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We strive for life's comfortable middle, but the best parts are often on its edges.
Note from the future: Appropriate to the title, I wrote with a bit more of an “edge” when this essay was new than I do today. Maybe the fact that I’d write the same idea less severely now means I’ve matured. Maybe it means I’ve sold out. I actually don’t think I’ve done either. I’m a little different now is all, like everyone. Still, the core of what’s below very much remains.
Something to note as you read this one is that I apparently hadn’t discovered Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt” when I wrote it, nor had I realized that a LOT of adults knew that version and saw hence saw a very different — and more personally relevant — meaning in the lyrics when they came from Cash instead of Trent Reznor. I still love the Nine Inch Nails version of “Hurt,” but now I tend to prefer Cash’s. While Reznor sang from youth, anticipating future pain, Cash sang very near his death, looking back with the pain of a gone-forever past. It’s some existentially scary shit to watch all you used to have fall apart, and Cash’s video for it gives me shivers every time.
This summer, over a two-month span of time, I did an Olympic triathlon, a bike century, a half Ironman, and a marathon.
That's not bragging. Bragging carries the assumption that I did it with a purpose, to prove something to others. I did neither. Only after completing the second event did I ask myself what the hell I was doing it for. I'm not fast. I'm not going to finish in the top third of any event I enter. I'm not trying to impress anyone. Yet it took a huge amount of effort, required me to repeatedly get up around 3am, and had me going for up to seven hours at a time. So why was I doing it?
At first I thought it was to see if I could do it, but then I realized that the intent was subtly different. "Seeing if you can do it" comes with a positive expectation. It's a carrot. You train, and hopefully you accomplish.
What I was doing was a bit more masochistic. I was trying to see how much I could take.
My empire of dirt
There's a song by Nine Inch Nails called "Hurt." The lyrics go like this:
I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel.
I focus on the pain … the only thing that's real.
It'd be really easy to dismiss this as the ramblings of a morose kid who grew up to become an idol for depressed teenagers, and that's what most adults do. Kids do dumb shit, and as adults, it's our job to explain away said dumb shit so that we don't have to try to understand it. Dumb shit doesn't require an explanation. It can simply be dismissed, because it's dumb.
Why would pain have any value? Pain is real, sure, but so is the budget deficit, and we don't want either of them in our lives. Pain isn't "the only thing that's real." You know what's real? This deadline. These bills. The fact that we haven't done our Christmas shopping yet. Oh, and the Patriots game.
This is what we tell those whiny teenagers. But interestingly, it's what we tell ourselves, too.
So what if you hate your job? It gives you genuine security. You can keep a roof over your head. You can even buy that new plasma TV you've been wanting. So turn in your work on time. Listen. Advance. These things are real, and important.
But if you think your deadline is real, go out in the woods and get a grizzly bear to chase you. Which of your pressing concerns seems more real now?
If you think your job is real, get cancer and be given six months to live. Then see if you give a fuck about your job.
The fears that come with your job, your finances, or your social standing are fears of things that aren't real. If you lose your job, life will go on. That isn't the way it used to be with the objects of our fears. Used to be, we were afraid of being eaten by tigers. That was a legit fear. You get eaten by a tiger just one time, and things change dramatically for you.
In first world societies, we're not usually in real danger anymore. Sure, you can still get hit by a car. You can get a disease. You can get shot. You can get home-invaded or robbed or raped. But comparatively, today, true threats are almost nonexistent. Cave people got a cut and it became infected and they died. They twisted their ankle and lost some of their speed and died. They drank bad water and died. Food became scarce, so they slowly starved and died.
Those things don't really happen much nowadays (not for most people well-off enough to spend time reading blogs, anyway), but we're still wired to fear pain. So to compensate, we promoted the things we found moderately unpleasant to "pain" status and began fearing those things instead.
Stress. Discomfort. Awkwardness.
We used to make the choice not to cross a field based on fear of being eviscerated by predators waiting in the bushes. Today we make the choice to not start a new venture based on fear of failing … which, you know, might be socially uncomfortable.
We started saying things like, "This stress is killing me" and "Those people are exercising themselves to death!" and "I was so embarrassed, I could have died!"
But those things aren’t pain. That's not true discomfort. That's not the peril to life and limb we evolved to avoid.
We're not the fragile beings we've been trained to think we are. We're not as weak (of body, of mind, of will) as we've hypnotized ourselves into thinking. But the only way to truly learn that — and to open the entire spectrum of human experience we've buried beneath the shiny veneer of modern existence — is to face our own personal limitations and boundaries head-on.
It's ironic: Letting yourself experience what you most don't want to experience is the only way to truly be human.
Think about how we live today.
We live in television and on the internet. (I'm scorning neither use both, so there's no finger-pointing here.) Sometimes our friends are people we only see once or twice a year, who we might have physical contact with only half a dozen times throughout our lives.
We go from place to place very quickly without having to wear down our shoes or the soles of our feet, thanks to fast cars and fast trains and fast planes.
We spend a lot of time accomplishing very little. The work of a human life might be the movement of one set of papers or one group of numbers from one location to another.
We have kids, but then we go to work and they go to school (so they can later go to work, thus closing the circle). Often, our lives cross only briefly, like ships in the night.
We're shaped by fashion and consumerism. Instead of desiring and chasing food, we desire and chase iPads and iPhones … present company included.
We check email and social networks compulsively. Are we lonely? Or are we just looking for some urgency so we can pretend what we’re doing matters: surrogate for the survival we used to spend our lives protecting … survival that’s now just handed to us more often than not?
We have fast food. We have video games so real you could step into them. We have reality TV so we can vicariously live the lives of Jersey kids and celebrities. And even though we may never visit Australia if we live in New York, we can video chat with Australia, live, for free, whenever we want.
Old-fashioned, unfiltered reality worked for a while, but it was untidy. It was really time-consuming. It had some great positives, but it also came with some shitty negatives.
Move over, reality. Now there's Reality 2.0.
The good old days
Used to be, things were different.
Used to be, you had to be strong, fast, and smart to survive. That was how evolution proceeded. Those with an advantage leading up to reproductive age passed on their genes while those without an advantage did not. In that way, humans got stronger and faster and smarter.
Then we started getting so smart that our bodies didn't have to evolve quite as quickly to keep up.
We stopped needing to be strong when machines were invented.
We stopped needing to be fast when chariots, buggies, bicycles, and cars were built.
We no longer had to hunt for food. Others created food in such surplus that certain populations would never want for it. We even manufactured cheap superfoods that were so calorically dense, the poorest among us ended up being the fattest. As for those who could afford no food at all? Those unfortunates could just be avoided. We invented cell phones, so we had a built-in reason to look away.
Even battling your enemies can now be done with the push of a button.
We found a cure for pain. A cure for sleeplessness. A cure for emotional upset. Some cures were medical, and some were behavioral. A cigarette could cure nervousness. A trip to the mall could cure sadness. Eating could cure fear. Drinking could cure shyness.
And that's all fine and dandy until you realize that we're hard-wired to experience all of those so-called "negative" things.
A lot of people, they like to ride roller coasters. As time goes on, roller coasters get bigger and faster. The logical explanation for this is that progress must march on, and a bigger and faster roller coaster is the next logical step. But I think it's because as our lives become less and less genuine, we require bigger and bigger thrills to scare us, for just a moment, into feeling human again.
Horror films get more and more frightening for the same reason. Those stop-motion sequences of Japanese kids in movies like The Ring? Holy fuck. I don't need an iPad anymore; all that matters is that you keep those things away from me. Or the breed of intensely grotesque movies that started with the likes of Hostel and Saw. Nothing supernatural about those at all — just stuff that could actually happen via ordinary everyday evil. Those movies were huge hits because the more you can feel yourself as being there, being in it, the more you realize — for just a little while — that what your neighbor thinks about your car is irrelevant.
This is the society that embraced Fight Club.
This is a society that spawned real-life fight clubs.
We all go about it in different ways and succeed to different degrees, but every one of us has a part inside us that wants to feel discomfort because it's visceral. Because it's human.
Remember what Agent Smith said in The Matrix?
Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world, where none suffered, where everyone would be happy? It was a disaster. No one would accept the program; entire crops were lost. Some believed that we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world, but I believe that as a species, human beings define their reality through misery and suffering. That perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrums kept trying to wake up from.
We'll never create a utopia, because it's impossible to define good without having bad to compare it to. There is no pleasure without pain. There is no Heaven without Hell.
The more we try to eliminate the negatives in life, the more we consequently eliminate the positives.
Modern society has tried very hard to be safe and secure, to keep us in the soft and protected center of our experience spectrum, and away from the perilous edges.
The problem is that the edges are where all of the really good stuff is.
The way to expand your joy is by expanding your capacity for discomfort and failure.
We spend all our time trying to insulate ourselves from negative sensations and emotions, and we end up stunted on both ends. If the experience of modern life feels dim and muted to you, you're not alone. We're seeing the world through a protective wrapping. The reason people seek out extremes is so they can, for once, truly experience something unblunted and real.
This is a legit sociological concept. It's called "edgework."
There are two sides to every coin. If you want to experience real emotion, you get the gamut. If you experience a level 8 emotion in one area, you get access to all emotions at level 8. And if you seek out a negative experience at level 8, you master it. Fear doesn't blindside you because you went after it. Pain doesn't overwhelm you because you went into it willingly, step by step. If you wanted to back off, you could have.
Whatever level of discomfort you reach, you reach deliberately. You've met the negative head-on, on your own terms. You own it, and you'll own it forever.
And your world gets bigger. Your spectrum of experience broadens in all directions — positive and negative. We don't grow one-dimensionally, in a line. We grow three-dimensionally, in a sphere. If you master X, you get access to Y. That's how it works.
We seek out edges so we can reconnect with who we really are.
We are not averages and statistics.
We are not the upper, middle, or lower class.
We are not citizens, or constituents, or the governed.
We are not megaplex Christmas shoppers.
We are human.
Tick … tick … tick …
A few months ago, I wrote an essay that part of me wishes I hadn't written.
It was called The Universe Doesn't Give a Flying Fuck About You, and it was exceedingly popular. It went viral and got a lot of attention, and it might just be the best thing I've ever written. But it came with a price.
The price is that I didn't just write it. I also read every word of it, over and over again. I lived it. And so now, every day almost without exception, I'm hideously aware that the clock is ticking.
We all get older. We never get younger.
We all know that, but take a moment now to really think about it: If you're 30, do you look back longingly on your 20s? Good. Because they're over. They're OVER. You'll never be there again. Never. It’s also true of the age you are now. You have exactly one chance to enjoy the present moment … and then it's gone forever.
I guess my new intense awareness of time is a gift. I guess it means that I know not to sweat petty details or waste time. A lot of people haven't figured that out yet and continue to squander the small number of days, weeks, months, and years we've been given.
I just watched the movie In Time. In it, the currency is time itself. When you go broke and your time-currency runs out, you don't move into a box in an alley. You just die. And that's a great premise for a sci-fi movie — living each day in a terrifying struggle to earn a few more minutes or hours But here’s the thing: That's how we live too, here in the real world. You could punch out tomorrow. You could punch out right now. Nobody knows how much time we have left.
Every day, I wonder if I'm spending enough time with my family. If I'm having enough fun. If I'm enjoying my work, and if I'm making a difference. I feel like a man who's been given a death sentence. I'm not kidding. Someone asks me to spend an hour doing something stupid and I resent it, because it's an hour I won't get back.
What are you doing with the time you have?
Are you watching life through a protective bubble? Are you afraid to leave that bubble, to feel the true pain of effort, of exertion, of something you've never dared to try before? And as you succumb to your fear of the unreal, do you have to settle for experiencing fake joy, fake excitement, fake victory?
Life isn't meant to be lived through a filter. When you walk into pain and discomfort willingly, and you feel it unblunted, you know you’ve broken through the filter. You know you're finally — maybe for the first time ever — experiencing something truly and completely real.
I don't know about you, but if I only have so many years here (we're all born with a terminal disease, after all), then I want to experience the real.
Don't be stupid, but maybe test your boundaries. Maybe do what bothers you. Do some things that hurt. Let yourself be afraid, and uncomfortable, and at your limit. If you're scared of something, dive in the next time you experience that fear and revel in it, sampling it like a delicacy. Look at everything you've been trying not to feel and say, "Let's try this on for size."
I don't know about you, but I want to see what's out there in the world.
And within limits, within reason, I don't mind if it hurts.
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