Thursday, May 22, 2014

Love and Entitlement

On my 13th birthday, I bought myself a bass guitar. It was a pretty big investment for a kid that age to make, but I was committed to it. At a time in my life when I was just starting to realize that I could actively consume music, I went a little nuts, thinking I could master the art form. My future carreer plans were set: I was going to be a rock star.

As it turns out, the bass guitar has a lot of disadvantages: I had to bring an amp with me if I wanted to go pratice at a friend's house, the bass lines for most pop and rock music of that era are incredibly boring to play, and its size makes it somewhat awkward to transport and play standing up - plus, the "bass player starter pack" that I was able to afford on my saved up allowance didn't include the nicest-sounding, highest-end instrument ever produced. The thing that bugged me the most, though, was that it was just too easy.

My friend Andy started teaching himself guitar. When I'd go over to his house to jam, I brought an old acoustic guitar that belonged to my sister so as not to have to haul my amp. I just used the guitar to pick out some bass lines at first, but Andy taught me to play chords and we looked up tabs on the internet. The guitar had a much bigger initial learning curve, but once I got it, I started feeling pretty good about myself. This instrument had versatility and required skill, not just the ability to play quarter notes on the root of the chord. Gradually, I made the switch, and soon I was asking my bass teacher to teach me stuff about the guitar instead. I'd started out as a bassist, but guitar was my real instrument. This one didn't require membership in a band to be cool; solo guitarists are impressive enough on their own.

Impressing others is important during that phase of life. As a kid who'd spent my elementary school years overseas, speaking another language and living in a different culture, I had a very acute awareness that my best chance for surviving the jump to High School was to adopt all the cool behaviors that I could. I played sports and the guys liked me. I played guitar and the girls did.

I won't say this last part is the whole reason I chose music, but it's not like I was blindsided by it. As much as I was interested in music as a carreer, "I'm buying an instrument so the girls will like me" was one of the primary motivators to my purchase - I couldn't be left in the dust by the guitar-playing guys who were my romantic competition.

Obviously, this demonstrates a pretty immature mindset - what can I say? I was 13 - but it also demonstrates something else: I thought I could earn love. I thought I could gain love from another person by being interesting enough, by meeting enough of their ideal standards, to deserve it.

A few years later, from the comfort of a committed relationship, I mused a little bit about what we call "an entitlement mindset," and how it applies to our interactions with one another.

From my vantage point, at age 17, I thought that anger was generally overused as a control mechanism in relationships. This control-anger arises from a sense that we are owed something - whatever in our minds constitutes "proper" or "appropriate" behavior - from those with whom we interact. Parents become angry when their children defy what they've been told to do, and romantic partners become angry (and hurt) when they feel that the other has broken trust, unwritten rules, or a spoken agreement. Understanding now (but perhaps not then) that I, too, do this, framing it this way delegitimizes the whole process as proper behavior, so much so that I remember telling my girlfriend at one point that she didn't "have the right" to be upset at me over a particular issue (which, obviously, I considered to be an unimportant and unreasonable expectation she placed on me and/or our relationship).

Let's back up for a second, because I came to a prior conclusion that led to adopting that philosophical tenet:

Nobody Owes You Anything

That statement is kinda harsh. It's sobering. And yet, it's become at least a sub-cultural narrative repeated in the growing number of internet articles and blog posts about Millennials, a pointed rebuttal aimed squarely at the collective implicit entitlement of my generation.

Since I usually did my best thinking when not doing homework, I kept right on thinking until I realized this: if no one owes me anything, I can't be mad about not receiving it from them. I don't deserve it by my mere existence, and the only things I could possibly be entitled to are things that I've earned, that I've paid a fair price for, and that someone else has agreed to give me. All other things are gifts of generosity.

"Relational commitments can fairly be understood as emotional (spiritual?) contracts between two parties who determine by agreement that they have mutual obligations to behave lovingly towards one another," I concluded.

Ok, that's not the sum of things, but it's at least a good, analytical working definition from which I can muse onward.

"So, then," the thought continued, "outside of mutually understood unwritten rules and spoken agreements, the two parties in a romance are bound by no obligations of conduct. There are, of course, rules of good practice, but both individuals must be voluntary adherents to these rules if they are to work. Of primary importance in the commitment is what exactly the commitment is."

(And of course, the gifts of relational generosity are just the little perks and bonuses - technically, they couldn't be covered under a contract of mandatory reciprocity, because that simultaneously ruins the fun and makes them involuntary and, therefore, not generous, but they nevertheless should be included somewhere in each relationship.)

Partly because I'm an emotionless jerk who speaks of love like it's an impersonal movement of free market forces, but mostly for other reasons, that girl dumped me with absolutely no regard for my guitar playing skills.

Devastated as I was, I needed a rebound relationship. The next week, I (clumsily, and without clarifying that I intended it to be a date) asked a cute soprano from the school choir if she wanted to go bowling with me that weekend ("we'll both bring a couple friends so it won't be intimidating and we can get to know each other," I thought). Nothing came of that besides a phone call in which I made my intentions slightly clearer and a follow up text from her making vague reference to already being in a casual, unofficial relationship with someone, sort of, and not wanting to "mess it up."

Life went on as normal: I would periodically choose a woman and attempt to show her how irresistibly cool I was in hopes of winning her affections. Earning love. Proving my worth. Trying to show that I deserve her time, attention, emotional energy, and admiration.

Life went on as normal: I would soothe my insecurities by making people laugh, speaking winningly, attending social events and flashing my knowledge of various trivia. My roommates thought I was the bomb. The ladies wanted to get to know me better.

Life went on as normal: I would compensate, and people would eat it up. People enjoyed my company - the palatable, pop-culture-savvy, secretly-bilingual, never-satisfied-with-the-status-quo Stephen was a free-spirited riot, a musical comedian, and a fount of unexpected wisdom. 

But like is different than love. Like is easy to come by, because it's completely non-committal, and it can be earned by doing the right things, looking the right way, having the right kinds of crazy impulses, and being captivatingly relatable. It's strictly related to your public persona - and who's that guy?

Love is giving yourself to another such that they can bear their souls and fear no harm. Love pointedly addresses the ugly, unglamorous parts of a person and chooses, unwaveringly, to honor them.
"Love is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs...It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres." 1 Corinthians 13:5,7
"Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." John 15:13
Love is tender, unhindered self-sacrifice. Who can ask that of another?

To bring this all around and explain my last post:
I periodically encounter crises of identity, big life transitions, or overwhelming frustrations, and I foolishly turn to people that I hope can understand, care, and help. Some truly don't understand. Some have more pressing matters before them. Some simply don't know how to help. Alone and helpless, I feel worthless.

The solution is simple, though. It's right there:
Love lavishes immeasurable value on its object.

But when my pleas are met with such anemic replies, my heart is gripped with fear:

Love Is Costly, and No One Owes Me Anything

Love is costly, and no one ever will owe it to me. I can't do anything to earn it, buy it, barter for it - I can't even ask for it like it's some small favor. It's one of those "gifts of generosity" - it's all of them. People have to just choose whether or not they're going to love me, and I can't control it.

And that scares the hell out of me, because I don't think they will.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Happy Birthday

It's already past midnight, but I think that, having been born a little later in the morning, I have a few more hours before being exactly 25 years old.

Lest you think this is a Quarter-Life Crisis post, rest assured that this is, in fact, how I've felt for at least 10 years. Needless to say, I'm not going to be able to get it all out now, nor to have it particularly well ordered, but here's a shot at doing something since I'm probably not going to sleep.

My life is going nowhere. I mean, I know that's not exactly, technically true, but that's the only way I can describe it.

I've never really been successful at anything. I graduated high school in the bottom 5th of my class, and I had to attend summer school for a month following the commencement ceremony to make up an English credit in order to actually earn my diploma (to be fair, this was due to a bureaucratic error).

Now, I realize that this first point can easily be dismissed, because schooling isn't the measure of a person's value - except that, implicitly in the perspective given me by every single person I know, it is. The most important thing I can achieve is to earn at least a 4-year degree, because that alone stands in the way of me ever becoming a useful citizen or contributor to society. Furthermore, I'm "too smart" not to keep banging my head against the wall of higher education; the little progress I've made in the past 7 years really is probably the best use of that time. I'm sure anyone would trade 7 years of their youth for the same privilege.

That's fine. Some people don't go to school. Do what makes you happy.

What makes me happy is playing frisbee, sir. What makes me happy is having meaningful interaction with friends. What makes me happy is feeling understood and validated. What makes me happy is changing the world a little bit for the better for someone.

That crap's not practical, though, is it? I can't make a living at being a good friend, a trustworthy confidant, or a normal person. That's just expected. I'm not allowed to want those things, because just wanting that makes me a slacker with no ambition and no vision.

What makes me happy? Well an alright substitute for happy is daydreaming about being happy someday. The problem is that it's harder and harder to delude myself as time passes - soon enough, "Successful Someday" will have today's date on it, and then it will self-destruct as it comes face-to-face with reality. I get through the reality by hoping for Someday, but all that is is empty hope. The someday that's approaching is just another old day that I wish wasn't what it is.

Yeah, ok. I realize that 25 isn't old. I realize that some people change carreers in their 50s, or that some people don't even start doing what they truly want to do until after retirement. I have a lot of time left, I guess, maybe. But when you're just getting by, time isn't the cure to your woes. As you have more and more days to survive, time becomes a woe.

Great. Another day I can eat, work, and sleep. Another day I can wish for someone to understand me, to actually enjoy me, to value me, to help me discover how I can better the world in some way. Another day people can like me and laugh at my jokes but not really care what happens to me.

So that's all that.

What are the problems?

Well, for one, I suppose my definition of success is a little warped. That's part of why school doesn't work for me. I can't fill out worksheets. I have to pour something of myself into my work, and it takes a lot to dig that stuff out to meet some parameters. Either I write something simultaneously groundbreaking and accurate or it's not worth writing. I can dump verbose nonsense on paper on command, but I'm morally incapable of submitting tripe as anything other than tripe.

That's why this blog has nothing on it, either. I want to share my life, to write what I know and what I'm learning, to be authentic and transparent, but does anyone really wanna read that? It's not all like this, but it does include this sometimes. Whatever I start out talking about all gets muddled and directionless, and the internet's already saturated with bloggers in their 20s whining about this and that and talking out their asses. Besides the fact that everything I know has probably already been said better elsewhere, I don't even know that I've learned much of anything worth passing along. Certainly this isn't.

Another problem, I guess, is that I don't really feel feelings with the exception of despair. Despair and pining and wishfulness. And I don't know how to process them besides writing unnecessarily dramatic blog posts that my grandparents are going to read, I guess.
Ok, that was a bit much. I'm leaving that paragraph there, but I do feel a pretty normal variety of emotions, probably. I've just learned pretty well to stuff most of them and not deal with them and never offend anyone by being too authentically myself. Obviously, the highest virtue is to speak and respond from a place of unblemished rationality, even if that leaves no one ever sure how you feel about anything. At least there's the safety of knowing you can't make an incorrect judgment that way.

I'm emotionally dependent on other people. I need to have everything I say and feel validated by someone else in order to have any confidence in it. Alternatively, if I'm still confident in what I said and it's not acknowledged by someone (or several people) important to me, I feel misunderstood and alone in the world.

I have control issues, I think, but only over uncontrollable circumstances and other people's actions, you see. Of course my personal locus of control is external.

Related to the last two, I really have trouble achieving any personal goals that no one else expects of me.

Listen, I don't really know who I'm mad at. I'm kinda mad at myself for acting this way, but at the same time, I can't apologize every time I try to be honest. I shouldn't behave like some undeveloped man-child, but if that's what I am, we might as well put it out there and stop pretending.

Maybe this alienated everyone, or maybe it drew in some people I've never met. I guess, finally, I should say that I am actually asking for help, please. This isn't something I can just fix by trying harder, or by just doing my homework, or whatever. I'm going worse than nowhere on my own.