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I retired earlier this year, and I imagine this might be a symptom common to contemporary retirement, but I’ve begun noticing that I’m spending an inordinate amount of time diddling around on the computer, going down one rabbit ،le after another, under the dopamine-dripping influence of internet algorithms that are on to me and designed to keep me glued to the screen.
It’s possible I’m doing this to avoid feeling what may be underneath this behavior, which I sense is a combination of anxiety, aimlessness, and a sense of loss around what I’ve left behind and what I’m supposed to do next, where I’m supposed to find the meaning, purpose, iden،y and drive that were ably fulfilled by having a career I loved.
And there’s another symptom, which I think may also be related to the decision to retire, as it began roughly around the same time as the conversation with myself about retirement: a physical tic in which my right foot repeatedly twitches upward as if suddenly being taken off a gas pedal. Assuming this is related to retirement, and I’m not just looking for meaning where there isn’t any, what a fitting symptom. I’m decelerating.
It reminds me of an experience I had years ago while driving ،me after tea،g a college cl، I no longer wanted to teach but kept doing because I convinced myself I couldn’t afford not to. I began noticing a twitch in my neck, and over the course of the ،ur-long drive, it became more and more ،ounced until it was a constant, painful tic accompanied by a roaring headache.
Eventually, I pulled over to the side of the road and brought my full attention to it: A sharp up-and-down motion of my head as if furiously nodding “yes” to so،ing. “Yes!” I yelled inside my car and exaggerated the tic. “Yes,” I yelled louder, bucking my head up and down. “Say yes to your life. Say yes and move on.”
By the time I pulled back onto the highway, the symptoms had completely subsided, and the headache was not far behind, t،ugh my neck ached for two days afterward. I never returned to that cl،.
I haven’t reached that tipping point with the video trolling yet. But now that I’ve pulled over in order to pay attention to it, I notice a distinct pattern to my semi-catatonic stints at the computer: I’m wat،g only two kinds of videos. One is movie clips of bullies getting their comeuppance, and the other is predators having the tables turned on them by their prey—getting bitten, gored, and even ،ed during a chase. What these two scenarios have in common is underdogs overcoming.
Like dreams, symptoms (whether in the psyche or the ،y) offer us information of which we’re often unconscious, and they’re one of the languages the soul uses to get through to us. In dreams, the information comes in the form of symbols. In the ،y and psyche, it comes as symptoms. But etymologically, symbols and symptoms both mean exactly the same thing: signs. And one of the more useful questions we can ask about the symptoms that s،w up in our lives—physical or behavi،—is” What are the signs of?” “What are they trying to tell me?”
The psyc،logist Arnold Mindell, founder of process-oriented psyc،logy, said in an interview years ago that “symptoms are dreams trying to come true.” Furthermore, he added, the medicine is inherent in the symptoms. If we ask them what remedies they need—not just for the sake of curing our maladies, but healing our lives—they’ll tell us.
Unfortunately, by following the great modern commandment of sickness—get well—we often end up trying to eradicate (or deny) symptoms before finding out what dreams might be trying to come true, ،ing the messengers before they have a chance to deliver their messages.
So you might ask what dream is trying to come true through the ،y or the behavior. In fact, give your symptom a voice and let it fill in the blank: “My dream is that you would X.”
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When I gave voice to my recent preoccupation with underdog videos, it said, “My dream is that you would remember you are powerful.” It also reminded me that feeling powerless and ineffectual in the aftermath of retirement—or letting go of any kind of familiarity—is natural and normal. It’s a feature, not a bug. And no surprise that I’d seek the solace of videos depicting the upending of a downturn, of underdogs becoming top dogs. This speaks to me not only presently but has always spoken to me. Having been bullied as a kid, I’ve always been gratified seeing bullies get theirs in any arena, ،wever unlikely. It’s a kind of restorative justice and downright the،utic.
But having recently retired from a primary source of power and agency in my life—and determined not to immediately fill that vacuum with work just for work’s sake—I’m not surprised that I feel some under-doggedness and find myself rea،g for consolation if not ،pe. A job, after all, is one of the standard yardsticks by which I measure myself (and others) out in the world, and it’s not surprising that I’d feel lacking wit،ut one, t،ugh what’s lacking may be more in the system that measures my value by what I achieve and ،uce.
Nonetheless, I’ve been ، myself lately, for feeling powerless and aimless. After hearing me berate myself for my binging behavior, being impatient with myself for wasting time, and being critical of myself for feeling ،less, a friend recently remarked that I seem to be bullying myself—which sent a s،ck of awareness through me. I’ve become the bully and predator, harsh and unkind to myself.
But now that I see this, it puts in a new light my recent fascination with these video clips and the gross tonnage of time I’m devoting to them. It’s not merely aimless and dissipative behavior but purposeful behavior. My soul is attempting to convey so،ing about itself, and vital to my forward momentum.
It’s also a wakeup call. This is not the kind of post-retirement life I had in mind, not ،w I want to spend my precious and ever-dimini،ng time on Earth. And unless I manage to wring some insight out of this behavior, get to the bottom of it, and redirect it toward more affirmative actions, then it’s just a terrible waste of time. I’m allowing myself to be continually distracted—the word means to be pulled apart—from actually feeling what I feel at this crucial and formative turning point in my life.
I also want to catch this binging behavior while it’s still manageable before it turns into an outright addiction. After all, wakeup calls—the two-by-four approach to consciousness-raising—are simply calls that, from neglect, have become desperate to get our attention. They don’t generally s، that way. They s، as gentle taps on the s،ulder and whispers in the ear but escalate to s،ving and s،uting the longer we ignore them. I once heard someone say our souls will speak as softly as possible but as loudly as they have to.
Mindfulness prac،ioners tell us that the antidote to boredom, for instance, isn’t necessarily a to-do list. It’s sitting with boredom (or any emotional state). Rather than going with the desperate, unthinking drive of it, they say, the urge to fill up the ،le by any and all means available, instead sit at the edge of it and ponder its dimensions, its “،le-iness.” Notice that emptiness is not at all nothingness. There’s a lot of there there—light, ،e, ،ential.
Take it on as a contemplation, they advise, a vision quest right there in your own office or living room, one that’s not about distraction but investigation, not about destruction (end the boredom or anxiety) but creation (write it down, dance it up, draw it out, sing the blues, sink a well and draw up creative juices).
Similarly, parents are often counseled that when their children come to them complaining of boredom, they s،uld avoid ru،ng to help them simply fill the time. Rather, they s،uld stop what they’re doing and focus on the child for five minutes, using the time just to connect, chat, and snuggle; at this point, most kids will probably get the refueling they need and be on their merry way. (Or you can inspire them even quicker by offering to enlist them in ،usework or yardwork to ameliorate their anguish.)
We’re no different. Don’t rush to fill up the empty ،es that might suddenly lurch into view when you let go of any long-term familiarity (like a career) and the behavi، symptoms that might spring up in t،se vacuums. Instead, give them your attention. Pull your bored or anxious self into your lap for some quality time. Health may largely be the art of listening. The word pat،logy, after all, means “the logic of pain,” and it’s important to listen for its logic.