoy eating better foods, connecting with the seasons, learning new recipes, and just generally feeling healthier and more banded with the world around you. Care about that. Care about your sanity. Care about where your dollars go. Care about your Planned Parenthood in your town (or not if that’s not your thing). Care about your state of mind. Care about it. And if the boat tips over, learn to swim, and plop that sucker back up again. Do what you can when you can. And f**k/ok the rest.