Ponderings

Is This Anything?

I was home a couple weeks ago when I noticed a book by Jerry Seinfeld on my dad’s bedside table. I’m very fond of Seinfeld despite not having watched his show nor stand-up very much. The book is titled, “Is This Anything?” and my dad explained that it’s about Seinfeld’s thought process. When he’s coming up with a bit, he brings up the idea with friends and asks, “Is this anything?” e.g., “What about a bit on how useless cotton balls are to men? Is there anything there?” and the friends will either confirm that there’s something or reject it outright.

I often wonder, “is this anything?” when I’m writing – on this blog or elsewhere. Writing is something I do for myself, so it shouldn’t really matter if anything is there. Yet I’m always implicitly writing with the hope that my words will resonate with someone, somewhere. That my words are something.

It was this last spring that I first read Adam Grant’s New York Times article on languishing. I’ve re-read it multiple times since. The idea of languishing is that you’re not in the pit of depression nor flourishing; you’re in the void in between. Unengaged, uninspired. I was languishing then and I’m languishing still. I think Grant sums it up best when he says, “you’re indifferent to your indifference.” I can definitely say that I don’t care about much these days, and that I don’t care that I don’t care.

As gloomy as this all sounds, I don’t feel particularly gloomy. I just feel burned out. I’m giving myself the grace just to be burned out and not push myself to do things I don’t feel motivated to do. There’s comfort in just acknowledging where you’re at and not fighting it.

At the very least, I’ve finally stopped despairing about some things that are simply not in my control. I can anguish about Afghanistan, the climate crisis, and COVID-19 all day long, but there’s little I can concretely do about these things besides donate where I can, reduce, reuse, and recycle, and wear a mask in crowded spaces. I’ve reached a point of “nothing matters” – not in a fatalistic way, but in a freeing way. I used to hem and haw over things as small as (or perhaps as big as), “Do I order the $15 entrée or the $11? I need to save to buy a house one day,” and, “how can I fit all of my climbing gear, breakfast, lunch, and work materials in a single backpack so I can ride my bike to work and save planet earth?” At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. Spending a few more dollars on a dinner isn’t going to matter, nor is riding to work instead of driving. Sure, the accumulation of these actions can make a difference, but not to the extent that I should constantly obsess about them.

Instead, I’m trying to direct my focus on the things that really do matter. One of them is family. While I was in Tokyo working for the US Olympic Committee, I felt this real urge to return home. I received news that one of my best friends had lost her mom to COVID and that one of my own family members had been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. As an air travel coordinator, I also had to help a significant number of colleagues, athletes, and staff return to the States upon receiving their own news that their loved ones were either sick or had passed. It was a real reminder that life is short, and we don’t know what time we have with each other. I wanted to spend my time with the people I love the most.

At home, I tried to decompress after a rewarding but incredibly taxing experience in Tokyo. After exerting the utmost resilience for months, I broke down in the strangest of ways just a couple days after arriving. It was late Sunday morning. My mom had returned from church and asked me if I wanted a slice of toast. I usually don’t take her up on her offer. (I swear, my whole family seems to believe a slice of toast can cure all the world’s ailments. I think toast is good, but not that good.) But this time, I said yes. My mom’s eyebrows went up ever-so-slightly as she responded, “Yeah? Butter and jam?”

“Yes, please.”

It was just a simple slice of Dave’s Killer Bread with Land O’Lakes butter and my mom’s homemade strawberry jam. But when I took a bite, I couldn’t believe it. It was just so delicious. As I chewed, I started kicking myself for all of those times that I said “no” to a toast offering. The self-reprimand began transforming into pure sadness. When was the last time someone made me a piece of toast? God, it just feels so good to be cared for, after caring for myself this long. Before I knew it, I was absolutely sobbing into my toast. Family matters.

Later that week, yet another reminder turned up. I was out on a longer run, a few miles from home. There was a newspaper in the middle of the road, clearly having not quite reached its intended driveway. As I approached it, I saw a Prius pull over about a hundred yards ahead of it and a man stepped out. From a distance, the man was the spitting image of my grandfather – who also used to own a Prius. A funny coincidence. But then the man started walking toward the newspaper to retrieve it, and the similarities grew. The man had the exact same stature and gait as my grandfather: around 6’4”, shoulders stooped from having ducked under too many doorways throughout life, walking with a purposeful but calm stride. He was dressed just like my grandfather: white New Balances, khaki pants, a white button-down shirt. And when I passed him, I almost stopped dead in my tracks because his face and smile even matched his. Doc isn’t here, I reminded myself. He’s in South Carolina. He just got back from Maine.

I watched the man return to his Prius and drive away. I was shaken. As a somewhat spiritual person, I couldn’t help but feel this was a sign. What if something was wrong? I stopped running, pulled out my phone, and texted him. “Hey doc! How was Maine?” It was an agonizing three hours before he finally responded. So began a text message exchange about COVID, the Olympics, and recent reads. An absolute relief, but once again, a reminder – when was the last time we had talked?

I’m finally back in Colorado after nearly two months away and it is wonderful to have returned. I’m getting back to my hobbies, namely rock climbing, trail running, biking, and craft beer tasting. As much as I longed to be back, though, I’ve come to realize that nothing really changed while I was gone. I spent so much time missing Colorado, but it was always here for me. I now see how foolish it was when, a week before returning home, I considered not going altogether. I had a mini-panic attack, thinking I simply needed to get back to Colorado so I could settle down, re-establish my routine, and not live out of a suitcase any longer. I had to talk myself down from the mounting anxiety and remind myself how important it was that I go home and see my family. And I was right; not only did returning to Colorado as planned make no difference, I wouldn’t have had that moment of crying into my toast, nor seeing my grandfather’s doppelganger. I wouldn’t have received the reminders I needed.

So now what? Moving forward, I’m just doing the things that I know I enjoy and not worrying about the rest. I run in the morning and climb in the evening. I watch Ted Lasso with my roommate. I cook and bake things. I drink a cup of coffee while reading a book on my balcony, overlooking Pikes Peak.

I’m setting boundaries between my work and play better than I have the last three months. I’m committed to not look at email before 8 a.m. nor after 5 p.m. I set up a monitor, keyboard, mouse, and swivel chair at a real desk at home, so I’m no longer doing work at the kitchen table, on the couch, or in my bed. I’m taking paid time off. I’m being honest about my mental and emotional capacity with my coworkers.

It doesn’t mean that I’m not languishing or burned out; I’m just coping with those states of being in the ways I know how. Writing is one of those ways, and that’s something.

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Manifest - Andrew Bird

May 21, 2021