The Default Is Regression – Fight It

There was a large, shallow water basin in the center of the courtyard. A three-year-old girl kept making her rounds. She took the three steps into the water, ran to the center, splashed around, then climbed back out. Then, a quick pit stop at her parents, and off again she went.

The girl tried all kinds of stomping in the water. Outside, she jumped from stone tile to stone tile in various ways. She waved at people and stared right at them. Sometimes, she’d wave her arms all over the place.

A friend said she learned that children know much more than we give them credit for. That includes hard skills like swimming or recognizing faces, but also soft skills like not apologizing for being curious and, most of all, not giving a damn what anyone thinks.

The little girl did not care whether she looked silly crawling, jumping, or flailing around her arms. If that’s what it took to get to the bottom of whatever sparked her attention next, then fine. So be it.

When children don’t want something, they will tell you – and they’ll do it loudly if they have to repeat it. They have no qualms about calling aunt May’s hair funny or telling one parent they love them more than the other. It’s a remarkable sense of honesty, and if we weren’t so busy dismissing it as cutesy child behavior, we would be both shocked and inspired by it.

If children can do so many things we secretly dream of being able to do as adults, maybe they know more than we do. Maybe we are born perfect, and what follows is slow decay.

When a plant stops growing, it dies. The same applies to humans. What we don’t see is how much of our struggle for growth is actually just fighting the default, fighting the regression from our initial, very well-rounded, if not perfect, state.

If you had a dime for every time you hesitated to say no when you didn’t want something, you probably wouldn’t have to work. The next time it happens, imagine a child declining to eat broccoli. It can be so easy, can’t it? “No. I don’t want this.”

Fight the default of regression. Don’t let your life become decades of decline. We’ll never be as perfect as when we were three, but if you ask me, the mere image of it is more than enough reason to try.

Guilty and Complaining

Between guilt and shame, supposedly, guilt is the better emotion. Guilt gets us to admit our mistakes and try to make up for them. Shame, however, only makes us want to hide. We keep to ourselves, worry about being found out, and when the inevitable happens, we pray we won’t be judged, for it’d only scar us more.

Clearly, guilt is the better option. Guilt gets you somewhere, if not always immediately. But what about feeling guilty for who you are, what you want out of life, and how you want to feel? Those aren’t mistakes. They just are. You are. When you start feeling guilty about things that don’t need justification, you’ll walk down a slippery slope.

In many court cases, the innocent complain about a lack of justice for the guilty. When we apologize for whatever we’ve learned about ourselves, we flip this upside down: Since we feel guilty, we’ll start complaining. “Why can’t I travel less? Why do I have to wake up so early? Why won’t my family support my exercise habit? Why won’t people respect my boundaries?” Well, it might be because you’re only complaining! If your schedule includes regular travel, but you want to fly less, work to change your schedule. Did you tell your family you need support for your workout routine? If you want to have boundaries, you need to establish them.

The problem lies not in a lack of options; it lies in you not accepting who you are. You’ve already done the hard bit! You’ve identified what you need. Instead of second-guessing yourself, find a way to see it through. It is a tough job, this separating what’s non-negotiable from what’s merely wishful thinking. Don’t let the results be in vain. Our gut is strong. It can be an incredible ally. Yes, every now and then, it leads us astray, but most of the instances when it fails us are actually just us doubting our inner compass. Guilty. “Why am I this way? Why can’t I want something different?” It is a lack of acceptance rather than of insight, and it leads to the detrimental guilty-and-complaining cycle.

When you’ve screwed up, please, do feel guilty by all means. Fess up to your mistakes. Try to do better. Self-awareness, however, is wonderful. You are who you are. The ways of the world are mysterious, and we’ll rarely get an explanation for why each part was put in its place. That doesn’t make any part meaningless. They’re all there for a reason. Trust in the reason, and help the parts work together.

Try this for a day: Don’t feel guilty, and don’t complain. See how that combination works wonders. Suddenly, you can’t judge yourself, and, therefore, you also can’t wallow in self-pity. What is this new aspect of yourself you have discovered? Fascinating! How can you integrate it into your life? Can you pour it in slowly? Or will it require some hard decisions? Either way, get on with it. Stay busy living instead of complaining about the life you’re not creating. May neither guilt nor shame get in your way.

Which Regrets Would Hurt Forever?

Minimizing regret is a noble, multi-stage game. First, you must identify potential regrets before making the decisions that’ll lock them in. Next, you must figure out how to avoid them, or if you can’t, estimate how much you’ll regret taking certain paths over others.

Finally, to prevent regret from leading to ruin, aka late-stage bitterness in life, you must do your best to feel out the disappointments that would never stop bleeding, and if you find one, nix it at any and all cost. Otherwise, it’ll become a slow-drip poison seeping in until the end – and if you want to look back at life feeling proud and content, you absolutely can’t have any of those.

This is, of course, an impossible game to win, let alone with a perfect score. Much tallying and estimating and going back in forth will happen in your head, and yet sometimes, you’ll have to flip a coin or go with your gut regardless. Some shots you can only take in the moment, and your test scores might need a while to arrive.

Still, “Which regrets would hurt forever?” is a helpful question, if only for the few times in life when the answer will be obvious. Those answers will inevitably lead to hard choices, but at least your direction will be clear.

No one gets through life without scars and scratches, but if we can prevent a terminal diagnosis before it happens, we must accept our grave responsibility: Swallowing the bitter pill may spoil our appetite for now, but it’ll set our stomach straight in time for dessert.

Give It a Google

That’s what the tour guide said. He no longer has to explain everything. You don’t need to ask for his phone number in case you have follow-up questions.

Curiosity has always been optional, but today, it is no longer dangerous. You can fall down any rabbit hole in the private comfort of your phone. That’s a tremendous power. Often, we don’t use it because of its very ubiquity. We expect we’ll always have it. Why google today what you can google tomorrow?

Well, tomorrow, googling might no longer be as private as it is today. I know “private” is relative, but I guarantee you googling is more private than “baiduing” – using its Chinese equivalent. What about the people in Ukraine? War comes to your doorstep, and the power goes out. No internet, no smartphones. Poof. The world library is closed.

Googling has become a basic privilege, but that doesn’t mean it no longer qualifies as one. Don’t wait. If you want to know, give it a google. Remember the power in your pocket, and use it while you can.

The Purpose of Backup Plans

It’s not that you can switch lanes seamlessly when something goes wrong. Life isn’t an airplane. There’s no exact sequence of steps to take under certain conditions so you’ll land safely amidst turbulence.

Have you ever executed a backup plan precisely the way you planned it before you needed it? If not, it’s probably because the scenario you devised it for also didn’t happen just as you imagined. Chances are, you went to your backup plan as an initial source of consolation, but the actual solution to your problem? That likely looked very different from what you thought you might need.

The true benefit of a backup plan is that you don’t blow your lid when your original scheme falls apart. Instead of panicking, you get to keep calm. “Ahh, the backup plan. Thank god I’m prepared!”

In reality, you’re not that well-prepared. You might only be five, maybe ten percent more equipped to handle the crisis than you would be without a next best alternative. The fact that you did prepare at all, however, makes all the difference. You have a place to go to, and even if it’s not the perfect one, it is a place to start from, and in moments of crisis, that’s worth more than gold.

When it comes to failing softly, six sigma is for mass manufacturing, but for our humble little lives, one layer of reinforcements usually does the trick. After all, once you’re back on your feet, you’ll just have to get back to doing what you do best anyway: Think on those very feet, and invent your way forward.

So Far, So Good

In The Magnificent Seven, a few brave cowboys volunteer to protect a small town from the gruesome exploitations of a predatory industrialist. Hopelessly outnumbered, they stare at the village they’ve vowed to defend and muse about their minuscule chances of victory. One gang member asks Josh Faraday, a skilled gunman, what he thinks about their odds. Faraday responds with a story:

Reminds me of this fella I used to know. Fell off a five-story building. As he passed each floor on the way down, people inside heard him say: “So far, so good!

He’s dead now.

The scene makes for a good chuckle among the rest of the gang and the audience, but it also holds a piece of advice that’s much deeper than a grim sense of humor: As the saying goes, hope dies last – but it must not die before you do. It is the last thing to enter the picture, but once it does, it must never, never run out – right until the very, true, actual end.

Sometimes, life will push you into unwinnable battles. No one likes the prospect of losing, but we mustn’t let prospects become prophesies. Many a foregone conclusion has been turned around, and while, yes, hope is what you do at the end, that does not mean you get to stop hoping before you hit the ground.

Considering his impending doom, Faraday checks in with Sam, a friend he is indebted to. “Have I made good on my horse yet, Sam?” Keeping his eyes on the horizon, Sam simply says: “So far, so good.” And off into battle they ride.

Even Unconditional Love Is a Choice

The first time I blacked out from drinking, I stayed at a friend’s place. I puked on the dance floor, and, after my friend had stored me horizontally in the backseat of his car for a few hours, I woke up on his couch the next day. I was embarrassed, sure, but given all the funny stories my friends told me, I didn’t feel all that bad about it.

The second time I blacked out from drinking, my friends brought me straight back to my mother. Somewhere in the haze of semi-conscious memories, I remember her sitting next to me on my bed, holding me and patting my back while I sat there with a bowl, waiting to throw up, stammering: “Never again. Never again. Never again.”

That second time is where blacking out went from almost being cool to being something I am so deeply ashamed and vulnerable about that, to this day, I cringe every time I recount any one of my unfortunately-more-than-two blackout events, even when I think the situation is important enough to go out on this limb in the first place.

The difference is unconditional love: Someone who loves me (and who I love in return) was extremely worried for my wellbeing, all because of actions I had taken. Despite having every reason to admonish me and letting me face the pain alone so I might learn a lesson, they set themselves aside and helped me anyway. That’s unconditional love.

We always say parents can’t help but feel unconditional love for their children, but as many a wealthy yet emotionally scarred heir proves, it is actually a choice – a choice you’ll have to make again and again.

The third time I blacked out from drinking, I landed in the hospital. I was all alone. I woke up straight into a Bourne movie, with shadows passing me in the hallway where I was parked on a stretcher, a kind nurse handing me a bottle of water, my phone at 10% battery, and my jacket and wallet missing. It was the scariest situation in my entire life, and if my mom had been there, she’d have done the same but different: Help me get home, help me get healthy, then remind me to not drink too much.

Unconditional love will have to look different every time you choose to give it. There can be no conditions to your offering it, sure, but the conditions under which you offer it will differ. “I’m going to help you through this, or we’ll both die trying.” That’s the kind of deal you’re making, and at such crazy terms, it surely is a choice.

You can’t turn on some unconditional love switch, and kindness will keep flowing forever. Even for the most smitten parents, that only lasts so long. Humans change dramatically on their own accord, and when you factor in outside factors, like how others changing changes us, you’ll see that whoever you choose to love, you’ll have to keep choosing to love them through a million changes and then some.

It’s a nice idea, this “unconditional love forever,” and I’m sure in a few rare cases, it both works and lasts. For us mere mortals, however, the choice offers freedom: You don’t have to be enlightened to love. You can do it imperfectly.

Your love needn’t be unconditional each time. Sometimes, the very conditionality of it is what makes it human. Fragile. Precious. Like us – especially when we’re too drunk to find our way home, in dire need of someone who’ll choose to love us against the odds.

The “against-the-odds” part makes unconditional love more special, not less. Beat the odds whenever you can, but don’t blame yourself when you can’t. It’s hard work, lifting someone out of the gutter. You can only do it so many times before you’ll start falling down yourself.

When the Truth Isn’t Acceptable

If you ask 100 people on the street whether truth is important, most, if not all, will agree. Yet, as any adult eventually finds out, knowing the truth is hard. We have much less access to it than we’d like, and often, once we discover some truth, or rather, accumulate it, we choose not to share it. Right under the rug it goes, because truth is not just important – it is also dangerous.

Truth makes us vulnerable in front of those who don’t see it, and offensive to those who don’t believe it. Significant words have consequences. That’s what makes them significant. So, what are we to do? What if the truth isn’t acceptable?

Two follow-up questions: First, what kind of truth are we talking about? Is it a truth of fact or a truth of feeling? A universal, observable principle or a shared understanding we must first agree on? This is the first of two elements determining the stakes of your honesty.

Galileo was right about heliocentrism, but, just shy of being burned at the stake, he spent the last decade of his life under house arrest for it. “Black Lives Matter” is a social debate rather than a physical one, and yet, arguing about its specifics can get you shot in the wrong neighborhood.

While it’s easier to use data to petition for a truth of fact than one of feeling, emotions are what keeps the mob holding on to their pitch forks. So either way, you’ll have to decide: How do you want to play this, and are you willing to play it down to save your skin if need be? Changing the course of history requires sacrifice, but how often do we really get a chance to do it? Pick your battles wisely, and make sure you fight in the right arena to begin with.

The second question of an unacceptable truth is “Unacceptable to whom?” Is it internal or external validation that you seek?

A new model of gravity doesn’t help the world if you don’t share it, but if you feel treated unfairly by your business partner, maybe that’s an issue to be solved in the mirror rather than a courtroom.

Sure, you can debate racism in refugee movements on Twitter all day long, but is there any importance to who you’re trying to convince? Not everyone can turn every truth into a purpose, and unless we can rally the supporters we need (or feel we must die trying), we might be better off continuing our search for the truth we know we can – and simply can’t help but – champion.

The hardest part, as always, is to admit we’ve confused feeling for fact and unawareness for injustice: The truth is a truth we’ve forged within, and it remains as malleable as ever, if only we dare reheat the iron.

“I’m a bad singer.” “I love this person.” “I’m addicted to alcohol.”

Much more so than hidden scientific discoveries or oppression from the establishment, we hold ourselves back with the stories we keep replaying in our heads. Unless it’s a law of physics or public make-or-break moment (which, today, nothing really is), however, the truth about ourselves is whatever we choose to believe – and we can change what we believe.

Replace “That’s unacceptable” with “That’s me,” and suddenly, you have a dialogue where there used to be only judgment. Sure, drinking three beers a day isn’t healthy, but it’s also a behavior you can change, no matter how real the habit might be right now; no matter how inevitable the current truth feels.

Honor the truth of fact whenever you find your pockets are full of it. Probe the truth of feeling until you’re sure you’ve got it by the collar. Defend the important ones with everything you have, and, most importantly, remember that every single thing, thought, idea, opinion, belief, and habit you carry inside yourself is something you have chosen – and you can un-choose it anytime.

Through Wrong to Right

There’s an old Indian saying: “Jab sab galat ho raha ho, tab sab sahi ho raha hai.” According to Asha from Snowpiercer, it means: “When everything goes wrong, perhaps it’s setting itself right.”

If you dislocate your shoulder, the medic will warn you before he pops it back in: “This might hurt.” A CEO realizing she took the wrong strategic turn may have to fire an entire department.

It doesn’t always have to get worse before it’ll get better, but when you feel it getting worse without knowing where it’ll lead, have a little faith: The switches might still be adjusting, but there’s a chance the train will soon be back on track.

The Best or the Rest?

People say, “My partner brings out the best in me,” but does your main feature really need encouragement? Doesn’t it shine bright already, “it” being the skill, the value, the principle you most clearly embody and most proudly uphold?

Sure, our loved ones will always provide extra wind beneath our wings, but spreading them so we might fly in the first place? That’ll always be our own job. A supportive family won’t hinder your relentless quest to become the League of Legends world champion, but they can’t press the buttons for you.

Whatever is “the best of you,” it’ll be the magnet attracting those you’ll hold dearest. Once the ones you love have arrived, however, their task won’t be to maintain it. Instead, the people who love you back will bring out the rest of you. They’ll widen the spotlight, flooding your life with sunshine, until there’s enough room for your every idiosyncracy.

What’s special about our most unique connections is that they allow us to be our whole selves instead of – as many more functional relationships in our lives do – forcing us further into a few narrow roles only to be performed when called upon. They free us without fleeing from us, and, in exchange, we extend them the same courtesy.

“It’s okay to contradict yourself. It’s okay to play many parts – or none at all.” Few experiences feel more liberating than letting the liquid of who we are stretch as far as it may, especially without the fear of having to put it back into its bottle.

It’s nice that your family brings out the best in you. They should. Just make sure they also bring out the rest of you, because if you can’t feel whole somewhere in life, you may as well never have been whole at all. That would be a tragedy, because, this I know for a fact, you are.