4 min read

fighting reality

In real terms, *what is* matters far less to my life than *what can I do about it?* One I have no control over. The other is explicitly actionable. These are very different ways of existing in the world. Zero agency vs complete agency.
fighting reality
Photo by Ryunosuke Kikuno / Unsplash

I regularly find myself guilty of doing a very dumb thing: fighting reality. Pushing back against the way things are, even though there's nothing I - myself - can do about those things.

I wish my friend hadn't killed himself, I wish previous generations hadn't locked us into a violently extractive form of capitalism that is destroying the only planet we have, I wish my parents had cared more about me, I wish I'd been a better father and husband sooner, I wish I hadn't sold that house.

I push back against reality, hoping that there's some supernatural referee somewhere who will come in and retroactively change it. I suppose this is my most religious-adjacent character trait - my subconscious belief in the power of magical thinking.

I know I cannot change these things, and that beating myself up over them or forcing the entire weight of these things onto my shoulders is a fool's errand. But what you know and what you feel, deep down, are two very different things sometimes.

I was sitting in the aisle seat as the rest of the passengers boarded. The person in the window seat and I exchanged glances, hoping that maybe the seat between us would stay empty. At least that the person had showered and would fit into the middle seat without spilling over the arm rests.

A couple is kissing as they split up and the guy steps up to me and smiles and gestures at the middle seat. Fuck. He's enormous. My height, but 100lbs heavier. When he sits down he billows over both armrests. His legs manspread and my entire side is enveloped.

I don't mean this to be mean. He seemed like a nice guy, but that doesn't mean I was wrong to be pissed off. Not necessarily at him (not necessarily not at him, I confess), but at the situation. At the airline that made the seats so fucking small we have to worry about this. At the guy for all of the extra calories he'd eaten that now encased the right side of my body. At the world.

Mostly at myself for even getting on the fucking plane.

I'd intended to do work, but you can't type on a laptop if your elbows are touching each other, jammed into your navel. And if I didn't want to be cocooned in a stranger's adipose tissue, I would have to sit at a 45-degree angle away from him into the aisle.

I didn't want to be mean or rude to him because - really - that gets us nowhere and he seemed like a nice guy. But I was about to implode.

I surrendered to the realization I wasn't going to get shit done and picked up the book I was starting. Try to salvage the flight and delay the migraine this posture was sure to bring. "The Book of Five Rings" - a book by Miyamoto Musashi, the best swordfighter in Samurai Japan.

And on page 16 I read:

Whatever your determination or willpower, it is foolish to try to change the nature of things.

And I realized that my current mental discomfort was the result of my resisting the nature of things. The facts of reality. And only once I accepted what was would I be able to think clearly.

And the moment I surrendered was the moment I realized I could improve my position.

The fat guy and his girlfriend were both sitting in middle seats. Bought their tickets late I guess. But she had little old ladies on either side. And she probably wouldn't mind being enveloped by her boyfriend.

So I offered to change seats with her so they could sit together. They were incredibly grateful and very sweet. And I got to sit upright and work.

It might be an indictment of my self-awareness that it took that nudge for me to realize I could improve all three of our positions if only I was willing to give up the aisle. At that point the difference between aisle and middle seat doesn't matter - because it's specific now.

This is one of those lessons I have to remind myself of regularly. Because I forget it. But this isn't the first time I've learned it.

In real terms, what is matters far less to my life than what can I do about it? One I have no control over. The other is explicitly actionable. These are very different ways of existing in the world. Zero agency vs complete agency.

This is also why I really don't listen to the news anymore. I used to be a big NPR fan. Had the license plate frame and everything.

But over time I realized that I was spending so many of my mental cycles "staying informed" that I had little left for important things. I also realized that - for the vast majority of the news stories that I got worked up over I could do exactly nothing about them. So why was I spending my mind on them?

I have sworn off the very idea that being over-informed is a virtue. I'm sufficiently well-informed to make decisions and do the things I can do to make my world better. But that's it. No hour-by-hour updates on breaking events - I'll read a paragraph on it tomorrow or next week or never, depending on how important the thing ended up being.

But most of the things never end up being important, so they're effectively mental static. Noise. Psychic pollution.

And as I get older, I realize the deep value of psychic hygiene. Because the thoughts we habitually think determine who we become. So ensuring those thoughts are focused on what kind of person I want to be vs. what kind of person the news might accidentally shape (looking at you, guy who needs his pistol strapped directly onto his Peloton in suburban America)

Obviously living this way is easier said than done. But it's worth working at, I think.

Not only because it's important to keep frivolous noise out of our minds, but also because the very act of asking ourselves - every day - "what can I do about this" conditions our minds to act with agency as the default.

And when we find our way away from resisting reality, sometimes previously-obscured solutions become the obvious thing to do.

It's almost as though the people who wrote The Serenity Prayer were onto something very, very important:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

And I would do well not to forget it again.