Sunday, October 21, 2012

What We Need

When a friend described third grade Owen having existential crises on the bus I had to laugh at the truth of it. Owen reports experiencing existential crises on a weekly basis. These quandaries have become such a strong part of Owen's life that the idea of discontinuing such thoughts causes him to have an identity crisis on top of it.

Though most of us don't struggle with these issues quite as frequently as my husband, most of us will face them at some point. What is the purpose of life? Why am I here? How can I find fulfillment? Often existential quandaries deal with distinguishing that which is permanent and fulfilling from that which is temporary. Thus I suspect that most of us experience existential crises in the form of day to day strife.

So many people, myself included, feel the frequent urge to engage in retail therapy. My partner, Owen, does not like for me to spend money unnecessarily. You can see how a potential for conflict exists. I believe that when we feel we need something we do need something, we just may not know what we need. Perhaps an example would make this idea more clear.

  • On a subconscious level I feel the need for greater agency in my life.
  • Given that I live in a consumeristic society where media advertisements play on my emotions on a daily basis I misidentify the need as a need to buy myself something.
  • I go to the mall and I buy a new scarf, which makes me feel better not because I have the scarf, but because I exercised my agency to do so.
  • I go home and Owen gets upset at me for spending money unnecessarily, perhaps making me feel childish for what he perceives as not understanding the concept of budgeting. 
  • Rather than feeling independent I feel frustrated, defensive, and perhaps trapped within my relationship.

Retail therapy is a particularly relevant example because it appears to fulfill so many different needs. The need for agency, the need for change, the need to think creatively, the need for basic goods, the need for social interaction, etc.

Thus financial decision making becomes a huge problem in many relationships. Too often the partners of those who spend too much money attribute the problem to lack of self control. When spending becomes a problem, we have to step back and identify what need the spender is attempting to fulfill and find ways to fulfill it without spending. If, like me, the spender wants to feel more independent find other things that make him or her feel independent and incorporate as many of these activities as possible into daily life. Play Monopoly, do crafts, learn a new trade, etc.

Another common example of misidentified needs occurs after breakups. Let's consider the fictional couple Jesse and Jordan. Jesse breaks up with Jordan after 6 months of dating, during which time they spent twelve hours a day with each other. Jordan feels the constant need to text, call, and facebook stalk Jesse. Jordan feels that she will only be happy when Jesse takes her back.

There are a few problems here. First of all, Jesse and Jordan do not love each other enough to have an open fulfilling relationship, and being together will not make either of them happy. Second, Jordan feels inadequate because Jesse broke up with her, and she worries that there is something wrong with her. Jordan thinks that Jesse taking her back would prove her adequacy thus making her happy. Jordan actually needs to find a sense of adequacy outside of Jesse. Maybe Jordan needs to pick up a new hobby, such as guitar. She can spend time learning the guitar, and the talent of having learned an instrument will make her feel adequate. Not to say that significant others and guitars are interchangeable, but that spending time improving herself in some way may help assuage Jordan's feelings of inadequacy.

Who of us hasn't mistaken the approval of others for our own inherent value? Sometimes I think all of life's struggles lead back to existential crises. We want life to be worthwhile, and we want to have purpose as individuals. Yet we take these needs and we make them smaller than they are; we attempt to make them manageable by believing that temporary things will fulfill them.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Love is Frightening

Owen and I enjoy sharing the story of how we became a couple, partly because it seems so bizarre. When we first started dating we didn't like each other very much, my previous post Two Years Of Letting It All Out details some of that time. People always ask, "Then why were you dating?" Good question... After 2.5 years of reflection, we're just starting to understand it ourselves.

The guards were up before we even started dating. Each of us was drawn to the other, but both of us feared the implications of dating, Owen stating that he feared the "black hole" of lost friendship. When we finally did cross the friend line we cried. That evening we allowed ourselves to be vulnerable with each other and talked about the possibilities. I remember feeling an uncanny comfort being in Owen's presence that night, truly as if we belonged to each other.

The night of our first kiss we bumped into a friend with a camera.
The next day, our guards were up again. Dating Owen was hard. I remember talking with one of my friends about how the beginning of relationships was supposed to be this overly-happy idealistic time, but that it wasn't for us. We were frustrated with the new life of being tied to one another and each of us blamed the other for our frustrations, which is why we say we didn't like each other very much. In hindsight we agree that our frustration didn't come from each other so much as from the growing pains of change; love is a frightening prospect!

P.S. I Love You romantically portrays the change brought by love when Holly first meets Gerry:

Gerry: you have my jacket.
Holly: I'm keeping it unless we meet again, otherwise that will be the most perfect kiss ever shared by two strangers.
Gerry: I bet we will meet again.
Holly: You better win that bet, because if we do, that'll be the end of it.
Gerry: The end of what?
Holly: Life as we know it.

In this scene Holly hopes that she will meet Gerry again and that her life will change, but in real life I don't think many of us look forward to the drastic change that comes with love! In real life it's exhausting. It's frustrating and nebulous. Owen and I were both comfortable single, each enjoying the freedom of only having to think about ourselves. Neither of us wanted to introduce something like love into our vocabularies or our daily lives.

In becoming a couple we each had to learn to be less selfish, more open with our emotions, more flexible with our time, and more aware of our own flaws. Neither of us felt ready for that! I've had several friends say to me, "I'm not ready for marriage; I'm not ready to sacrifice." Are we ever really prepared? Owen and I didn't feel prepared, but as we fell in love the changes came naturally. The fear of the change was much more difficult to deal with than the change itself. And really, I do believe that change is good (Ever Persistent Change). When everything around us changes all the time, isn't the prospect of not changing actually more frightening than that of changing?

Monday, October 1, 2012

Sick Day with Dan Burns

I write from my sick-nest today curled up on the couch with grandma-made quilts, soup, and tissues. My favorite sick day activity consists of watching Dan in Real Life on repeat, and I am currently on my third viewing. Dan has just met Marie in the book store, and I am caught up in the charm of this middle-aged romance all over again.

For some reason, I have found myself in Dan more-so than in any other fictional character. The weird part of this, if you haven't seen the movie, is that Dan is a middle aged widower played by Steven Carell. Yet despite the obvious differences between myself and Dan, I always find myself feeling slightly rejected by those who do not like this movie and simultaneously nervous to show it to any of my friends.

We do have some striking similarities, Dan and I. For one, he is a writer! Dan also prioritizes his family over everything else and has an awkward streak. I've heard other people question his actions in the movie-- "Why does he eat the burnt pancake? Why does he throw that rock? Why does he tackle Marie during the football game? Why does he sing badly at the talent show?" And I realize that not everyone understands Dan to the extent that we, the awkward, can.

In Dan's case the source of the awkwardness appears to be the presence of a passion that he is unable to express due to his circumstances. He develops a habit of keeping his passion inside for the sake of his family, and as he lives his most passionate thoughts and feelings inside of himself his actions just come off as... awkward. His awkwardness indicates that he has deeply held emotions under the surface.

Ultimately Dan learns that though he focuses all of his energy on his family, the best thing he can do for his family is take care of himself. When he self-sacrifices to the point that he can't be happy, he becomes overbearing. When he is happy he can be better for them. By falling in love with Marie and allowing himself that joy, Dan can reconnect with his daughters. It's all a part of the giant balancing act of life.

The first time I introduced Owen to Dan I barely paid attention to the movie because I was afraid that Owen wouldn't connect with Dan the way that I do. I just didn't feel like Owen could ever really like me if he didn't like Dan. To my great enjoyment Owen understood and liked Dan better than anyone else I had ever introduced to Dan in Real Life.