Last night I made a mistake. For the first time in a long time I went to bed without the T.V. on. Usually, this isn’t a problem. During the rest of the year, I’m normally so tired at the end of a day that I can get into bed and fall asleep in about 30 minutes. I know this because I usually just put on a DVD that I like and close my eyes. I set the sleep timer for 30 minutes, and I’m usually not awake when the T.V. shuts off. I prefer movies with rich dialogue so I can imagine the scenes and characters interacting while I listen.
Last night was not like that.
I have just come off of a two week break from my regular work schedule to enjoy some time in Puerto Rico and then back home in Canada. Unlike the rest of the year, breaks are a time when I feel unusually well rested. I sleep when I want, I wake up when I want, and I do what I want during the day. So when I got into bed around 1 a.m. last night, I was not exhausted, and neither was my mind. I laid there in the dark and for the first time in a long time I was just thinking. I mean really thinking.
I thought about books I had recently read, things that were going to be coming up at work, and about how nice it had been to disconnect and get away for a little while. I thought about how I spend so much of my time reading books and research, talking to colleagues, and interacting with people I work for. It occurred to me that during most of my waking hours, the mental part of my day is just taking in and interpreting information. I have original thoughts once in a while, and I’m challenged to make connections between things I’ve learned to come up with solutions at work, but it’s been a long time since I had some serious introspective thought. Thought that was driven from within me, and directed back inside.
I began to consider that coming back to the U.S. where I live and work, from home in Canada has been harder this time than it has been in recent memory. I mean, I felt like I was having physical symptoms that came from my wanting to stay there with my family and close friends. The morning I left I had no appetite, to the point of being nearly nauseous. I felt like I was having a weird dream, where all I had to do is wake up and realize that I didn’t actually have to come back.
That’s when I started really thinking. Why did I feel like that? Usually, I just accept that it’s part of the routine, and get on with it. Why was it so hard this time? It took me a little while to figure it out, and then it hit me. The connections I have with my friends and family are so much more deeply rooted and soundly founded than the ones I’ve had, and have, with people elsewhere. I’ve known those people for most of my life, and they know me. I mean really know me. I started thinking about how my relationship building skills and habits evolved over the years and how they have had to change with my environments and experiences.
I only have about 6 really good friends. By that I mean people that I really care to keep in touch with, and I qualify their well-being as a genuine personal interest of mine. For the most part, those people have very little in common with me, and with each other, by traditional standards. We each have very different professional lives and ambitions, different living situations, different education histories, and different family makeups. Instead, our relationships are built on commonalities in modes of interaction and communication. We have similar values in terms of the underlying motives that have taken us all in different directions, and an indiscriminate passion for questioning each other.
As I’ve “grown-up” (believe me, I still have lots of that to do) I’ve been in a lot of different places, and for different periods of time. Of the last 10 years, I’ve spent probably 14 total months at home, 5 years in Texas (2 years in one city, 3 in another,) a summer in Montana, and the last 3 1/2 in North Carolina. Between all of those, I bet I’ve met about 1000 people. None of whom I have shared the same quality of relationship with, as the ones I have with my 6 friends, and my family. I realize that sounds a bit cold, but in my estimation it’s probably accurate. I don’t know, as they say, maybe it’s me.
During my travels and temporary installments in different places, my relationships with those people have been founded on more superficial commonalities. First teammates and coaches, then college instructors, advisors, colleagues, students, and social interactions. Obviously I share interests or circumstances with these people, but I don’t know them on the same level I know my friends at home or family. These new relationships are nice to have, and they are healthy. Sure, you could count on some of those people to bail you out of jail at 3 in the morning if you had to, but they feel different. There are still some things in those relationships that are off the table. There are things that you don’t talk about because the level of that relationship dictates that it is not necessarily “appropriate” or that the depth of that relationship doesn’t justify your digging so deep into the other person.
Most people who are around me and my closest friends for the first time would wonder why in the hell we still talk to one another. They would probably characterize us as confrontational, or unapologetically critical about all aspects of each others lives and personalities. But that’s just it. We’re close enough that we CAN be like that toward each other without having to worry about consequences of alienation. Nobody takes anything personally, and it challenges each of us to rationalize our circumstances and future directions. Not just to each other, but maybe more importantly, to ourselves.
It’s a charge to be around people like that, to really have people close to you who keep you honest and accountable. It makes other, more superficial interactions boring and routine. When people ask you “what have you been doing since I saw you 3 years ago?” or “how was your break?” you feel numb and bored by them. It makes you feel like you’re sipping room temperature milk when what you really want is a Vegas bomb with a moonshine chaser.
I think that’s what made me feel sick when I was coming back. I only have a handful of those relationships, and they’re almost ALL at home. That’s when and where I can get my fix of conversational and interactive challenge and stimulation. I’m challenged by my job and the people I work with to be better than I was yesterday, or even this morning, but I’m not challenged on a personal level the way I am by those who are closest to me. It’s addicting to be challenged in that way because it’s constructive. Because it feels good when you do it. You experience and are forced to face the parts of you that you haven’t known in a long time, the good and bad parts. As if I was going through withdrawal, I started feeling sick when I knew I wasn’t going to have it again that way for a long time.
At the risk of sounding cliche, I started thinking about Icebergs. 90/10. That is, 90% of that massive piece of ice exists under water (trust me, I googled it.) The same way 90% of our personalities exist beneath those superficial conversations and interactions. 10% (or probably less) of the real you actually comes out when you’re talking about work or your personal interests. I say probably less because there are things you don’t necessarily tell everybody at the risk of being judged or categorized as a weirdo. This is particularly important when you consider the importance of making good first impressions on people in your professional circle. Sometimes all you get is one meeting with those people before you find yourself emailing them a year later to see if they know someone who knows someone that can get you in somewhere. That one impression was all you had to gain their trust and endorsement. In those cases, probably only 5 or 6% of you exists above water. The rest is just floating underneath.
In that way, you could probably consider your professional and casual relationships as the ice above and below water level. Those 90% of people in your life exist in the open air, and maybe only know 10% of the real you. Those who are closest to you, those select 5-10% of your total “friends” who live underwater know 90-95% of the real you. The literal number or quantity of people in those “inner” and “outer” circles is probably inversely related to the amount of you (your tendencies, dispositions, and moods) that they know.
I wanted to share this because I feel it’s important. I like to write, and I have a place to do it. I also think there are a lot of people who could use some serious introspective evaluation. I like to think of myself as a pretty creative thinker, but it took me a few undistracted hours in the dark last night to realize that most of my thinking is in response to something external, not something internal, like the nauseous feeling of leaving my friends and family.
I bet for the majority of people, 80-90% of our daily thinking is directed by something outside of us. We are generally reactive in nature, and it is probably more efficient to be that way in terms of brain power. We’re mentally and emotionally lazy, and probably weaker in those two areas as people than we have been in generations past. It’s easier to send a 4 or 5 word text to solve a problem, or to have the T.V. on while we eat dinner and attend to our phones while reading, because it satisfies our ever shrinking and sporadic attention spans. We prefer to have 6 or 7 things going on at once that require less effort because it makes us feel productive. How absurd is that?
Admittedly, I was the same way and have been for a while now. I think that’s why I felt so unfulfilled, confused, and even unhappy at times. I was wearing myself down trying to get one million and one things done in a day just to get home and feel exhausted, but wishing I had been able to accomplish more. Ironically, a few hours in the dark last night with NO distractions probably outweighs the last year or more of my life in terms of finding a meaningful solution to a major problem. Anyways, I hope this helps, or at least gives you something to think about.