By DREW THORSEN
Turning thirty this past year had me reflecting on how much has changed since I was a kid. I grew up in Philomath, a small town of two thousand people. Not much to do there but explore with friends or watch TV.
On a normal night, dad would come home from work and de-compress with The Daily Show, my mom would be doing her homework, my brother would be playing with Legos, and I would be illegally download music off of the internet until someone had to make a phone call.
On weekends we would fry our eyes on cartoons until mom told us we needed to get outside. Pushed by my mother’s wise advice, we explored our home town. It seemed every weekend we saw everything there was to see in Philomath, but we didn’t care. We would ride our bikes down to buy candy with change we found in the couch, and run amok until dusk on our sugar high. Our lives weren’t more complex than that. Sure, things weren’t perfect, but there was a hope that we would be in a better place next year— and that was progress. In the meantime, we had each other.
Mom was always telling us to turn off the TV and go outside. She would tell us that we needed to be careful of what we were consuming. We would sit and critique the junk, thinking we were invulnerable to it’s charms, but somewhere in me, I enjoyed it. I liked the junk food my brain was ingesting.
I didn’t know for sure, but I was becoming addicted to that perfectly polished sensationalism and drama modern media brought to our lives in rural Oregon. I didn’t fully understand the truth of my mother’s wisdom until I grew up a little, moved out, and began my own life. That is when the depression, the anxiety and the pessimism moved in.
Not long after I moved out on my own, the first smartphone was released. I waited a while to buy one, partially because I was poor, but also because I didn’t trust the technology. There was something in my mind telling me that having a constant source of entertainment and news on me at all times wasn’t a good idea.
But, people also said that about books when they came out, so I gave in eventually. I mean, everyone had one. So soon the iPhone 4 became my possession— and not long after that it owned me as well.
The behavior I previously shamed my friends for: the constant slouched posture, splitting focus in the middle of conversation, became my own. I would wake up, check up on my Twitter feed, head to the kitchen and make coffee. Then it was time to see how many likes I got on Instagram, and one didn’t want to forget about their New York Times subscription. It was so I could have something to talk to my friends about. I felt so worldly.
Only thing was, the world seemed horrifying. Every day there was news about shootings and bombings, sanctions, economic crisis, new diseases, outbreaks of invasive species destroying local habitat. It spoke to my humanity, and I needed to do something about all of this… but what to do?
Eventually I came to the conclusion that I needed to understand more. I spent hours, days, weeks on my own, reading, researching things that were suggested by the articles or people far more learned than I. Ideas and arguments that then I mostly didn’t understand.
I read some of the most boring books in existence to find a solution to the wrongs I chose to inherit. What is post-modernism? Why does everybody make fun of this Ayn Rand guy? I pulled further away from friends because of their ideas, I judged and heckled, poked and prodded. God was dead, you peons. I was an asshole. But, I guess at least I knew Turkmenistan has the sixth largest natural gas reserves in the world. That’ll come in handy one day.
Things were miserable, but only in my head. I had a wonderful partner, a great job, the sun was shining, the rain was raining, I lived within ten minutes of my favorite city in the world— still somehow everything inside me was terrible. I was addicted to the negativity, a constant flow of bad news coloring my view of the world around me. I felt hopeless, useless in a world of so many choices and problems. I became frozen.
I was Descartes in bed, Sisyphus under the boulder, Bill Murray in that one movie. Over and over in my mind, I focused on the minutiae of life, thinking myself in circles. I couldn’t stop myself from thinking that not only my media, but everything as a slippery slope to the depths of misery. It somehow captured my internal narrative and shifted it. Everything that entered my head was baseline ‘terrible’ to be judged on a sliding scale given its merit as compared to “This Shitty Planet”.
Through the malaise that was forming in my mind, a light began to shine forth in the form of “story”. I discovered positive psychology, and began to use the tools of narrative to restructure my mental pathways. In my internal world of post-human capitalist dystopia, I tore up the streets, cleared out the trash and began to listen to my feelings.
Internal facts did in fact care about my feelings, since they steered me to my conclusions. I asked myself questions about what makes me feel— not happy— but content? Outside, togetherness, and good food seemed like a good start.
My mother’s words echoing in my ears… I went outside. I smoked a joint (sorry mom), put on some of my favorite jazz-hop and rode the MAX into Portland as the sun set. I didn’t check my phone, I didn’t talk to anyone, I just listened to the rhythm of the things around me trying to connect with a surprisingly alien world of being out away from my phone and the stories it told me.
It wasn’t so bad.
I walked down to the MAX, the rhythm grinding heavy against the rails as we careened toward downtown Portland and across the Broadway bridge.
The skyline darkened, contrasting the sky that was exploding with beautiful colors. I looked around at my fellow passengers. Some stared out the window, sharing in the wonder, some minded their phones, and some were patiently tending to wild children.
Nobody was talking, nobody was smiling. We were all alone, but together.
I got off at Pioneer Square, shouldering past crowds of anonymous people hurrying to be somewhere, never fast enough. I mindlessly checked my phone. Damnit. I felt I betrayed myself and my mission to be free of this curse of negativity. It was time to sad eat.
I found a food cart, and there on the sidewalk of a Portland street, eating a burrito, I knew what I had to do. I knew I had to find my community, my tribe of positive humans. I had the words of a Third Eye Blind song I illegally downloaded one time playing in my mind— I’d never been so alone, but I’ve never been so alive.
I read somewhere that wisdom is what works. Somewhere along the way, what I valued as a human was put on hiatus. What worked for me, living a life building connection with friends and family, my intrinsic values, took a back seat to an imposed set of extrinsic values that I didn’t realize I was inhabiting.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still learning how to take what’s important and make it my focus, my priority. I am in recovery from being unwise about what I consume, in the same way I crave fast food, but I will not go back for fear of the pain.
As a human, I know I need connection and different challenging experiences to nourish my heart and my mind. It’s funny how much more rich my life feels when I get out of my internal story and into the world around me, into my community, connecting with those I share this city with.
So, to whoever reads this: if you’re feeling like the negative has taken over, or that things are bad, that might just be somebody else’s story.
Sometimes it just takes a little shift in what we see to shift how we see, and return to our own ideas about life. A shift in perspective, and maybe even some new friends and a burrito, could be exactly what you need.