Last December, I spent my holiday break with my good friend Margaret visiting from Florida. Between our recording Wedding Day for my recording project and my rehearsing for perhaps the worst NYE gig ever, we got to spend the rest of our time together doing what every man and woman, every man and man, every woman and woman, men and women alone, groups of men and women, people with dogs and cats, and even young children love to do: eat.
On her first night in town, after my rehearsal, we went out to eat at New Delhi Indian buffet in West Philadelphia. Or I should say we tried, but were thwarted when I realized that New Delhi is closed on Mondays. We ended up going around the corner to the vastly inferior Tandoor, where the samosas are tiny and the saag paneer is lackluster. As we finished our meal, we vowed that for the rest of her visit, we would only eat food that was delicious. That might mean spending a bit more, but that was a luxury we could afford and wanted to treat ourselves to.
To me it seemed like a revolutionary idea: for the whole week, only eating things that we wanted to eat. But like those pictures of the two faces in silhouette that can also be interpreted as vases, there were two ways to view this idea. The clear stated one was the idea that we take this time to eat what we want. The unclear one that came into focus was that the rest of the time, when we don’t set a week aside to “indulge” ourselves, we don’t eat what we want. And the big question is of course, why?
Certainly, there are time constraints that impinge on our doing everything that we want, food included. But we know what kinds of food are awesome, across a variety of price ranges, styles, and portions. Sure, eating 200 wings is a delightful experience, but you don’t have to do that to have a satisfying and delicious meal. I ate well for a week, and it wasn’t that difficult or even that expensive. So why would we do it any other way? Why would we waste time on a culinary experience that is not up to our standards?
The answer seems to be too often, that it’s just the way it is. When I go to work, the food truck serves bland tuna on white bread, so that’s what I eat. What if eating were a conscious decision instead of a default action? I know this is more difficult that it seems, as I spent many years perceiving eating as a utilitarian experience (mostly so I could avoid having to socialize with people around the Jr. High lunch table). It’s a culturally accepted way of life to just eat what you’re given, but the alternative path is so easy to start down, and it just starts with a simple phrase: what do I want?
On my way from the train to my office today, I stumbled across this piece of paper from someone asking herself (if my handwriting-gender analysis is accurate) the same question in a different context:
Here is someone who is tired of accepting the default options in her life and is ready to see what some of the alternatives are. And her first statement, her title statement is “What I want for myself.” That is often the trickiest part of the process: figuring out what you want. When my friends turn to my for relationship advice and talk about the things they aren’t satisfied with, my number one question is “well, what do you want?” If you don’t know what it is you want, you will have a hard time being happy. It doesn’t have to be completely clear, but you at least need something to shoot for.
So now that I know what I want to eat and I know that I can achieve it, I can start to examine the other areas of my life and find what it is that I want and figure out how to achieve it. Let me nip this in the bud right here: I know that you can’t always have everything that you want in life. There will be things that are out of your reach, conflicting desires (I want to be the world’s foremost piano player AND enter in the Guinness Book of World Records with the longest fingernails), and impediments for which overcoming is not worth your effort. Our culture tells us these things every day, and there is truth in the unconscious message. However, I also know that it’s so much easier to be complacent and accept the things you want but cannot have as “just the way it is.” If it was a simple enough switch for me to eat only what I wanted to eat for a week, then it can’t be that much more to examine if I’m happy with my relationships with friends, family, and lovers (spoiler: yes, but it’s important to always evaluate). Am I happy with my career? Am I happy with how I’m spending my free time? Ultimately, what do I want to be doing, and how do I make that happen?
Once we figure out what it is that we want to do, we have to care enough about ourselves to make our desires reality. We have so much capability as intelligent and feeling beings. We deserve and owe it to ourselves to find ways to achieve satisfaction and joy. To quote Owen Meany from John Irving’s novel A Prayer for Owen Meany, “IF YOU ARE LUCKY ENOUGH TO FIND A WAY OF LIFE YOU LOVE, YOU HAVE TO FIND THE COURAGE TO LIVE IT.” Let’s start learning, loving, and living.