Saturday, December 10, 2011

You can't change the world, but you can change you.

You can choose to be a victim all your life, but it is a choice, not a mandate.

One of the things I learned at an ACOA meeting was a personal revelation to me.  I attended the meeting - Adult Children of Alcoholics - as my parents had a bad habit of getting very drunk and causing all sorts of untold problems, from verbal abuse to physical violence (Mother being particularly fond of knife play).

One of the counselors or facilitators or whatever they call them gave me a piece of advice which was very sound.  I had asked her what I should do, during the upcoming holidays, when my Mother would no doubt get drunk, get into a fugue state and then "go off".

She said, "you can't control how your Mother acts, but you can control your reaction to it."  And at first, this sound advice had me puzzled.  But as she explained, if I was in a situation like that, my actions, as well as my Mothers', were important.  If I chose not to drink, I could better assess the situation and deal with it rationally.  And if I chose to leave, I didn't have to deal with it at all.

(While ACoA was helpful, it also put my personal problems in perspective, and I stopped going after a while.  One fellow showed up at a meeting and said "My name is Fred" (Hi Fred!) "And I haven't had any Heroin in a week!".  Wrong meeting Fred!  I also heard from a young lady who complained about how bad it was to live with her alcoholic parents.  She had a good job and could afford to live on her own - but chose not to.)

This sounds rather simplistic, but to most people, who have been emotional or physical punching bags, it seems like someone speaking Swahili.  "What do you mean, just leave?" the abused wife or the child of the alcoholic says, "you can't do THAT!"

But you can, and it turns out that in life, even when you are dealt all sorts of unfair hands, you still have a staggering number of choices you CAN make, and often these make more difference in your life than trying to change the world through protesting or signing up for causes, or whatever.

As I noted before, the pot-smoker will often regale you about the living-paradise-on-Earth that the world will become, once we legalize marijuana.  But the reality of it is, it ain't likely to happen anytime soon, and moreover, being happy and successful in the world has less to do with legalizing marijuana (or consuming it) than with making personal choices in your life.  And often, the people who rail about national issues or politics, like that, are covering up for voids in their own life - shouting down the deafening silence that pervades human existence.

Wall Street Protesters today argue that they got a raw deal - being born in the wealthiest country in the world, they are pissed-off because they have to pay back their student loans and cannot get a job.

But consider their plight from the view of a sub-Saharan African.  That person would first marvel at the three square meals a day they have, plus all their electronic toys.  And they would sit in wonderment that the government, instead of shooting them, is trying to find politically delicate ways of arresting them.  Such a place, this United States!  Truly the streets are paved with gold!  Or at least not goat shit, like in Somalia.

And being able to go to college!  What a privilege!  And someone would loan you money to do this!  Incredible!  And you would waste this amazing opportunity by majoring in "communications" or "anthropology"?  Ludicrous!

We all have choices, and often, our predicaments are the results of our own malfeasance.  I have written before what a deadly serious decision college is, and how we expect 18-year-olds, who we have infantalized to the level of 3rd graders, to make these life-altering decisions.  Yea, the whole system is rigged, but you have to choose to play to get snookered.

But, there are some 18-year-olds out there who are making the right choices, guided, no doubt, by parents who are not treating their adult children like babies.

But the same is true in so-called "adult" life.  Many people are having major debt problems - with credit cards and upside-down mortgages.  And yet many more are not - people who made different choices than others - who decided to live on less, borrow less, and focus on paying off debts, rather than accumulating more and more of them through home equity loans.

Again, the housing crises, the banking crises, the credit crises - these are all things you have to opt in to be affected by.  If you bought a house with a toxic mortgage, you had to make a conscious decision to do this.  Using ignorance as a defense is pointless.  First, it is no defense - people were warning about these horrible financial instruments for years.  You had to chose not to listen and choose to listen to happy-talk instead.

But more importantly, when you externalize your own problems by trying to blame outside others, you end up being a victim, and learn nothing.  The housing crises wasn't your fault!  What we need is banking reform to put an end to these stupid loans!

What we need is smart people to not get them.  Toxic loans were bad deals - I saw that, and millions of others did.  What caused the problem was weak-minded people thinking they were being "smart" by taking on this kind of debt.

And yes, I was treated to many endless cocktail party chats with folks who called me an "idiot" for getting a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage - and paying it off.  Pardon me if I don't feel sorry for the foreclosed-upon.

You have choices, make them wisely.   If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.  And most of this "too good to be true" stuff comes from your television.

A lot of people comment or write me and say, "Gee, I like the bits about saving money by cutting your own hair, but getting rid of Cable TeeVee or my Frequent Flyer Miles Credit Card, that's just crazy!"

Well, all I can say is, those are the choices you choose to make.  Please don't play the victim card when it all goes horribly wrong for you, because I will be utterly lacking in sympathy.

So what if you have made a lot of bad choices in life?  Cheer up, we all do.  But the first step is to realize they were your choices, not someone else's.  This really is important, no matter how much damage you think your bad choices have caused (but in most cases, the damage isn't as bad as you think.  There is life after foreclosure, bankruptcy, divorce, or whatever).

It takes courage - balls - to be able to say, "Gee, I did a really stupid thing" and instead of trying to push that experience away into a corner of your brain and "forgetaboutit" to instead examine it carefully, realize what went wrong and why, and learn from the experience.

I have made a lot of mistakes in life.  In fact, most people do - I estimate that the average human being operates at an efficiency level of 1.5% on a good day, so just get over it - we are flawed creatures.

But we are capable of learning and improvement, and it is never too late to learn. 

I have squandered huge amounts of money over the years - and saved a lot, too.  But I realize now that some of these financial errors were only salvaged by my incredible luck elsewhere.  On the other hand, if I had learned to live with less, or live on less, I could have avoided some real cash hemorrhaging experiences, like my last boat (whose overhead costs for one year exceeded the purchase price of my first boat!).

Stupid mistake.  Easy to say "just forget about that!"  But that would be the wrong thing to do.  I did do the smart thing in selling it - taking a huge loss - rather than "hang on" to a losing proposition.  And I know people who do the latter, usually because they are upside-down on the boat.

Take control of the joystick of life.   Particularly in this country, your actions (or inaction) have a greater effect on your life than anything else.  Letting go of the controls because 'it all seems so unfair' is hardly an answer to anything.