The Cage

Freedom can feel an awful lot like not being wanted. It’s no wonder then that so many of us rush back into that cage again. And again. I’m reaching the point in being single that I wonder now why anyone would want to give that up just to be captive again. It is as if we find value in ourselves only if someone else wants to possess us.

Our value is our desirability to others.

So, self-worth is tied to being controlled by someone else. Whether it is a partner, God, family, our government, or our jobs. Co-dependence is a royal bitch, people. And there will come a time in your recovery when you realize that you don’t have to buy into this. Your value doesn’t depend on someone else wanting you Your value is whatever you want it to be.

I thought about this for a number of reasons. One of which was thinking about the time I was dating a woman who had a very good professional life, she didn’t really want for anything. Emotionally, maybe things were different, but she was so surface that I doubt I ever really knew her all that well. After a twenty year marriage, she waited only a few months before she started seeing me. We had an on-again off-again kind of romance that really wreaked havoc on my life for a time.

I was no different, though my marriage had dissintegrated years before I finally got out. I was probably more emotionally open to connection with someone, since my life had been devoid of it for so long. My value was tied to the money I brought home from work. The chores I did around the house. Enforcing draconian laws over the kids. It was never enough, but my value was tied to Family. Until it wasn’t anymore. Until I decided it was time to find what I valued about myself.

Hell, I’ve been single for years in the interim since my divorce. Sometimes it is lonely. Sometimes I am content. Free. I’ve done therapy. Traveled. Had experiences. Hardships I had to overcome alone. Defeats and victories with no one else to bear witness to them. I feel no less valued for it.

That woman I dated got remarried not long after we broke up. In total, after a twenty year marriage, she was right back in another one. She might have spent about three or four months on her own. Figuring her shit out. None of them were consecutive. She needed marriage for intimacy and emotional connection, just as some people think they need religion to be spiritual. For her, marriage came with the emotional factor as well as the more practical aspect of finances and image. Like we are living back in Edwardian times again.

I see this happening a lot. Especially to those who have dated or been romantically involved with me. The foster boyfriend, finding forever homes for wayward women. But that’s a whole other post. You see, I can be good to someone. So good to them. But I’m not wealthy and I’ve been told I don’t look very attractive on paper.

Like I said, a whole other post.

I used to crave that connection. That moment when you meet your forever person. The optimist and the cynic in me are at odds over that debate. The optimist says that these women just found Their Person after dragging me along for so long. Sometimes things just click, so they say. The cynical side of me says they just went back to old patterns. They didn’t really learn anything and just clung on to what was familiar. For whatever reason, they need that cage to feel valued. The world is terrifying outside of those bars.

A little bird could get lost out there in the world without a cage to keep them safe.

At the end of the day, unless you have actually done the work to figure your shit out, it will always come bubbling back up to the surface. No matter how you change your persona, no matter how far you distance yourself from those who got to know you, no matter how many times you start over. Wherever you go, there you are. And if you don’t figure out what is rotten in you, you won’t ever get out of that cage. You’ll just trade it for another one.

But, like I said, some people are more familiar with that cage. It’s comfortable in there. If the world you create continues to let you down, there is comfort in knowing you controlled your own self-destruction. I’m still learning how to deal with that about myself. If you don’t expect too much out of yourself or a situation, you won’t be nearly as devastated when things go to shit. The truth is it will hurt just as much. Trust me.

With love, the love you have for others will always fade or temper into something else. Sometimes it becomes a patina with character and other times, that tarnish just crumbles and decays. The love you have for yourself isn’t a cage. It’s a chilly wind on a summer day.

Or, you can get out of that cage and fly far from it. You might surprise yourself just how far and high you can fly. The worst thing we can ever tell ourselves is “We’ve always done it this way.” It’s the death knell of the spirit, of a workplace, and a relationship. Of the self.

Time to do something different. Something better. Something scary.

Here’s a song that partially inspired my post. The rest was inspired by the shudder I got when I realized just what everyone is running back into. Companionship is wonderful, but if you are the same broken person, and they are the same broken person, and nobody has done the Work…you’re just going to cut each other on your sharp edges and pull at each other’s loose threads. The same fights. The same tears, screaming silently in a different cage.

Coming through the other side

I came to the realization today that I’m only stressed out about one thing right now and that is money. But seriously, everyone is stressed out about money. From the guy panhandling on the interstate off-ramp to Elon Musk. If you asked Jay-Z what one of those problems out of 99 that he’s got, he would probably say money.

I hit a point in my life where I’m no longer going to be as much of a people pleaser. I’ve got myt own set of priorities–call them selfish if you must–but I’m really just over dealing with other people’s drama. If you want to make sad choices, that’s your problem. Not one of my 99.

I’ve hit that level where I will no longer fight for someone’s attention or affection. If people value me, it should come to me. If they don’t, well, I’ve got a lot of other things I should be doing. Things I would rather be doing, other than reading minds and trying to be active in a situationship.

I have nearly all of my time to dedicate to myself right now. My writing. My mental and physical health. I no longer have to find meaning in providing for others. 40+ years of hardwiring in my brain…it gets to be used for something else now.

What does that look like?

It’s scary as hell.

It’s a lot like realizing your whole life that thing you have been using to hammer nails with was a wrench all along. I have to shift how I approach everything in life now. You see, just because I’m no longer going to dedicate my existence to chasing the One, or tap-dancing to entertain kids, or endulging others in sympathy over self-destruction, it frees up a lot of mental space to do things that I have been avoiding for a very long time. Improving my life. Finding meaning and fulfillment outside of making others happy. That isn’t to say that everything will be easy. I just get to shift my resources over to something else, which admittedly might be even harder.

Unlike the 20-somethings you see on social media and dating apps and TikTok/YouTube, I might have around 20 years of decent health. Fifteen is what I’m hoping for to be honest. So, unlike these kids, I don’t have all the time in the world, but what I do have is experience. Patience. And also unlike these kids, I have the realization to know that it doesn’t matter what other people think. You don’t have to be happy all the time either. You can be content, at peace, neutral buoyancy, or whatever. Life is not a beer commercial. Sometimes it’s just watching the clouds pass overhead on a quiet afternoon. Sometimes it is something broken on your car. A good show on TV. A book you can’t put down. Petting the dog. I’m less inclined now to let myself be guided by FUN! rather than just experiences now too.

I don’t trust FUN! Because FUN! doesn’t last. It’s as arbitrary as eating powdered sugar right out of the bag with a spoon.

Experiences at least give you a good story.

So, now I have to figure out what the rest of my life looks like without that prescribed sense of meaning we all get from our first Disney movie onward. The one that tells us we have value only when we have value to others. With ourselves, we set the bar so low sometimes, because we haven’t been valued very much. So why should we value ourselves? Many of us get depressed and drop down to the basics. Brushing our teeth once or twice a day. Maybe eating food. Showering is optional.

What if we approached every day like we were about to go on a first date with someone and wanted to present that best version of ourselves? Only we were showing our best side to ourselves? The side that is confident. Courteous. An active listener. Able to laugh at ourselves. Opening doors for ourselves.

See what I mean? Scary.

That’s what you’ll find on the other side. I can see now why I’ve let myself get lost in other people’s bullshit. That world was familiar. This new one…let’s see where it takes me.

Simplicity and Meaning

I’ve thought a lot about what I would want in a relationship. When we start out in life, we have no idea what to look for, and then as we get older, we begin to get a good idea. We set up expectations. Sometimes we get crazy expectations which would make it nearly impossible for anyone to fit the bill.

Young men often say they want someone who is a size four or under, they have to have a certain hair color, eye color, blah blah blah. Like any good plan, everyone has one until they get punched in the mouth. To quote Iron Mike Tyson.

I’ve boiled my list down to a few mandatory things, which I’ll share here.

  • Must be a good kisser
  • Must enjoy kitchen dancing (music optional)
  • Must be kind to animals
  • Not rude to servers and waitstaff
  • Must love to laugh (especially at themselves)
  • Must have their shit together

That last one is the kicker isn’t it?

Lately I’ve been trying to get my shit together even more. Some days I’m good at it, and others not so much. I recently started reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. I got halfway through it in one sitting. If you are unfamiliar with the book, it tells the story of Viktor Frankl, who was a psychotherapist in Austria during the 1930s until he was rounded up with millions of other Jews and sent to death camps during WWII.

During his time in Auschwitz and Dachau (and other camps), Frankl made observations that sometimes the healthier people who were brought into the camps–bigger, stronger, better fed, etc.–were dying, whereas he, a doctor doing hard labor, was still alive. He attributes much of it to simply having a reason to live. The attrocities he saw on a daily basis became commonplace and after awhile all empathy was robbed of them. They fell to nearly animalistic impulses. But he held onto the belief that as long as he found meaning in his life, he could continue. Sometimes he held conversations in his head with his wife, whom he had no knowledge of being alive or dead. Some found meaning in art, which some still did as they continued the slog towards starvation and disease. A big one Frankl attributed to his survival was love. Whether it was love for the outdoors and a beautiful sunset, or the thoughts of his wife, or the love of his work. The man actually wrote notes for his books on scraps of paper while he was in the camps.

When people are exposed to stress and trauma over a long period of time, they become desensitized to awful things. They become cold. I have thought about that in my own struggles recently with my children, with court. I haven’t spoken about it much here, but the papers have all been signed. The loss of common sense in the whole thing. The disregard for logic or fairness…it’s enough to drive you crazy. It’s certainly enough to make you lose hope. My children are all gone now. Lost to parental alienation, and the courts facilitated this. It isn’t right. Remember what Mike Tyson said? I’ve lived that. I can see nothing but a hard life for all of my kids.

It was Father’s Day and not a single phone call or text. That was also done to hurt me (did it? Not really. I tend to agree with the Stoics on this one). They cannot go outside of their mother’s authoritarian control. Her only purpose is to cause pain in others, because they have to pay for her own demons, which she never dealt with. Showing love or compassion for me is forbidden. Believe me when I say I’ve been there and lived through it. Sometimes it’s just easier to do what she says unless you want to get hurt.

I started reading Frankl because of that situation. Because of the guilt associated with losing all meaning in your life. As a father–really any parent–our identity is tied to being able to provide for and protect our children. When our lawmakers take that fundamental right away from us, it is dehumanizing. We run the risk of losing hope. June is Men’s Mental Health month. A huge number of divorced dads commit suicide every year because of this system. A lot of dads turn to the bottle or drugs to cope. Really to numb that feeling inside that says they are unworthy of being on this planet. I’ve seen it. Hell, I’ve dabbled in it.

I keep hearing that “One day your kids will come around.” No. They won’t. There is no rule out there saying they ever will. No crystal ball predicting this. Sometimes, people are just lost to you. That is a harsh reality. Ask any parent of a drug addict or any parent whose child walked to school and never came home. Or any parent who sat in front of a doctor and heard the words “It’s too soon to tell, but we are going to run some more tests…” Telling someone otherwise gives them false hope, and over time, according to Frankl, that “reprieve” will cut you just as deep as the trauma. So, please, don’t tell me they will come around. You don’t know that. Nobody knows that.

You come to a point where you have to admit to yourself you did everything you could.

So, I’ve decided to look for meaning in other ways. I have my Work. I have my writing. I have my memories of good people who walked with me for a while. Many of them are gone, but I still carry that piece of them with me. That piece that I loved. Like Frankl, I have conversations with these old ghosts sometimes. At least the part of them who held my hand and told me I was worthy of love. I have dreams and goals. I have the rest of my life to live and I refuse to let myself die on my feet doing meaningless, unfulfilling toil, just because I am not allowed to live for anything other than children who have been indoctrinated to hate me. But, whether their mother likes it or not, I will always be their dad.

I have the work of getting my shit together too, because the door swings both ways. I have a lot of trauma to work through. I don’t expect a partner to fix me, anymore than I would want to fix her. Getting your shit together means addressing the damage of the past and finding meaning in your life. Allowing yourself to love yourself and others. And seeking purpose. Meaning.

Today, I spent time with my dad on Father’s Day. We had good conversations. He made lunch and dinner. We aren’t very much alike, but time shared with him had meaning because these opportunities won’t last forever.

Having your shit together is a thin line on the horizon. It implies having done the work to no longer hurt yourself or others. It speaks to self-worth and boundaries. It probably means you are forgiving of yourself when you mess up and own your mistakes. And sometimes it means you can even harden your heart and walk away if you have to. It means you choose Peace over Drama. And you stop bleeding on others who didn’t cut you. It means honesty. It means allowing yourself to feel safe and asking good questions. It means tearing down walls and having better boundaries instead.

It’s also a pretty big red or green flag for those who work hard to get their shit together.

I hope I can find someone who fits this bill one day. Like many things in life, there are no guarantees. But I really do miss some great kissing and kitchen dancing. Until then, I will continue to find meaning. Fulfillment. Joy. Life goes on.