5. Reclaiming Vitality
March 14th 2020, Friday
I have officially moved out of my old room yesterday with all my stuff. I moved out last month on February 11th with some of my things to a new place to live by myself and immediately felt better, as if a huge weight was lifted off of my chest. My roommate was a nice guy but I never felt at home with him. He was an American guy about to turn 40 whom I met at a previous job. I was in a not-so-good place last year around July when I was living alone in a student dorm that was situated on a very noisy street with a very tiny space. I was quite unhappy at the time. When he asked if I would be interested in renting this place with him, I almost immediately jumped on board because I was afraid of the things I might do had I stayed alone in that depressing room just a few months longer. For about a month after I moved in with him it was absolutely lovely. The place was large. It was summer. Life was good. But after I started my business school in September I could feel that it was not working out. I am someone who is very considerate of the people around me. Almost too considerate. For example, his room was next to the bathroom, which had a ventilator that would automatically turn on when you flip on the light and would only be turned off about 8 minutes after the light is off. I know this because he told me this interesting fact since the noise of that ventilator could be heard from his room. So every night when I got up to pee I almost always sat down on the toilet to pee in the dark just so I wouldn’t wake him up. Before I went to sleep, which was usually late, I wouldn’t brush my teeth or wash my face, because I thought if I did that, then the noise of the fan would’ve kept him awake. It’s sad, I know. Anyone else with a healthy sense of boundary or self-respect would not have done what I did. He also had some other qualities that I would not get into because I do not see complaining about the shortcomings of other people as something honorable.
We all use someone else as the mirror in which we can clearly discern our own faults, shortcomings, and everything else that may be wrong about us. But when we look into this mirror, we act for the most part like a dog who looks into the mirror supposing that it is reflecting another dog rather than it itself.— Arthur Schopenhauer
I saw myself in him. A sense of contentment with life that justifies the unwillingness to take risks and a self-congratulatory sense of achievement when there is nothing to show for it. On top of which is my unhealthy boundary issues that had been triggered by his existence, once again showing me just how stubborn our internal wirings are. Rationally I know it was absurd. I kept telling myself, this was my apartment as well. I paid for it just as much as he did, and I should have a moderate sense of entitlement about it. I should not apologize for having the need to use the bathroom late at night or early in the morning even if it would wake him up. He would just have to deal with it. But I just couldn’t do it. He was also quite demanding for certain cleaning standards. Again, he was not a bad person, and I know he was not my parents, yet somehow something deep inside me was triggered and I kept making myself smaller and more invisible day by day. Not to mention I was constantly exhausted from school. If you spent the whole day battling something else and used up most of your reserve of willpower, it just became almost impossible to gather extra willpower to remind yourself that you are okay, that you should assert your needs without apologizing for them. In the end, I was utterly exhausted. It was not my fault or his. It was simply a misfortune caused by the fact that my complicated relationship with authority figures was triggered, thus causing my protection mechanism to over-fire, a system that used to protect me as a child but is now becoming increasingly debilitating instead. Living alone away from anyone is the only way for my unconscious armor to quiet down, free from expectations from others, perceived threats to battle with, and unworthy people to impress. Boundary, as kids call it these days, is so very important.
But we must be aware of the boundary because it can be used as an excuse to retreat and stop engaging with the world. Ever since Vance texted me back, I could feel my desire for him dissipated. My anxious brain relaxed. Tensions left my body. At the end of the day, it’s all about tensions, isn’t it? And how our body and mind respond to them. It made me realize that I have never had close guy friends, straight or otherwise, because there was always tension. With straight guys, I was worried that my sexuality might make them uncomfortable. With gay guys, I was worried that we might have sexual tensions even though we are just friends. By being friends with women almost exclusively, I avoided sexual tensions of any kind, since I know for sure that nothing would ever happen between us. But with guys, tensions cannot be avoided, even though most of the tensions only exists in my own mind. Take Vance for example, who was a perfectly nice straight boy who knew I was gay without showing any sort of aversion whatsoever. Yet my attractions for him are causing me such distress that I simply have to remove myself from him to feel safe. What exactly are you running away from, dear Hanson, and whom are you exactly protecting? Is it the helpless child who lived under the same roof with parents who would have violent fights but never resolve their conflicts the next day the person that you are protecting? Are you setting “boundary” because you are ashamed of your feeling towards Vance, a feeling that reminds you just how beautiful it is to be alive? Why are you so against joy? Does holding on to suffering give you a sense of power?
As a child, I hold on to sufferings as a way to gain control, because I couldn’t control whether my parents would love me or not or whether they would fight or not. But being unhappy, ignored, and mistreated, these were the things that I know so very intimately with every fiber of my being. It’s funny how the body thinks that what is familiar is safety, when in fact, such a false sense of security is slowly killing me. This fake control is taking over my life. And that is not news. As someone who had been in therapy for almost 3 years in college, being honest with myself about my past and my feelings are not exactly foreign to me, but I do wonder if it is enough. I need a compass that points toward the future. There is only so much you can learn from the traumas of your past before they stop being helpful. Like someone who loses a limb, it’s time to learn how to walk again. After mourning the loss of your limb, it’s time to get into physical therapy, to stand up with your new leg, to learn that with tiny steps, if you keep working hard, you will be just as healthy as every one of them out there, that you should find out who you are once you remove this sadness from your life.
Another thing that I need to be aware of is what is called a “spotlighted attention” from an audiobook that I have been listening to recently.
Awkward people see the world differently from non-awkward people. When non-awkward people walk into a room full of people, they naturally see the big social picture. They intuitively understand things like the emotional tone in the room or how formally they should act. By comparison, awkward people tend to see social situations in a fragmented way. It’s as if they see the world with a narrow spotlight that makes it hard to see the big social picture all at once, but their spotlighted view means that they see some things with an intense clarity.
…what awkward individuals have in common is a spotlighted view of the world and an obsessive drive to understand their interests, and this drive helps them see unusual details and configurations among details.— Excerpt from “Awkward” by Ty Tashiro
This spotlighted attention is what makes me such an artistic person because I could experience the nuances of emotions very acutely. But it also makes me obsessive. It is the reason why sitting next to Vance in class was almost unbearable for me because I could feel my attractions for him with such intensity that nothing else seemed to exist. It was so intense that I thought it would destroy me. All I need to learn is to diffuse my attention, to see the big picture, to remind myself what is within your spotlight is not the only thing that matters. It explains why I am such a detail-oriented person, which was frequently mentioned by my previous bosses but not necessarily in a complimentary way. I need to learn to see the entire stage and not just the actor who happens to be standing under the spotlight of my own creation. I think that if I learn to diffuse my attention, I would be delighted to find out just how much more life has to offer. If you are willing to let go of this fake sense of control, grabbing on to details as if they are the only things within your power to manage in a chaotic world, I think you would find out that you can actually rehabilitate the limb that is now free of a cast, that it can run and dance and be free again. It’s about reclaiming the sense of aliveness and vitality.
Finding meaning in life is crucial as it allows us to tolerate the pain. Is it a struggle for you to find meaning when faced with trauma? Does focusing on meaning as an anchor help you find your way through sadness?— Esther Perel
“The meaning of life.” Where does one even begin to start? But I have to at least try to elaborate that, because if you don’t make your own decisions, decisions will be made for you, then all you have left shall be regret.
Happiness is pleasure in the absence of remorse.— Leo Tolstoy
I think I am a sensitive and compassionate soul. And the meaning of my life is to use this gift and do something good for the world. Let’s say that for now.
In that sense, I should be grateful for Vance, because through him I experienced a sense of vitality that I have not felt in a very long time. Instead of obsessing with him, a straight guy who could never reciprocate my feelings, I shall use this vitality to see the bigger picture, to understand that life is full of possibilities, that all we need to is to have faith in our unique abilities and our nature, a nature that is defined by love.
If we could only understand who we really are, our sorrows would seem so insignificant.— Leo Tolstoy