Have you ever found yourself in denial? In denial, looking for a believable explanation why you didn’t do anything wrong?
Sometimes we try to preempt the desperation for explanation by acting in ways that can be qualified in a favorable way later. By looking for the sweet spot of ambiguity as you go. Plausible deniability. Intentionally doing just enough so that there’s wiggle room. Keeping your opinions and participation vague by design so that you can wait to see how people respond.
If others like what you did, you can stand tall with pride, take all the credit, and let the praise wash over you. If others don’t like what you did, you can deny away and distance yourself from what happened.
I didn’t say that. That’s not what I meant. I wasn’t in charge of it. I was going to but I couldn’t. I didn’t know about it. It wasn’t me.
You’ve never done that, right?
Plausible deniability has become a way of being for many. Relationships are scary. Bosses are scary. Looking like a fool or a failure is scary. Making mistakes and dealing with the consequences is scary. Best to make sure you have a way to keep up appearances in case things go south. Staying on the path of plausible deniability keeps you in the safe zone.
But safe is not where life is. It might prevent you from pissing someone off or losing followers on social media. But it will also prevent you from being your real self and having real relationships with other people.
Expressing ideas and opinions you stand behind, making mistakes, and confidently trying things that might fail are essential to becoming a more flourishing person. If you get knocked down, you learn how to get back up stronger and wiser.
So stick your neck out. Be yourself. Own what you say and do. We need to embrace the scary and the relational friction and being knocked down if we’re ever going to get anywhere.
You post something. You say something. You wear something. You buy something. And why did you do it? Not primarily because you’re excited about the thing itself. But because you’re excited about how others will react to you doing it.
The likes. The comments. The praise. The admiration.
You post it, say it, wear it, buy it…because you know it’s got a coolness about it. Some social clout. Some cultural capital. And so you doing whatever it is makes you appear cool or interesting or important by extension. You do it primarily to be seen doing it.
You post a picture at that fly-ass bakery that just opened because you know everyone is going to freak out that you were there. You leave an A+ paper out on the table for the whole period so the rest of the class sees it. You spout off your review about the movie that just released to show everyone you’ve already seen it. You tweet about first-world problems you’re having on vacation like you’re suddenly a local there.
In the age of social media, some people have been able to make a living out of being seen doing things. The people who post travel pictures on Instagram to be seen jetsetting. Who Facebook about eating at the trendiest spot to be seen eating at the trendiest spot. Who “try out” a new product in a YouTube video to be seen using it. They have a reputation of coolness that they get paid for in various ways, because they’re always seen doing the coolest things.
But you needn’t be trying to make a living out of being seen to be a participant. And it’s nothing especially new. Doing things primarily to try to gain status and admiration has been around for a long time. Conspicuous production & consumption seem to be a part of our human nature. Part of the quest to fit in socially and feel liked by others.
We just have more opportunities to do so now than ever before. Instagram has over 600 million active users. That’s a lot of people who can easily post photos and videos in a medium where there’s a temptation to do it to see how many likes and comments you can get.
Are you in an interesting or unusual place?
Did you just see something or someone famous?
Are you doing something exclusive–something others don’t have access or ability to do?
Are you the first to do something?
That could really get a response.
But what if no one saw you do what you’re doing? If no one praised you for it or told you how awesome you are? If you got zero likes or comments? Would you still do it?
How you decide to live and move in the world shouldn’t come down to the things other people will love you for doing. It should be about what you love doing. Things you do because you enjoy them–regardless of what others will think.
If you feel the urge to post a picture or video or status, do it because you feel privileged to experience something that brings you joy. Not because you think others will be impressed. Post it, and then close the app for awhile. Don’t even watch the response come in. The metric of value was that you loved it, not that 100 other people loved you doing it. Maybe don’t even post anything at all.
Los Angeles has, at most, two seasons. There’s a sunny and hot one, and a sunny and slightly cooler one. There are very few days with rain. Few days that are even overcast from morning to night. On most days out of the year, it could be any month if you weren’t looking at the calendar.
This was quite an adjustment for me. I spent nearly 25 years growing up in Wisconsin where there are four clearly defined seasons. You can watch and feel the transitions from one to the next. The summer thunderstorms. The colorful fall leaves. The first flakes of snow. The plants climbing out of the spring dirt.
These natural beats mark time throughout the year. They give you a sense of the change as time passes. Yet also a sense of rhythm and familiarity as many of the same beats happen from one year to the next. The more true seasons and seasonal signifiers, the more connected to time we feel.
We, humans, have added to nature our own markers through the year: holidays. In the United States as recently as the 1830s, there were only Independence Day, Thanksgiving, New Year’s, and Christmas. Since then, we’ve expanded to days like Halloween, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Labor Day. And there are several more informal holidays like Super Bowl Sunday, Black Friday, and national food days for everything from Baked Alaska to leg of lamb.
Holidays give us more beats to mark time through the year. And unlike seasons, we control what holidays are and what they entail because we constructed them. Being relatively older, Thanksgiving and Christmas have particularly deep roots. If you celebrate one or both of them in your family, you’re likely to have a whole host of traditions, favorite things, and memories associated.
The foods you eat, the decorations you put up, the things you watch together, the gifts you give and how you give them, the religious rites you partake in, and more. It can go from the super specific to the broad and ineffable: from the dish that grandma works all day to make and serves at 4pm to an intangible feeling of love and warmth.
Holidays give us rhythm like seasons. You might not circle National Leg of Lamb Day on the calendar, but you undoubtedly look forward to holidays with more depth and memory–Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s. They are moments and spaces in time we come back to year after year so that we can remind ourselves of who we are and what we care about. In places like the endless sunshine of Southern California, or in the distracting bustle of work, school, errands, and bills we can lose track of the passage of time, and with it our self-identity.
Holidays are pockets throughout the year that, no matter what is happening or will happen, we stop and come together with the people we care about. For at least that day, we’re making life happen instead of life happening to us. We have ways of honoring and relishing that day with others.
So as we move into Thanksgiving week and the rest of the major holiday season, spend some time reflecting on and enjoying the traditions, the favorite things, and the memories. And make some new ones!
The heaviness of the election still weighs on many. Amongst family and friends, there are starkly different political views. It happens. We should absolutely talk about those things together when it’s the right time–openly, patiently, respectfully, constructively. But before you go on a rant about who won and why the world is either saved or ending, reach out for a hug, tell them you’re thankful they’re there, and peel some vegetables for the casserole. Put on the movie or the game you all snuggle up and watch together. Reminisce about the travel obstacles you overcame in years past to be together. Grieve the emptiness left by family and friends who are no longer around to celebrate.
Time passes unceasingly. Seasons, holidays, freezing and thawing, growth and death. We never know how much time we have, but at least we have today. And once in awhile today has added layers because we’ve designated it a holiday.
Stop and take notice. Give thanks for the people around you. Embrace. Remember. Make life happen.
May you find rhythm, togetherness, and identity through the march of time.
You know the moments. You’re on the elevator with a complete stranger. You’re just outside of the fitting rooms while your significant other is trying some things on. You’re stuck at a stoplight or a bus stop. You’re waiting to be seated at a restaurant. You’re waiting to receive your food at a restaurant. You’re waiting for the bill at a restaurant. You’re on the couch at home by yourself with nothing to do. There’s a space—a gap. It must be filled.
What is that space? We don’t really want to know. Everything was going smoothly—time well spent. I was engaged in something good, something meaningful. Now I’m bored/confused/anxious. Quick, fill the space with something!
With what? Maybe Candy Crush. The instant gratification feels nice for a bit. Maybe send a text for no other reason than to send a text message. It’s been a little while since I talked to that person anyway. Maybe I just received a text message? Better check. Maybe that feeling I thought I felt was actually my phone trying to get my attention. Yes, someone needs me! I have purpose again.
Or put headphones in and stream a song or two. Or tweet about something random. Or open up some tabs and start perusing what people are buzzing about in cyberworld. Is there some celebrity feud going on?
Have you ever caught yourself trying to fill the gap?
We don’t do well with the stillness. We’re uneasy about being amongst strangers when we have gobs of friends online. Uneasy during moments of utter quiet or uncertainty about what’s going to happen next.
We think we’re in sync when we’re doing what everyone else seems to do: constantly moving from one thing to the next, sometimes doing multiple things at once, turning downtime into some sort of activity that makes us feel good. The gap, the bit of unscheduled time, is an abomination—it has to be filled with something. The gap feels like the nothingness of the empty universe—like our mortality bumping into us. You only live once. Better fill it up with stuff. If I can go from thing to thing and plow through the gaps then maybe I can avoid my mortality altogether. Objects in motion stay in motion, right?
In the gaps, we often feel that we’re missing out. Here I am basically getting old on the couch doing nothing, and I just saw on Instagram that everyone else is living the life of their dreams. But perhaps there’s something even deeper that we’re missing out on. After all, if you’re at an amazing concert and you’re still checking your phone in-between songs during the show—still feeling like when you check that everyone else is living the life of their dreams and you’re not—you have a problem.
What if the gap is not nihilistic space infiltrating our lives, but precisely the unstructured, unallocated time we need to rediscover some of what’s great about ourselves and our world. Maybe uncertainty about what happens next is not wasted time, but a chance for serendipity.
Serendipity. Today, it sounds like something really old-fashioned: the sort of thing that typifies romantic comedies on videotape. Someone just got a new job in a place they think they’re going to hate; someone’s flight is cancelled and they’re stuck in town for another night; somebody has to go to Smalltown, Nowhere for the weekend, with seemingly nothing to do. But—surprise, surprise—that’s exactly where they magically run into the person who ends up being their soulmate.
Could it happen in real life? Of course.1 in 3 people now find their spouse through online dating services, but that means 2 out of 3 still discover each other in-person. Some find it through friends and mutual acquaintances. Others, through participation in some kind of common activity: at work, at a bar, in class, and the like. There’s something poetic and pleasantly old-fashioned about romance found without any assistance from an ideal match algorithm or swiping through profiles in an app. Serendipity can work wonders for relationships.
But I doubt most of us expect to find the love of our life while waiting for our fitness class to start or stuck in line getting our morning coffee. So what else might be serendipitously discovered in the gaps?
Good ideas, for starters. For many, open periods of time are when their brain begins to dance around through countless bits of experience, thoughts, feelings, and hopes, and then make interesting—sometimes unlikely—connections between them. When we’re perpetually filling in the gaps as they come, we’re crowding out the potential for our mind to do some of its most unique work. There’s an opportunity there to slide into your creative process. It could be exactly the moment you find that melody you’ve been hoping to come up with, that thing you’ve wanted to write but didn’t know where to start, or pinpoint a change you need to make in your life that you hadn’t noticed before. Oftentimes, the best stuff shows up when we’re not trying.
What else? In the company of strangers, we might have interesting conversations we would never have otherwise. As an introvert, this is really difficult for me. In an elevator or on public transportation, or anywhere else a person can get stuck with people you don’t know, I feel an urgent need to get my eyes locked onto my phone to appear too busy for small-talk. But in the times that I’ve risked it and resisted the urge, I’ve been fortunate to talk with people from all sorts of backgrounds. You’ve seen your social media friends post pictures of their cat and their lunch before; you probably haven’t heard anything like what the person across from you on the train could tell you if you’re up for talking.
OK, and what else? Ultimately, so much of the world is there for discovery. Have you ever people-watched? It’s the best. Seriously. Humans do some of the craziest, weirdest, most self-centered, colorful things. In just about any public place, you have a front row seat. Look around for a couple minutes, and you’re likely to see something absolutely hilarious or ridiculous. Maybe then you Tweet about it–because it has to be shared. Or maybe you just keep it to yourself, because that one’s too priceless. You might need that memory to bring you back to a good place on a bad day, or maybe the good ideas bulb lights up and you realize what you witnessed would make for a perfect part of something you’re going to create.
If you had desperately busied yourself with your phone or something else to fill the gap, you would have missed something great.
If you’re going to have fear of missing out, have fear of missing out on the unexpected. Not the concerts, the vacations, and the get-togethers at the new spots all the hipsters are going to. Those kinds of things will always be around, and if you’re an active enough person you’ll get to do lots of them over time. Be concerned about missing out on the sparks of creativity and unique encounters that are only going to happen once and then disappear forever. Too few of those and you’ll really feel some anxious emptiness in your life. The gaps are there to remind you that some of the best things are not planned or expected, and you’ll miss out on them if you’re always trying to do something else. The gaps hold everything together.