It was dark when I awoke, the house silent. As a boy, I always felt at peace in the darkness, so long as I knew everyone else was home and in bed for the night. I enjoyed the quiet, inside the house and out. I enjoyed the sense of having the world to myself, at least for a while. I could write; I could watch the old movies that no one else wanted to watch; I could read. And darkness always seemed to clarify everything for me, without the clutter of light and noise and doing that the daytime brings. So this morning, I sat up on the edge of the bed, my wife sound asleep behind me, my children in their rooms encased in silence. And the thought came to me with crystalline clarity: All that causes disquiet in my life comes from me.
Like many people—maybe most people—I spend my days with a running internal monologue of greater and lesser complaints: Someone didn’t do this or that with the dishes, their clothes, the toys they’d finished playing with, their bed sheets; someone on the drive to school wasn’t watching closely enough, drove too fast, made too wide a turn; some politician or business tycoon doesn’t understand our real problems; some commenter online was being wilfully ignorant; some religious fanatic or anti-religious fanatic was being fanatical.
In my monologue, I fantasize about how life would be better if I lived in another house (sometimes bigger, sometimes smaller), made more money, had more sex, had more time, had children who slept later, got published, became successful, lived in another city, lived in another country—if somehow the world and the people in it became more amenable to my desires.
As I sat on my bed this morning, though, the darkness wiped all those thoughts away. All the disquiet in my life comes from me. And all this disquiet comes from the fact that I consider my life more or less a failure. At this point, I have no real career, no home that I own, no job, little or no retirement, no accomplishments that I would point to if I felt a need (and as you probably can tell, I do) to justify my life so far. Now please do not mistake my attitude with one of self pity. Quite the opposite. Given my personal failings, I have led a life of enviable good fortune. I live in more material comfort than the vast majority of the world. I get to spend time raising my children. My wife is a wonderful person who has a good job at which she is adept, and as a result I have no reason for financial concern. Everyone I love is reasonably healthy, nothing life-threatening. I’ve managed to acquire a good graduate education, to make friends, to see two sons successfully grown to adulthood.
No, I have no reason for complaint, which underscores the fact that whatever dissatisfaction I feel reflects nothing external; it flows instead from the knowledge that I’ve achieved very little that I set out to do. I know I have choices. I can change my behavior so that it aligns more with my goals, or I can let go of or shift my goals so that they align with my inability (unwillingness) to move in their direction. But for now, I just want to settle into this clarity, this fundamental understanding. “Fixing” the “wrong” things in the world, however useful that might be, would have no bearing on the turmoil taking place in my head most of the time. Until I can find a quiet within in me, everything in the world will be cacophony.
It’s light now outside, and cold, and another layer of snow falls.