December 5, 2007

On saying goodbye.

There are so many clichés that, as I grow up, I find are really true. And with every one, I go through the same process:

"Gee, I've discovered this amazing and unique thing about humanity that no one has ever discovered before, but how can I express it in words... Hmm, well, in this case, I want to convey the idea that sometimes you want to express a sexual attraction to a person and have them confirm a reciprocal attraction, but you don't feel a level of attraction where you'd want to start anything long-term -- you just want an innocent exchange of physical compliments... If only there were some succinct way to say it, like, uh...

"Oh, I know: A kiss is just a kiss.

"Oh, wait."

[It's another cliché that every generation thinks they're the first ones to feel every emotion, and have every idea.]


"Youth is wasted on the young," my mom used to always say to me, which made me want to smack her, because *I* was young, and I was hearing her basically saying that she wanted to suck the life-force out of me and horde it for herself. That ship has sailed, mom! (I already did the opposite to you.)

Now I'm reasonably old, and I find myself thinking, "Damn, I wish I had all the time ahead of me that I had when I was 20, because I think I've finally started to figure out what life is about, and I was so miserable then, but now I'm worried that by the time I really get it down, I'm going to be enfeebled and not able to enjoy it... if only there were some succinct way to say this... some kind of saying... oh, wait."

Damn you, mom!

But the cruel irony of clichés is we're doomed to not understand them until the moment we re-coin them for ourselves. Just as you can't explain to someone why it's bad to stick their hand in a flame until they've actually felt pain, you can't explain love and loss and happiness and inner peace to someone who hasn't experienced those things, first-hand. And, by that time, their response will just be, "Duh, I know that now, you should have told me a long time ago."


Recently I've been thinking about nature of loss, and how we all want to deny to ourselves that it will ever happen to us. We want to believe that every love is our last love, that our cat will outlive us, that our job will continue to be a perfect fit forever, that our health will continue until we drop dead, which we won't ever do anyway, and that our friends will never move away or betray us or simply grow more distant over the years.

And, yes, all evidence points to the contrary. Most people think I'm morbid when I say, "You know, this relationship *will* end badly," and they won't discuss it further with me. But, honestly -- the very best we can hope for is that our relationship will end with one of us dying. And, seriously, that's going to suck for both the dead guy and the person left behind. Or we could hope to both die simultaneously, but, I dunno, that doesn't seem entirely awesome either. ("Hope you die when I do, honey! Good night!")


We are denial machines. This is what I've learned going to TED these last couple years -- there are several amazing talks on this, I'll point to this one by Michael Shermer on "Why people believe strange things":

And this one by Dan Gilbert on "Why are we happy? Why aren't we happy?"

There are others which I can't find at the moment -- I encourage you to look around. And maybe I'm doing a disrespect to the incredibly intelligent people who've written these talks by restating them in my own words, but, hey, that's how I do.

So, the gestalt I got from TED was: we are "designed," as beings, to be unreasonably optimistic. That is, we have evolved an unrealistic optimism as a defense to the fact that everything good ends, and in fact ends badly. (By definition -- if we're enjoying something, we don't want it to end, but everything ends, and if we're not enjoying something, the good part has already ended, so QED.)

As we stood erect and grasped things and used tools and grew our brains, we became self-aware, and then aware of the finite span of our happiness, and our genes faced a dilemma (evolutionarily speaking): our race could either be hopelessly discouraged by the tragedy of life, or we could be kept a little bit stupid so we wouldn't think about it. But this is a logical fallacy: a false dilemma -- there's a third route, which I believe evolution took: she gave us with a blind spot. We are, fundamentally, illogical when it comes to our expectations of happiness.

There is another cliché of sorts, or perhaps more of an aphorism: "In 100 years everyone you love will be dust." This is simply a truth. But it's depressing. Right now your mind is busily throwing away that sentence. You are reacting to it as you would a bad smell. You might even be angry that I mentioned it. "Why are you burdening me with this? What the hell good did you just do me?"

But I'm not burdening you, not really. You're not going to be thinking about that sentence tomorrow. It's your defense mechanism -- well, it is if you're a lucky, normal person. There are lots of depressed people out there, and they have trouble ever moving away from those thoughts, so, sorry to you guys, but I bet you've already thought of that one anyway.

Let's consider depression, and also consider that the geniuses we revere today were generally very disturbed, unhappy people. Are we, in fact, evolved not to be too smart, because at some point when you crank up intelligence, you can't help but see past your blind spot, and start to notice that life is, in the end, futile? That no matter how much we struggle, we WILL lose everything; we will die. We will be alone when that happens.

So what, you say? Why not just enjoy the here and now? But I say this is a sham. You're lying to yourself. Because if I told you, with certainty, that you were going to die in 10 minutes, you wouldn't try to enjoy the here and now. You'd be crushed. Paralyzed. You wouldn't say, "Oh, boy, I need to make sure I really enjoy those 10 minutes! I'm going to eat an entire cake, screw the calories! Then have sex without a condom!"


I want to note I'm using a generic "you" here, in part to represent myself. Please don't take offense. I'm not trying to pick on YOU you, in particular. Nor am I scorning humanity from some mighty perch. I'm part of this sham. I get up every day and struggle to convince myself that, for some reason, things are going to get better for me, when, by definition, all the available evidence (eg, my life so far) suggests that things will be as good for me as they have been, and no better.


Imagine a society of rational beings (without our blind spot for how bad life can be) came to Earth to observe us -- ignore that this race wouldn't have developed space travel because they'd all be too busy staying up until 4am taking bong hits and watching "Chuck" on trying to forget how miserable they are.

Now, imagine what they would think of our lottery. This alone pretty much demonstrates that we are unreasonable optimists. We know, KNOW, that the average person who buys lottery tickets will not hit the jackpot. That, in fact, they won't break even. Not "average" as in 51% of people -- we know the vast majority of people lose. We KNOW, and in fact are explicitly told at the point of sale that the odds are amazingly stacked against us, and we are pissing our money down a hole.

And, in fact, even if we were to win, most of us understand the cliché that "money doesn't buy happiness." We've seen the human-interest stories on lottery winners and cluck-clucked over the statistic that most of them report being less happy after winning the lottery, and a large number go bankrupt within a few years.

"But that won't be me!" we say. We are promised, guaranteed by the seller and by every mathematician that our odds are exactly the same as everyone else's, yet we make up new rules for ourselves, in defiance of all logic, that say we're going to win, and moreover enjoy it when we do. Dammit.

Because we need something to look forward to. We need the dream. Once, long long ago, there were two types of people: those who could fool themselves into thinking life was worth living, and those who couldn't. Needless to say, the second group died out really quickly. And the first group has had millions of years to perfect its technique for overlooking the bad in life.


Again, I'd like to interrupt myself and say, hey, unreasonable optimism is a really good thing for most of us, most of the time. I mean, I have nothing against being happy, whether it's reasonable or not. If you want to sing in the rain, well, it's a bit of a cliché, but I obviously have nothing against those. I will join you whenever I can.


But maybe -- and this is what I've been thinking about -- just maybe, we should be AWARE that we're fooling ourselves. Maybe we need to occasionally pull our heads out and do check on the actual position in the world, and say, "Yes, we need to believe in order to get out of bed in the morning, but we also need to sometimes consider reality from a very rational standpoint, and make sure we're merely singing in the rain, and not singing in a monsoon that is the precursor to a giant flood that's going to kill us unless we climb that hill over there right now."

I feel that way about things I blog about, like global warming or war or politics, obviously. In general, we want to trust our politicians to take care of us -- we need to -- but it is also our duty to examine the world closely every once in a while, and not be surprised if it's screwed up and needs another course correction before we get back to our comfortable denial. It's been needed many times in the past (this isn't even our first energy crisis this half-century), and we shouldn't feign surprise when it happens again.


So, yes, when I start a relationship, I tell the woman, hey, you know, in all likelihood this will end in tears. (You're sorry you're not going out with a prize like me, right? Mayhap you're surprised I'm still single at 38?)

But, wait... in my defense (possibly weakly) I'll point out: ending in tears is not necessarily bad. I mean, it's just there. It's a fact that we will end, it's simple probability that we'll end unhappily, unless you want to redefine happiness. So, let's spend a little time planning for it. Thinking about the possible endings. So we can mitigate the bad things that are fungible and probable, and go back to ignoring the rest.

Let's spend some time getting me life insurance, so if I do die, you can continue to live in my house. Let's think about what we'd do if we simply grow out of each other, so we can be civil if it happens.

And most importantly, let me say this to you -- my friend, my lover, my family -- in advance: if it does end, I want you to know I won't regret it. Because everything ends. We spend all our time denying it, and when it finally happens we think it's the biggest tragedy in the world. I know this -- I've lost or given up the most important people in my life several times now. Sometimes I lose sight of the fact that it was inevitable. And if we only let ourselves think about loss when it strikes, we're going to be overwhelmed.

How many relationships end where one person says, "I'm sorry I ever met you?" I've never felt that way. I'm never sorry, because you obviously brought something into my life; that's why I invited you in, in the first place. I'm often sorry that it ended (and sometimes not), but I always knew the end was there. I don't like loss, but an ending doesn't negate all that was good.


"Goodbye is hard to say." You knew I was going to end with a cliché, didn't you? I think the person who coined that one was thinking the same things as I am now, and came to the same conclusions, maybe. And that person said, damn, blogs haven't been invented yet -- is there some snappy saying I can come up with that will be remembered by the next generation, so they can avoid all the heartache I had?

Well, no. You can't avoid heartache. But you can understand that it's inevitable. And, sometimes, maybe that's what you need to hear. Yes, you're going to hurt. I'm sorry. Don't let it spoil everything good.



Blogger Bill Mill said...

A parable:

This winter, my goal is to learn to do a handstand. The past few weeks, I've gotten pretty good at getting up in the air, and getting down somehow without hurting myself, which can be something of a trick when you're falling towards your back.

Anyway, last night I discovered a problem: I was much too good at getting up and falling down. I needed to believe that I could stay up - and with just that thought, I more than doubled my average stand time.

Just a thought.

December 05, 2007 6:40 AM

Anonymous mj said...

i don't have anything too profound to say, just that every day since i've read this blog, i've mentioned the ideas in it to someone, and reminded myself of them. perhaps it's because i'm going through a terrible break up (which doesn't make sense-i'm not going through it, it's over and done with, but again another phrase we all use to denote a certain situation), and have not been handling it all very well. you're right, every time we love we want it to be the last time.
starting all over isn't what i expected, but something about everything you've said makes sense to me.
and that's more than i can say for anything else in my life right now, so thanks.

December 12, 2007 11:16 PM

Blogger Wil Shipley said...


I think you do, in fact, "go through" a breakup -- you go through it alone, but it's still a process and you move forward through this process.

It's a helluva thing. But, to be pollyanna, the worst break-ups in my life have also been the ones that finally motivated me to make changes in myself, which made me much, much happier.

So, in the end, I'm actually grateful for the ones that hurt the most. Go figure.


December 13, 2007 12:21 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

thank you for this.

December 18, 2007 11:32 AM

Blogger said...

I liked the ending. Smile.

My friend and I are both going through enormous break-ups at present, the emotions mostly sorted, the gleaning of what has made us stronger and wiser and what has hurt like hell still ongoing. Had to send him your piece.

God, I love coder demi-god / philosophers. Your blog has been a favorite for a while. This rocketed you to the top. (Actually only. I gave up blogs a while back.)

January 01, 2008 3:34 PM

Blogger EmptySet said...

This post is a Flaming Lips song.

January 15, 2008 10:51 PM

Blogger Mike said...

Great post. Great conclusion and wrap up.

This is my favorite quote:
"Sometimes I lose sight of the fact that it was inevitable. And if we only let ourselves think about loss when it strikes, we're going to be overwhelmed."

I think that's the key too.

February 08, 2008 10:36 AM


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