This is Me

I have better enjoyment of life when I choose my emotions. Circumstances are often out of our control, so it isn’t always reasonable to choose to be happy in response to all of them. It's not that it's impossible to reach a positive emotional state, but it can certainly be a lot harder when life layers on the challenges.

I’ve learned from observing myself and others to never underestimate a person’s selfishness. I think that’s our natural state, to think only about ourselves, and it takes work to socialize people into caring for others. For the most part, I don't care if someone is an insufferable asshole so long as they know that about themselves. Keep being yourself, but just not anywhere near me. I often place myself at the centre of most experiences. I’ll choose to be unhappy if I don’t get a new iPhone every year, even when most people hang onto theirs for probably two to three years at least. Hanging out with people, sometimes it can feel impossible to have a good time, but it can also mean it required a higher amount of effort to have fun that night. I’ve held my happiness hostage before until my vague and infinitely long list of demands were met, which usually doesn’t happen. Especially being out of school and into marriage both for around five years now, more and more of the list of demands seems to move depeer into the area of first world problems.

It’s also worked in the opposite direction for me as well. When I should have been angry or upset, I chose not to be. When I should have gotten aggressive in response to an attack, I chose to run away. That helps when you’re trying to de-escalate a situation, but sometimes you need to respond with plain old brute force. In those cases, the decision preceded the emotion. I had already chosen to not get upset at all, so whenever my heart applied for a permit to be upset, it had already been denied well in advance. Being traumatized since childhood, I was stuck in a state of fear for a long time. Sometimes it’s helped me push past struggles, sometimes it’s worked against me.

”Fear. What happens on Earth stays on Earth,

And I can’t take these feelings with me

So hopefully they disperse

Within fourteen tracks, carried out over wax.

Wondering if I’m livin’ through fear or livin’ through rap.”

Kendrick Lamar

If I’m stuck in a state of fear, then I’ll eventually find something that I should be scared of. It’s been hard for me to relax my whole life because of that trauma. I thought I was just tightly wound, but it’s one of those deep psychological complexes. It’s harder for me to choose my emotions because they’re physiologically locked into my body, but again, it’s not impossible to break free. It takes a lot of work, and I got a big boost from professional help. Now that I’m not stuck in that state anymore, my emotional range has opened up. I’ve downgraded from traumatized paranoia to heightened suspicion now.

What’s an example of a time when did I not choose the best emotional response? The most recent example was Chasing Summer Music Festival 2017. Because of some changes this summer, it’s probably the last big event I’ll attend, never forgetting that I already spent a big chunk of dough going to Coachella. I had worked hard to trade shifts, to get my hair cut, to make sure we synced up with our friends, and even still, there were moments where I wasn't enjoying myself or loosening up. Some sets that I was anticipating were pretty awful. There were also some pleasant surprises like meeting new friends. However, it was only after I decided to just run with it and enjoy myself that I actually started smiling and dancing. I could have chosen to feel butthurt about the prices, the crowds, the smells. Maybe the DJ didn’t play the song I liked or they mixed it in a way I didn’t vibe with. Like the last two years, it rained cats and dogs, and I had to walk around and dance in wet socks for the rest of the day. I think it would be understandable if I were sour because of all those conditions and more, but I just decided that life was too short to be so bitter while so much more had lined up for me to enjoy myself at the event I was looking forward to the most for the year. I didn’t have to travel or find accommodations for this festival. A bunch of friends came in from out of town. I hadn’t seen Zedd in a few years, and Jauz moved up to the main stage this summer. I could have been selfish and increased the items on my list of demands, but after being a bummer for a while, I chose to appreciate what I did have, especially being surrounded by the best people. I’m privileged enough to have these first world problems.

Okay, so that’s a surface example. What’s a dark and terrifying place in my chest that needs some light shone upon it? This month marks roughly one year since I took short term disability from work. I was stressing about my job rotation and my mental health, and I had to quit once I realized I wasn’t getting any more support from HR. I got on medical EI for four months, tried to extend it in January, and I was looking for work and not getting responses. My health was not in a great place overall. Nowadays, I have a job with benefits and vacation. Carrie’s done school and working now. The car is functioning. I have amazing coworkers who’ve become friends, and I’m having fun 3D printing again. I’m still getting used to shift work as opposed to office hours, but there are upsides that I’m still discovering and learning to take advantage of. That is, I have a lot to be grateful for. I could go back to my old ways and demand that life remove my every annoyance and inconvenience, but I don’t want to be that person anymore.

It’s interesting trying to think back to The Struggle. Since I don’t feel absolutely and constantly devastated anymore, it’s almost like it never happened. I know in my head that it was the worst time of my life, but emotionally, it feels like the very distant past. It’s weird not being able to empathize with my past self, the one person I should be able to empathize with out of everyone. It’s easy to forget the hard times because I think the mind tends to erase unpleasant memories. I think back fondly to that time I went to Vietnam with my family of origin, but I also know that we stayed way too long; something like five or six weeks in the summer. It was scorching hot, the sun rose at like 4 AM, not to mention the car mechanic across the street started work around that time everyday. I didn’t like the Malaria Mosquitoes and Assassin Ants, the rain was overbearing, and the language barrier was difficult to navigate, especially talking to anyone that wasn’t a family member. I had to ask someone with a different dialect to repeat themselves five times, and they were only asking how I was doing. I know I was miserable at the time, but I still think of that vacation as only good times. During The Struggle, I never really felt like I had control of my feelings. I had the ability to choose to submit myself to certain experiences, but I spent a lot of time being surprised at how I felt.

"Why is this bothering me so much?"

"Why isn’t this bothering me more?"

Should I react or respond first? I think it’s healthy to react privately and then calculate your response afterward. I find that my reactions are much more base and instinctive, rash and animalistic. I used to have a serious problem with rage. I had so much pent-up anger inside that I would constantly plot how to kill people. I never did, but that's not a great thought to brood on. Apparently that’s a normal response to being abused and having my boundaries violated deeply and regularly. If I don’t release the tension built up in my reactions, then my response isn’t always ideal. That’s partly why I write. Typing helps me to slowly channel my rage onto the page, and once I can examine them objectively, I can tweak my response accordingly. I have a lot of reactions that are ridiculous in general, but I keep it to myself and try to respond with kindness. It’s not so bad if I react to something, but I like to be more measured instead of blurting things out, which I only do if there’s a lame pun to punish my readers with.

Is it possible to have too much control? When I should be mad but respond too quickly with generosity, it seems disingenuous because nobody processes feelings that quickly. It comes off as robotic, and even though there’s an underlying niceness, it can be as harmful as having a quick reaction. Being way too nice, I developed this mentality of being a pushover. When someone wronged me, I would quickly respond with “No worries.” Hakuna matata. What a wonderful phrase when it’s genuine. Saying it too quickly makes it seem suspicious. I was selfishly nice. My whole life I was told to think about others, but later I learned it was a manipulation tactic to take advantage of me the whole time. I thought I was supposed to be super nice to everyone because they would be nice back to me. That's not how the world works. I shouldn't be nice just so I can get something in return. I should do it because that's who I am and how I choose to interact with others, not with the expectation of a reward. In my experience, that reward is rarely ever presented.

On top of being forced to consider others, I’ve always felt rushed so I could fit someone else’s pace. Now I’m learning to assert myself and to go at my own pace. Instead of getting out of the way, I’m telling the world "This is me." My dad always rushed me to succeed so I could reach higher, so that created a pattern throughout my life where I wouldn’t centre myself before making my next move. I’m learning to ground myself, to take deep breaths, and to commit only once I’m ready. In an alternate timeline, Carrie and I would have had a lower cost wedding. We wouldn’t have traveled to such faraway and expensive places. We would have taken smaller risks, gotten married later, and had kids earlier. We would have bought a house on the outskirts of town, and eventually we would have grown resentful towards our kids because we did everything we were supposed to do when we were supposed to, all for their sakes. Societal and cultural pressures demanded them. Instead, we marched to the beat of our own drums instead of rushing so that I avoid inconveniencing someone else.

Your reactions can surprise you, which makes it harder to respond when you don’t know how you feel. At one of the after-parties for Chasing Summer, I ran into this girl who was just way too attractive. Not only was she gorgeous, but she and I were vibing on the dance floor. I’ve spent a lot of time on many a floor of dance before and I’ve run into plenty of pretty girls, but the combination of the looks and moves on this one girl just devastated me. I wanted to be with her, to know her problems and to take them away, to give her everything she needed. There was a searing pain in my chest that I felt wouldn't go away until I could make her happy. I haven’t felt this way in I-don’t-know-how-long, and it caught me completely by surprise. I was shook. I had a junior-high level of hopeless infatuation with her so bad that I’ve been thinking about her all week. It’s new to me. It does happen to people, even when they’re married. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still very much in love with Carrie after being together for some thirteen and a half years, but the heart wants what the heart wants. Feeling this way isn’t wrong, but certainly choosing my response can be judged in that realm. Being that our wedding anniversary just passed, I’m certain this was some sort of test, and it was a tough one that came late at night when I wasn’t expecting it. I think I did well because I didn’t ask for her name or number, I kept my distance, and I left the venue once I couldn’t handle the pain anymore. I sometimes think about her during quiet moments, but luckily she’s beyond my reach now and I’ll probably never run into her again. Until the next test.

We out here. The trend of the universe is towards darkness, chaos, emptiness. The very act of existence is a rebellion against what the world wants. By being born, by being yourself, you defy all the forces trying to end you. There are those that would take your money, your attention, your health and well-being for their own selfish ends. By saying “This is Me,” you fight back against everyone trying to exploit you, trying to colonize your body for their own profit. Be yourself. Write your own story like Kendrick. Don't be like Drake the actor. Sometimes you can choose your emotions, but it can be a lot of work. Sometimes we need to listen to our bodies and bend to its emotional pull, but other times we need to overpower our feelings with our heads to get things done. We're selfish beings, so it takes a conscious effort to remove ourselves as the centre of all experiences. Life is best when you live for something beyond yourself. On the other hand, you have to address any damage and missing pieces before you can do that. It’s all good as long as you’re saying this is who you are and who you want to be.

Jonathan Phan Lê @jon_le