The Only Way To Get Life Right

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The Only Way To Get Life Right

In February, 2020 — ordinary time — a dear friend and I decided we should co-host a podcast on self-development and finding love. [If that sounds dull, well … please pull around to the next window.] We met on Monday afternoons, weekly, to get things tidied up. We had fiery chemistry. If love was tough as leather, we were both awls.

From the outset, we agreed: If we were going to do it, we were going to get it right. Each chat, we spoke organically for between one to two hours. The red light was on. We talked of spiral dynamics, psychedelic drugs, enneagrams, and so forth.

I’m a prodigious typist, and so I’d transcribe and compose our ideas, action items, messages, and strategic insights. I fit them inside this little puzzle I’d dreamed up while trying to reverse-engineer the answer to the question: “What is your creative process?”

We tinkered. Tested microphones. I bought domain names and played with digital audio workstations. We recorded episodes for the “can” — and I edited them. We laughed, pondered, wondered. We had fired up the turntable. By May, we’d prepped to drop the needle on the vinyl as the motherf*cker spun.

Then, a Monday went by without a meeting. A lonely text exchange, “Hey! I’m on the Zoom!” Nothing. It just slipped, as things do. The following Monday, it slipped again. That was it. We chit-chatted. I didn’t push too hard, nor did she. The embers left a trace of blanks and a cloud of smoke behind. I thought it was me. Then, I assumed she had something going on. If she wanted me to know, she’d let me know.

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Yet, with nary a whisper, a friend and co-host… gone. The podcast never made it to air. Right around Memorial Day. Probably for the best. And, if that’s a bizarre entr’acte for an existential essay… well, welcome. Hi. More to follow.

A fish story.

Julie and I were fast friends who went to St. Matthew’s Preschool in North Tonawanda, New York. Our families, collectively, built both our houses. My Papa poured the concrete foundation. Her Papa plopped a home on top. We lived just down the street from one another, on the street that bears her name.

I remember walking into Julie’s house and climbing a little stepladder, to reach the tippy-top and feed the goldfish inside the aquarium. My strategy? Dump the entire shaker of fish-food inside the tank. Feast, you floating lung-less overlords — feast!

I was told, by an unknown someone, this was less than ideal. I was carefully escorted from the home. I do not recall whether I’d killed the fish, or if they’d even gorged upon their bounty, yet the dye was cast. John Gorman: Fish Killer. As for Julie and I, we’d miss each other in the school halls. Perhaps her parents told my parents I was bad news or something.

Two things were true after that day: I never stepped foot in that house again, and I always felt painfully shy around her. I’d see her at the beach over the Fourth of July outside Port Colborne, Ontario — her family had a cottage not far from mine — walking by her firepit, hoping to avoid eye contact. As a kid. As a 10-year-old. Not once invited to roast marshmallows. Not until I was 20.

Eventually, we’d sit around the fire together — her and I in college, along with friends we both knew from when we were in elementary school — and we maintained a loose, outer-ring friendship that lost its gravitational grip sometime in the 2010s. It fizzled the old-fashioned way — the way people used to lose touch. The fish are dead besides, and I shall never own a tank.

The axe remembers.

I keep a running list of humans I think I’ve hurt in my life, to whom I feel I owe an apology. It’s in a Google Sheet. In some cases, I know what I did and why it hurt them. In others, I don’t know what I did or why it hurt them. In yet others, I know what I did but not why it hurt them. And, finally — sometimes I know what I did and don’t know why it hurt them. I think about them, often, and about that ambiguity, especially. On a run yesterday, I mourned them. Today, I arrange them.

I worked up a friendly howdy-do with Rust Belt mechanic; then once wrote him a $220 check I knew I couldn’t cash on a bartender’s wage. I exchanged endless DMs with a quasi-Parisian journalist who once joyously retweeted my Mediums; then I unwittingly crossed her. I shared an easy, enchanting evening with a Colorado blogger; then we flared up at random like defective firecrackers. I think of a bizarre blackout in Los Angeles, where the white-hot sizzle of live wire exploded and scattered shards I’m still detangling. I once found out I was lied to while reading a piece in the New Yorker. Was I offended? No. I was honored.

Still, it hurts to be this man. It hurts to struggle. To suffer. To wound. To scrape. To sacrifice and kill. It scars. And there’s an uncomfortable soft-spokenness to it all. If closure were natural, we wouldn’t seek it. It would simply be. Some loops remain unending — cassettes with endless yarn, decaying in volume for eternity. Is this tape any good? Who knows! Keep listening!

“Pick your battles!” They’d shout from the front lines. Reconciliation’s hard with both armies in retreat. While they play the war, we morph, shape, shift, pivot, prickle, burst, twist and evolve. Yet, the mind keeps running tabs — Excel hell, all the way down — of everyone you ever crossed, and you hold it. Hold it. Hold it. Inhale. And feel it. The slivers of wood against the jagged ax’s edge. Sometimes, the battles pick us.

The thing is — I just don’t know how not to hurt. And, I just don’t know how not to hurt. I’m not sure anyone does. I just don’t think moral character will ever map 1-to-1 with that which is ascribed to us. Nor, do I believe our good deeds or good intentions, ill will or ill maneuvers, are easily reconcilable. Some snippets just take too much long division to explain. Some battles are just too small to fight. The trees dull the ax. Still, it swings.

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I accept myself.

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity, so says Hanlon. And, if you do believe yourself to be good — and I do — then you have to be willing to accept yourself as stupid. That’s important. I know this because I am quite certain of my own general stupidity. I’ve hurt people out of my own ignorance, or I’ve been too ignorant to know I’ve hurt someone.

And, whilst I wallow in that Valley of the Imbecile, let me illuminate one other attributional direction before malice — panic. I inflict pain unto others most often when I’m thrashing around in the water, looking for that last scrap of fish food. I am most vulnerable to taking my lashings when I am lashing out.

I look back on my life with all the exuberance of a tax attorney. I’m tallying losses, strikes, outs, errors. Lots and lots of errors. The runs mean nothing. I forget them almost instantly. The wounds hurt; the healing simply is. I am both the ax and the tree. I chalk up most of what I was to either being not right enough to make it right, or not wrong enough to make it right. That cuts to the heart of it: accept what is, then become what will. When you make mistakes, make amends. If you cannot make amends, make do. That is — if we wish to avoid the paralysis analysis of the heart.

I regret innumerable things, constantly. Yet, memories are warped distortions of truth filtered through the lens of how we view ourselves. I look at every pivot point and wonder just how in the ever-living hell I’ll reconcile my own differences within myself. The ledger’s too long. On balance, I was fine — I guess.

I’d argue that’s true for almost all of us. We’re fine … and, we’re guessing. As a friend once told me, “the shark doesn’t want to kill you, it wants to taste you.” I could also italicize the word you in the previous sentence, and it would hit differently. That’s a pinprick. Acceptance is the understanding that you are both the driver and the passenger of your vessel, and there are times when the passenger’s at the wheel, and times when the driver’s clearly never sat in the bed of the cab before. There are roads to come that may not be; make them so.

We talked on the phone yesterday. My friend, and I, the podcast co-hosts. I told her I was in love, and at ease, and alarmed, all at once. Not in those words, but, who writes how they talk? (Author’s Note: I do, sometimes.) I told her this year was hard. It’s been hard on all of us, and we’ve all been hard on it.

She said she’d left Los Angeles, moved to Wisconsin. She’s got some family up there. I can say “up there” because I live in Texas, says the man who just a few minutes earlier lived just minutes east of Canada. Then, she did something patently ridiculous — she apologized. For “ghosting” me!

“Pfffft,” I murmured. “Water under the bridge.” And we spent the other 59 minutes talking about other things. Meanwhile, I just sort of assumed I’d killed off all the fish, or the fish were already dead or were going to die anyway, because that’s how fish stories end: I thought it was me, then, assumed she had something going on. If she wanted me to know, she’d let me know.

There’s no word to describe the ambiguous nebulae where the (mathematical, plural) axes of morality, deed, intent, perspective, context, time, space, and humans meet. Just a muffled echo, I suppose. A sort of loose conurbation of feelings, rights, wrongs, words, acts, ideas, thoughts, and principles. The fog dissipates; the ache lingers.

The only way to get life right is to accept that it will hurt. Over and over. You will be wrong; you will be wronged. The direction won’t matter. In the end, nothing will; that’s what makes it so goddamned meaningful. The podcast never made it to air. Probably for the best. Accept what is, become what will. I’m fine. I guess. Then, I hit “delete row” in Google Sheets.

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John Gorman is an essayist and storyteller on life, liberty and the battle for happiness. Follow him on Instagram @heygorman.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.