Pacifiers, Anxiety, and Being Alone

What follows is a long, meandering narrative that didn’t necessarily end up where I had anticipated. I wanted to talk about the things we use to pacify ourselves, but the act of writing about that led me to a different place. Regardless, I’m only writing any of this stuff as an exercise in transparency. If someone else finds value in this, cool!

Out of habit, I often pick my phone up and look at it. Mind you, there’s nothing to look at. You see, I’ve removed everything from my phone that could possibly need looking at. I deleted my Facebook account (deleted, not de-activated). I removed the Wall Street Journal app. I removed the Apple news widget. I removed iFunny. I turned off email notifications.Now, I pull the phone out, and I say to myself, “what am I doing? There’s nothing to look at!” Indeed, what AM I doing?

This is what the majority of us have been conditioned to do. Perhaps once I get it through my head there’s nothing on my phone (save for maybe a book on Kindle), I’ll leave it in my pocket until I actually need to use it for something.

Noticing this tendency in myself makes me think of a quote I heard once (I had to search to find the quote again to get the right wording, and to remember that it was by Blaise Pascal) which states, “All man’s miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone.” I heard that quote a long time ago, and I remembering being almost narcissistically proud that I, in fact, could sit comfortably alone with my thoughts. Apparently, I was mistaken. As it turns out, I’m just as given to the use of our modern day pacifiers as anyone.

I have had lots of pacifiers – music when I’m driving, my phone, intellectual endeavors, eating… God. Now, there’s one that’s been interesting to let go of. Even though I came to terms recently with the fact that I don’t really believe (or at least not in the traditional sense), I can’t count the number of times I’ve been alone and in distress, and began firing off a prayer. I catch myself, and say, “who are you talking to?”

Anything can be a pacifier. When we’re alone or bored, we reach for these pacifiers to make ourselves feel better. But why? What’s wrong with being alone? Perhaps it isn’t simply being alone that’s the problem.

At home, when I’m washing the dishes, or shaving with the water on, if someone talks to me from a distance, I have to explain to them that I can’t hear them over the sound of the running water. Likewise, in a noisy bar with loud music and the lights subdued, one tends to lose sight of the fact that they are fucked up (drunk, etc.), hanging out in a shit hole.

That’s us. We’re all fucked up in some way, hanging out in this shit-hole we call life. Thus, being alone with ones own thoughts is akin to turning the water off in my faucet metaphor, or turning all the lights on and silencing the music in the bar room. All that’s left is a glaring, potentially ugly view of reality. The only sound left is the sound of one’s own inner voice. This is what we’re uncomfortable with. We see what is real, and we don’t like it. This is why we feel compelled to seek out our pacifiers.

In my own life, as I’ve removed my pacifiers, a vacuum has been left in their place. What I choose to fill the vacuum with, then, becomes of utmost importance. Rather than occupying my time with meaningless scrolling or any of the other pointless endeavors I often engage in, I must fill that void with something more meaningful. A recent trip away from home helped to illustrate, to me, what that “something” is.

My part time job is mentally challenging, and often anxiety inducing. It also usually occurs away from the comforts of home, away from my family and daily routines. I don’t think those two things are a coincidence. I just spent two weeks away from home on a trip with my part-time job, and as expected, my days were filled with anxiety fueled by the anticipation of the unknown. Were I to need them, some of my pacifiers were still there, but they were only temporarily helpful. What helped the most was the times when I could sit around a table with my friends engaging in a real conversation, and getting to know them better. I filled that void with relationships.

After further introspection, I determined what I have been lacking on these trips is my family. When the day is done, and my friends have all retreated to their rooms, there are no wife and kids to come home to, only the void. I am forced to be alone with my own thoughts.

While filling this void with relationships, passions, and the like, I have to be careful not to turn these worthwhile pursuits into a different sort of pacifier. In other words, I need to ensure I am not objectifying my relationships, passions, profession, and growth as a means to make me feel good. Especially in the case of relationships, there are real living human beings on the other side with feelings of their own. I must not pursue these endeavors selfishly. Instead, I must develop and more finely hone my ability to be okay being alone with my thoughts.

Largely, I have found that as long as nothing is bothering me, I really do enjoy being alone with my thoughts. It gives me an opportunity to play out hypothetical scenarios, ruminate on ideas, or win imaginary arguments with people that I would never engage in for real. When I have something uncomfortable I have been pushing off into the back of my mind is when it becomes problematic.

Though I’m not quite there in terms of a solution to alleviate the anxiety that comes with the anticipation of he unknown, I have found one strategy that has been helpful. If I can stop, put my finger on what the problem is – I mean, really, specifically define it, then tell myself it will be okay, I can sometimes feel better. Though if the issue is too big, it doesn’t always work. While on my trip, while reading, I discovered another strategy.

In his book, “Taekwondo, Ancient Wisdom for the Modern Warrior,” Grand Master Doug Cook, President of the United States Taekwondo Association, mentioned to treat some forthcoming daunting task as though it has already happened. I found this extremely helpful in calming my nerves when anticipating the events I had to participate in.

In either case, the answer is being aware of one’s thoughts. Further, I would suggest a healthy dose of self-awareness is crucial if one is to enjoy any measure of success in removing one’s pacifiers. Though, while I don’t have all the answers, and likely never will, this journey toward a more meaningful and intentional life has illuminated the idea that we can only find peace if we’re willing to be honest with ourselves about ourselves.

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