the funhouse mirror


At some point you have to ask yourself: where does your chemistry stop and your choices begin? You look at your situation and assess that you are taking all of the drugs you’re willing to take, and getting all of the talk therapy you can handle, and any outsider would look at your life and conclude that things seem pretty much fine.

And yet, you stand on the edge of a chasm: on the other side lies a place called “general well-being” or “contentment”, and you realize the gap between you and this other place is still too wide to jump, even with a good run. Then comes the debate that everyone has at some point… does anyone actually live over there? Besides true Buddhists and those without compunction, does anyone have a rest state of organic happiness, or is it like General Public sang, “it’s a sad but natural fact, there’s something deep inside that stays lonely forever”?

It’s not a debate you want to have with anyone else. Even those with the patience of a saint will tire of your gloom in short order. Even those who are tremendously depressed themselves will bark at others to “snap out of it”, to “think positive”, as if their diminished powers will suddenly find purchase in someone else. More likely, everyone is barely keeping it together, and have no strength to play sideman in anyone else’s blues.

Here’s the kicker, though: everything we do – especially long-term – we do because it provides a payoff. Ask yourself, why are you negative? Why are you choosing dread? I mean, once you’ve wrestled most of the demons with chemistry and therapy, what are you gaining from your misery? If it wasn’t providing something, you would have stopped long ago, so what exactly is it?

And then it hits you: it’s your identity. It’s who you are. Who would you be if you weren’t Unhappy? Where would you get your power if you weren’t full of Rage? You have been these things for so long that you don’t know who this other, “happy” motherfucker would be. Think of alcoholics in recovery – it must be almost impossible, since so many of them knew themselves to be funny, raucous, unreliable, self-immolating drunks. They have to rebuild a new persona, and let’s be honest, that’s really goddamn hard.

Ask yourself: would it really be so bad to be someone slightly different? Would you really lose your energy if you didn’t have something making you angry, and would others find you less interesting if you hadn’t brought a trauma along?

Suppose you were to choose being positive – when it was an option, of course – and you felt the chasm between you and warm happiness begin to close. Perhaps you even could even walk over there now. What if you discover that you have just as much energy and remain just as interesting? What if you could stop hoarding, end your desire for coddling, and best of all, stop considering yourself an exception for everything?

We eat what kills us, and then, when told of our condition, hoist a flag of what we eat. Our town is washed away by a hurricane we name our children after.

0 thoughts on “the funhouse mirror

  1. Alan

    I’ve been reading your blog for years now and this is actually one of the questions that keep popping up from the other side of the question. I am a lucky guy but used to be quite a moaner and groaner in my twenties. I think I was a ranter, certainly a disappointed dreamer. But at least in my 40s – but probably starting earlier – I have pretty much told rage to screw off. I have taken on impossible projects like seeking to make an international boundary fade a bit locally in a number of ways including the goofy:
    I adopt people, figuratively and literally, and presume that all the stuff I suggest they do might be good for them might, you know, actually be good for them. I ignore the crap that used to look like a wall and see everything as maybe an opportunity. I have gained a seeming certainty that things will fall into place even if I have no frigging idea how – running toward that goal will just get me there. I even think if I had just three hours with you a croquet set, good lawn chairs and some gin that I could straighten you out a bit. How weird is that?

  2. Jody

    It’s a damn shame to conquer your problems and just be left standing there all content. Sounds kinda awkward.
    It’s not going to be bad to be someone slightly different- you might find that others have always waited for you to get past the anger and anguish and get on with being your likeable interesting self-

  3. noj

    not trying to oversimplify, but to me, happiness & despair aren’t states of being, they are just occasions & fleeting ones for the large portion of us. the “states” that most of us are in fluctuate between gloom on the negative side, hopefulness on the positive side and maintenance right in the middle. if i remain in a hopeful state for a decent amount of time, i feel pretty lucky. this isn’t intended to be advice for anyone, just the way i think about similar stuff, ian.

  4. Rebecca

    I really needed to read this today. Thank you. I have a friend that I have tired of after 5 years of drama. Unfortunately, I was unkind to her this week, but enough is enough. Now I just don’t know what to do, because I can’t save her, and she obviously doesn’t want to save herself. It’s so sad.

  5. bridget

    this morning, as i was making the bed and thinking about the day and what i was going to do with it, a brief thought popped into my head about a woman at work who had just turned 24 the other week. and i remembered that i told her then, “oh you’re in for it now, 24-28 are misery years.” i said that because for me (and others with whom i’ve shared this topic), each day felt like a struggle. a tussle with who i was and wanted to be, how to get there, not really knowing, feeling too much without enough distance to have perspective… and so on.
    and, as i pulled the top sheet up to the pillows, i wondered “now that i have that perspective, what would i really do over if i had the chance?” and before i could make a full catalogue, i realized that it probably wouldn’t have made a difference in terms of the temper of my moods – my own tendencies towards melancholy and gloom.
    the thing is… now approaching 40 (…), i feel like i have all the tools (emotional/mental/physical) i need to pull it together and really do exactly what i want. which makes me happier. i feel like i can be productive in a way that i’ve never been when hampered with the “why’s and what if’s” of before.
    anyway – i’m also just about to read this article in the atlantic called “what makes us happy?”
    so a very timely post…

  6. janet

    we all die…………..but right now you are so alive………hang on to that………just that .What seems to be a lonely option becomes a very warm blanket because you suddenly realise that you are not alone……..everyone experiences
    this……….they just don’t write about it. You will be ok xxx

  7. sam

    Great post, Ian.
    I work at a non-profit arts institution that can be a dismal (and typical) pile-up of bureaucratic struggles and, thus, a mud slide of employee negativity.
    Two weeks ago a colleague of 8 years decided – seemingly overnight – to be positive about everything, after being fairly negative for a long time, years in fact. She’s sought some treatment for her downcast views in the past. Now, with her new outlook, she said she decided to do everything she could to see the glass half full for a change.
    Among other things, she helped book a presentation by me at a routine staff meeting last week (people need to know what you are doing, she said, it’s exciting) and I decided, influenced by her, to put a really positive spin on everything. I even made a couple of self-effacing jokes that made my bosses come across well. The whole time I was looking across the table looking at the beaming face of my colleague. She threw in a couple of positive quips to nudge forward the presentation.
    In the two days after the staff meeting, I had two of the best conversations I ever had with my boss. I also had a warm conversation from another colleague and I ended up booking a dinner and concert date for me and my wife with this colleague and her husband; it’ll be the first time we’ve never done anything socially in a decade of working together.
    We’ll see how long it lasts. But right now the positivity stemming from my first colleagues conscious decision seems sincere and contagious.

  8. Bud

    If the question is whether you’ll be happier happy, the answer is yes. You’ll never want to go back. Been & done.
    Happiness doesn’t mean you walk around with an ED-ad grin, of course.
    Mainly it means you practice seeing yourself and the world as they are and accepting yourself and the world as is. You recognize that the laws of physics govern physical things 100% of the time and that human nature governs human interactions something like 99% of the time.
    You are the same, but easier for yourself and everyone else to deal with. Everyone and everything else is easier to deal with, too. You get more done without stressing yourself additionally. You appreciate your accomplishments more.
    It’s just way cooler in every way with no downside I’m aware of, kind of like HD-with-Tivo-over-regular-TV cooler.
    Anyway, that’s been my experience.

  9. Big Scott

    “ED-ad grin”. Beautiful. That term has been added to my lexicon. I’ll make sure to use it only after 10pm lest Jim Moran and his cronies have objections.
    “Families for ED Advertising Decency Act”? Sheesh.


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