I’ve been giving this idea a lot of thought. You know, watching youtube videos, reading books, and piecing together different chunks of content from the last 53 years. Eventually, I got serious enough to get myself a degree in community psychology. If you’ve never heard of that - it’s a real thing, I promise. As a result of both serious scientific research and a formidable pile of anecdotal evidence, I have become suspicious that it makes sense to say there’s nothing wrong with me. I’m not broken, I’m just lonely, and lonely is a common malady that can be more of a blinking indicator light than the clatter and grind of broken parts. But hear me out. If I’m right, it means there’s nothing wrong with you either. Other than your own loneliness.
I’ll admit that there’s a big difference between what I think and how I feel. I feel like there is more wrong with me than all of my first three cars put together. That’s a pretty negative comparison. My first car was a borrowed and radically salt rusted 20 foot long Dodge Brougham Monaco with badly worn shocks and a gas leak that produced wicked headaches. It was full to the ceiling of smelly paint and painter’s supplies. I had to move five-gallon jugs of paint so Meleea could sit next to me instead of on my lap on our romantic trips to the beach. Second was a four hundred dollar red, white, and blue 1960 Baha bug with defrost on the driver’s side and heat for the passenger. People kept stealing my spark plug wires and I had to cover the exhaust pipe when it rained. Third was a three hundred and fifty dollar urine yellow 1968 Opel Kadet (a rare and unpopular wagon) that ran on three of four cylinders and could only be accessed through the driver’s door. This was fine for me but a bit awkward when trying to be cool in front of Meleea. In fairness to me, while a few folks appear to be driving new Mercedes and Porches, I feel like there’s a lot wrong with most of you too. Maybe not as much as me but enough to make me feel better about myself if we’re going to keep going comparatively like we have been up to this point.
But I think we shouldn’t. I think we are making a fundamental mistake in the way we do our math. The way we are defining what’s right and wrong about ourselves and each other is based on what we can and can’t do for ourselves and for each other and how well. And the main way we measure “how well” is based on convenience. What I mean is, as long as you can handle your responsibilities and the way we interact in our relationship is not too inconvenient for me then my general feeling about you is good or at least indifferent. Whatever is wrong with you is inconsequential enough for me to excuse. If I like you, and our interactions make me feel good about myself, then I’ll make more room for your responsibilities. I’ll even share them with you and, as long as they don’t over-infringe on my comfort and happiness, then what’s wrong with you doesn’t become too much of a problem for me. The more significant the relationship, the more we share each other’s crap without complaint.
In my most significant relationship, the one with that girl I moved the paint cans for, we have been making and remaking this deal for almost 35 years now. Somewhere along the glorious, sun-lit, bird-serenaded, sparkly path we have traveled, we just merged a lot of our responsibilities. It wasn’t all out of romantic generosity. A lot of it was survival, resignation, and familiarity. We fight about what isn’t merged all the time but it’s become and is becoming our reality. Our little dyad has provided me with a decent personal example of what I’ve been studying all this time.
I think the math is wrong because the equation never works out unless each variable only has to handle a limited share of the responsibility. If the variable is a human and the equation is made up of a pair or a small group or even a large group of people, then each person only carries their specific portion. But we haven’t been doing it that way. We say and act like every individual has to be not a small part but one hundred percent. A hundred percent doesn’t need more. It’s complete. They don’t need any of the rest of the system because they handle everything all by themselves. They pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. They looked out for number one and it worked. They won.
But, that’s not how it has been for me. Ever. Everything I’ve accomplished or survived or received was collaborative even if I wasn’t trying for it to be. If I drive from my house to my favorite taco place, I’m using streets and signs and bridges that other people built and maintain for me. I’m counting on my fellow travelers, even though we never discussed it and are not going to the same place or even in the same direction, to not bump into me and to follow the rules we all learned in driver’s ed. I’m driving a 02 Mustang GT that some people imagined, designed, and built when I wasn’t even there. I was born, without any input from me, into an environment that gave me opportunities I did not earn. Things like a safe neighborhood and parents who loved me and each other and worked hard at both. An education provided by teachers who didn’t even know I was coming. Health care from people who spent years gaining the knowledge and skills to help me keep my teeth and the rest of my body healthy. I could write for hundreds of pages listing and describing the contributions of thousands of people who have loved me, known me, or never knew I existed. All of these people have provided from their resources for me. I’ve received it mostly without acknowledgment. For much of my conscious life, I’ve lived as though the way I make it through each day is mostly dependent on me.
I never really considered any of this until I got my first job as a youth pastor in Olympia. I thought it would make sense to introduce myself by teaching about gratitude. I made a “how I got here list,” a list of all the people I should be grateful to. I was shocked by how long it was. Though I did work hard, make mostly good choices, and act mostly responsibly, if not that many people were removed from the list, I would not have arrived at the same place. Remove not too many and I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere at all.
The implication I’m considering after this investigation is that needing help from others isn’t an indication that something is wrong. Everyone can make the same kind of list I made when I was 22. Needing help from others is fundamental to the human experience. In other words, it’s normal. If a human is under the impression that they don’t need help from others, that is the indication that something is wrong.
Lately, I’ve been looking into the research on self-organizing systems. All living systems are self-organizing. This means there is no overt, external force telling them what to do. My favorite example is a murmuration of birds like the one depicted in the picture above. The self-organizing concept has a lot of significant implications about how we are doing as a human system (not well) and what we can do about it. It really isn’t hard but it’s a significant paradigm shift. I won’t get into it now, but I’m excited to share with you in the next section.
For now, I can confidently say that there is nothing wrong with either of us.
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I write about belonging, storytelling, community building, prevention, trauma, resilience, neuroscience, and epigenetics.