As Mark Pacitti turns 42, he reflects on his struggles of “dancing with the black dog”, and yes, attempts to answer questions about the meaning of life.
I turned twenty-one-again recently. Two keys to the door; four and two; well over the hill. Yes, I am now a whopping forty-two years old.
There was once a time when I used to think anything over thirty was pure downright ancient. That was long before I actually turned thirty of course. But even when I did turn thirty, I still didn’t know whether I was supposed to laugh, cry or check myself in for my first prostate inspection.
It’s only nowadays that I finally feel the world is my oyster; it’s only nowadays that I finally feel the way I could’ve and should’ve felt the first time I turned twenty-one back in 1991. In fact, having won my years-long dance-off with the black dog, the older I get and the more I learn to appreciate my lot in life, the more I really do feel like I am a whoppingly wonderful twenty-one-again.
I don’t normally broadcast the fact that it’s my birthday, because I used to fear it sounds so look-at-me, so fishing for attention, so selfish. After all, I used to reason with myself, everyone has a birthday – so what’s so special about me on mine?
But this year was different. This year, I recalled an enlightening gem on the topic of selfishness that I first stumbled across not 21, but 12 years ago. Musing over it again encouraged me to “go public” on both Facebook and Twitter about my forty-second big day – though there was a reason for me doing so other than shouting out “Hey, how about a wee Happy Birthday To Me?!”
Funnily enough, it was a few weeks before my thirtieth birthday that I first unearthed this particular gem. It literally glistened away at me as I turned to the page where it sat in my all-time favourite book, Conversations With God by Neale Donald Walsch. I read and reread that page several times, and I’ve been exploring the concept of selfishness in my mind on and off ever since.
Strictly speaking, I should refer to said author as “Walsch” for the rest of this post. But I’ve never liked the aggressive tone of that particular form of writers’ etiquette. In my past experiences, anyone who called me “Pacitti” usually wanted to bash me at the same time. So I’m going to be selfish from the start here, and simply refer to the author as “Neale”.
In a nutshell, Neale suggests that in order to get the most out of life – not only for ourselves, but also for everyone else who touches our lives – we should be completely selfish. According to Neale, in order for us all to reach our fullest potential, every person in a relationship, whether it be personal or professional, should worry only about themselves.
Having finally recovered from nearly four decades of irrational black dog induced worrying, I don’t necessarily agree with Neale’s use of the word “worry” in that proposition. In my humble opinion, “be concerned with” would better fit the bill.
I do, however, agree with his supporting argument that it is our focus on – and often obsession with – the other individual in any relationship that stops the relationship from reaching its’ full potential. In many cases, as Neale points out, that obsession can even cause a relationship to fail altogether.
I mean, how often in any relationship do we constantly ask ourselves – and act on – what the other is being, doing and having, what we believe the other is thinking, saying and expecting? All this at the expense of ourselves, and what we truly want out of life.
On that very note, I’ve often felt that one of the contributors towards any individual’s state of anxiety and depression can be attributed to this dilemma – to constantly acting on what we believe are the expectations of others.
How often, for example, do we not do or say something because we fear it might make us look selfish? How often do we not do or say something because we fear what another might think or how another might react if we did?
Looking at it another way, how often do we actually do or say the opposite of what we really want to – the opposite of who we really are – because we feel it is what another expects of us?
In other words, how often are we not being true to ourselves; how often are we not being our true selves? Worse, how often do we do all the above without even realising it, and what is that ultimately doing to further rile the vicious black dog within?
I also used to question whether there might be a vicious black circle at play here. I wondered whether in reality we are driven by an innate sense of selfishness in everything that we do.
Consider as an example any one of those situations where we say what we think is expected of us because we fear the reaction of saying what we really think. Perhaps, I wondered, does our selfish desire to avoid that feared reaction simply outweigh our selfish desire to say what we really want to say?
I’m not suggesting there is anything wrong in acting this way. Sometimes it is better all round, even selfish, to not do or say what we really want to. What I am suggesting, however, is that as long as we catch ourselves before the act and make it a conscious choice not to, as long as we can remain masters of our own mouths, then perhaps we can still be true to ourselves. And in doing so, perhaps we can repair the proverbial garden fence so that the black dog can no longer attack us through this particular gap.
One of the problems with being selfish, so it seems, is that by implication it is such a bad thing. How often, for example, are we left feeling that only those who strive to carry out acts of conventional selflessness are such worthy people? Far better people, that is, than the mere materialistic selfish ones amongst us (tongue; cheek).
Well, after more than a decade of self-reflection on the topic, I have finally come to the conclusion that there is no vicious circle at play here. Rather, it is my humble opinion that there are two parallel lines running together, side by side, hand in hand. In other words, it is my belief that selfishness and selflessness are in fact one and the same thing, if you follow my rather rambling meaning.
The Meaning Of Life
Several people also recently pointed out to me that forty-two is the answer to The Ultimate Question Of Life, The Universe And Everything. At least that’s how author Douglas Adams portrayed it in his book The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.
The scenario “Douglas” set is that a group of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings (his words, not mine) built a supercomputer called Deep Thought, specifically designed to figure out the answer. It took Deep Thought 7.5 million years to compute his answer, which turns out to be simply – and disappointingly – forty-two.
Even more disappointingly, The Ultimate Question itself remained unknown, and Deep Thought said that even he lacked the processing power to produce it.
Well, even though Neale’s book is a complex, tough read at times, he still manages to come up with 1) his own answer to the ultimate question 2) with a far less disappointing explanation than that of Douglas and 3) he even comes up with elusive Ultimate Question – What Is The Meaning Of Life?
Neale puts forward the simplistic yet powerful view that the meaning, the purpose of life is to continually discover and rediscover who we are. We can do so through all our life’s experiences and acquaintances – both the good and the bad.
We can also discover who we are – and more importantly, who we are not – in relation to the others we encounter in our lives; in relation to anyone we have any form of relationship with.
Looking at the theory in practice here, if we encounter a rude or arrogant or loud or greedy person, for example, rather than think badly of them, we could consider being thankful to them. Because if we just let them be, what they will do is shine a bright spotlight on the fact that those undesirable qualities are not present in ourselves.
Or if they really get under our skin, perhaps it is because they are highlighting an undesired presence of one of those qualities in ourselves. And all we need to do to get some meaning out of the encounter is to use the opportunity to rise above, to reflect and to admit our shortcomings to ourselves.
The beauty I’ve discovered is that every person we encounter will have different degrees of rudeness or arrogance or loudness or greed – perhaps even some desirable qualities thrown in for good measure. What we can therefore learn about ourselves in relation will differ from person to person, situation to situation. So on a practical level, the sense of pride, the buzz, the pay-off we can get by rising above in every encounter also differs every time. In other words, we needn’t ever get bored.
And surely then it stands to reason that by choosing to be selfish in any relationship ourselves, we allow others to see and experience us for who we truly are, and therefore define themselves in return.
You may recall that I touched on all this back in Part Six when I talked about the greatest yet simplest secret to living a more happy and meaningful life. You may also recall that I literally stumbled across this other gem on what was my darkest hour in my deepest cave.
The first step towards recovery, towards finding a purpose in life, as I discovered back then, was to first focus on removing all the purposelessness. Only then, as I began to see, can the canvas be cleared. And only then can colourful strokes of purposefulness begin to emerge from even the most everyday conversations and experiences.
Taking Some Leave Out Of My Book
So what on earth has all this selfish business got to do with me turning forty-two, you may be asking?
Well, in my previous black dog dancing days, as well as stashing away as much money as possible for a rainy day, I also used to stash as much annual leave as possible – again, just in case I ever needed it.
Since I painted my own black dog white, however, I’ve made the point of taking a day off work for my birthday each year, and being purposefully selfish for the day.
My birthday fell on a Sunday this year, so I took the following Monday off. My day started with dropping Freddie and Jack off at daycare and school respectively. I had pre-arranged to then meet up with Ivan, one of the other school dads. We went to a café a short distance from the school, where we also met up with Ivan’s wife Kate and a couple of the other mums, Danielle and Justine. We just sat soaking up the sun and chatting about children for an hour or so. I hadn’t a care in the world.
I then took off for a relaxing massage. Nowadays, I usually treat myself to a half hour massage every three or four weeks, but today was my day of self-indulgence so the hour-glass was full from the start. I’d also been deliberately banking up a bit of body stress over the previous few days by squeezing in as many runs as I could. It was all worthwhile as I just lay on my front for the entire hour, losing myself in my thoughts, and feeling the physical tension literally rise away from me.
Next, I met up with Tess for lunch, before heading back home to just hang out and enjoy doing nothing for a bit. After I picked the boys up at the end of their day, I then started cooking the following night’s dinner – on the slow cooker of course.
I’m no masterchef, but I am proud of my recipe repertoire, and I do love cooking. I think it might have something to do with my line of work. After all, I don’t exactly get the chance to otherwise satisfy my the man-the-hunter instinct by coming home after a day in the forest and slapping the kill of the day onto the kitchen table.
I also find cooking incredibly rewarding and therapeutic. It is one of my simple selfish pleasures in life – all the more so when I can smell the bolognaise or baltis of my own labour wafting through the house as it slowly cooks away in the corner. I’ve even learned how to not burn a burger on the barbie since coming to live Down Under.
So while some may think that cooking regularly for one’s family is a selfless act, anyone who watches me in action would disagree. Whenever I find myself chopping, mixing and simmering away in the kitchen, or scraping and flipping at the barbie, it usually means that I am avoiding the vying for my attention of my children, who would much rather I build some Lego or race some toy cars on the floor with them.
So if the truth be told, cooking is my selfish escape from the demands and pressures of parenthood, as well as my proverbial selfish slapping of the carcass onto the kitchen table.
I’m not for one minute suggesting that simply taking up cooking or taking a day off work on your birthday are cures for mental illness. Heck, some people detest cooking; doing it more often would only make them more depressed.
What I am suggesting, however, is that if the black dog constantly growls at you, constantly reminds you that you lack meaning in your life, and if Neale’s suggestion for a more meaningful life doesn’t resonate with you, then consider that maybe, just maybe, Douglas was actually onto something too.
Douglas was often asked why he chose the number forty-two as the answer to the ultimate question. Many theories were proposed, from the logical to the outright bizarre. These theories included the fact that that light refracts off water at forty-two degrees to create a rainbow, the fact that Dr Johnson’s dictionary contained 42,777 words, and the fact that the game of cricket has forty-two rules. Douglas dismissed them all.
One day, he finally explained:
“The answer to this is very simple”, said Douglas. “It was a joke. I felt it had to be a number, an ordinary, smallish number, one that made no sense whatsoever, and I chose forty-two.”
In case you blinked and missed it, the important point here is that Douglas chose his own answer to the meaning of life. And perhaps it is the same for us all. Perhaps we all have the ability to choose the black-dog-defying meaning in our own lives.
I didn’t just read a book and come up with my own answer, my own meaning. It took me over a decade of self-reflection, a lot of mental anguish, being reduced to a whole new level of meaninglessness, and far too many visits to some very dark places first.
But after this decade of reflection, the answer that I choose, the answer that still sings so sweetly to me, is the one that Neale wrote.
photo by zaneology / flickr