My company's office sits at the invisible border between Downtown LA's Fashion District and Downtown LA's Skid Row. When we first moved in, every morning's commute felt like I entered a new course in a racing game. People, tents, shopping carts, and a host of mystery objects would re-map the area not just overnight, but as I was driving – as if forcing me to pay attention to the scene. As if to say, "Look at you, driving your car to your office, to work a job you love, buy a $6 coffee downstairs, then get a $13 sandwich for lunch." I felt physically stripped of any permission to be passive about my privilege.
Now here's a euphemistic way of framing this strange guilt:
The silver lining of the world's tragedies is that it prompts us to count our blessings.
And I did. I counted mine. Every single morning.
It's been a little over a year since I started making that commute.
One morning last week, after a night of poor, poor decision making to drink on a weekday, I took a Lyft to work. A shared Lyft, because I try to be frugal like that (ignore the aforementioned $19 meal). Anyway,
Apparently it was both my driver and the other passenger's first time seeing Skid Row. And they were not shy about their reactions:
"Oh my god..."
"Is this for real?? Terrible, so sad..."
"Does the city do anything about this?"
I say nothing. They keep going.
"I hope so... But I guess... I feel really, really lucky right now."
"Right? Jesus Christ."
Despite people still jumping in front of my car every morning.
Despite having to hopscotch between littered needles on the ground.
Despite the persisting, piercing concoction of smells I don't wanna sniff but I also don't wanna breathe, so I'm almost always holding my breath.
Despite the drug busts and arrests I can't help but rubberneck at.
Despite, even, the occasional man jacking himself off on the side of the street...
I had gotten used to Skid Row.
So used to it, that I stopped seeing it.
The human mind's ability to adapt is an astonishing, kind of miraculous, and hugely advantageous thing.
Your lover leaves you, and you are devastated. You cry and cry, you think you can't live without this person, how could you possi-
Then you get over them.
The first time the tattoo needle breaks your skin, it feels like fire.
Then you stop noticing it.
Instagram completely changes its UI and you hate it.
Then the next day, you have no fucking clue what it used to look like.
Our first interactions with negative stimuli or emotion are always the most potent.
As time passes (and it's important to note that it's not the passage of time itself that does this, but our inner mechanics at work during that time), AHEM - as time passes, we grow to accept that baseline.
Adapting to misfortune can be good. There are certain things in life we cannot change, and rage against those immovable objects is a senseless waste of energy. (And we can more wisely allocate that energy to the things we can actually control.)
But the flipside to that is: we're also very able to adapt to fortune, as well.
You meet the "Love of Your Life," fall madly in love,
Then you get used to having them around. You start taking them for granted. Stop putting in effort. Don't quite remember what the madness felt like.
You make some money,
Then you get used to the money, then you want more money. Ugh – I don't need to explain how the rat race works.
We get used to the good.
So used to it, that we stop seeing it, too.
Is "Enough" Enough?
I adapt to good things very, very well.
This mentality is great for progress – and completely necessary if you work in business. You should never grow comfortable with where you are, you should always keep pushing the boundary, keep asking why, keep doing bigger and better. That's how great artists, athletes, entrepreneurs, and innovators leave their marks.
But beyond work (and maybe even within it), it can be very, very dangerous.
This is the same mindset that shrunk 14-year old me from 110 pounds to 96, to 88, to 85, right into a treatment center.
This is the same mindset that took me from being able to survive off $1000 a month, to being "broke" on a livable salary.
This is the same mindset that keeps me awake at night, obsessing over how I can outdo what I did today, tomorrow.
It keeps me unhappy with what is because I'm too focused on what could be.
I can't see anything good.
In the mornings now, even after realizing I had stopped doing so, I still don’t “count my blessings.”
Instead, I say,
"This is Water, right?
This is the Water."
It's a reference to the motif in David Foster Wallace's famous commencement speech he made in 2005 –
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
Skid row, the office. This traffic light, this traffic, the overplayed song on the radio. My arms, my legs, my eyes, my voice. My coworkers, my parking attendant, my barista, my mother who just texted me. The dog poop on the ground. The sunlight soaking my face.
Perhaps gratitude is, indeed, the undercurrent of happiness. But trying to recognize the good things is impossible if I'm not even looking.
Blessings or tragedies, this is my life, this is my water. It takes no adapting to nor growing out of. This is what is, and before learning to be happy with it, I need to be in it. I need to swim.