With 4 hours left before the inauguration of the new year, I have opted out of all social activity to spend my night at home blogging and cooking Kerala egg curry. This is partly because my original social plans got soured by a personal boondoggle; partly because of my fear of losing a finger or two if I venture outside into the war zone of Manila on New Year’s Eve, with DIY firecracker launches taking the place of the heavy artillery; and partly because I’m just an antisocial old grouch.
A New Year’s Eve spent at home is also an ideal time for reflection, assuming one does not pass out from the firecracker smoke coming in through the window. I do not wish to reflect too much on the fact that 2016 was The Worst Year Ever, even though it indisputably was – from climate doom to the death of the most famous of all Jehovah’s Witnesses to Donald Trump and, perhaps most incredibly, the deaths of Carrie Fisher and her mother one day apart. No need for another thinkpiece on that topic when everyone already knows it’s absolutely true, anyway: 2016 was the worst year ever. At least, until 2017.
And so, notwithstanding the fact that 2017 may yet bring horrors so appalling that all else will fade into insignificance, I would like to reflect on the lessons that I hope to apply over the coming 365 days. Some of these are lessons that I only recently unearthed, while others are things I’ve known for a long time but had trouble actually applying. Either way, I believe these are principles that, if put into practice, could help me have a happier 2017 – That is, if I don’t die from a climate change nuke explosion with its ground zero located at a crowded Annual Convention of Beloved Celebrities.
Make the most of wherever you are: As I’ve alluded to in my aggressively unappealing travelogues, I spent five months this year traveling around the world, or at least across three of its continents. In the course of this trip I visited some 16 countries, though in retrospect I would have done it a lot more slowly. Sometimes I was in places where the locals seemed unfriendly, or here I felt isolated by geography or language. In these situations, it was too easy for me to stew in my own resentment and ignore the astonishing delights – of culture, food, landscapes, architecture, and basic humanity – right in front of my face. This is a lesson I’ve been trying to fully absorb since the heady days of 2008, when I was tossed from the dazzling, westernized big-city delights of Manila the to the rice fields of provincial Vietnam. The lethargic pace of life and the sheer incomprehensibility of the locals – especially female locals – led to a lot of stress and sorrow during what would have been, if nothing else, a golden opportunity to learn the ukulele. Instead, I spent half a year eating the best damn food of my life while suffering endlessly over my refusal to make the best of my circumstances. Eight years later, I had only made enough progress to be able to remind myself that five days of cold weather and people in Romania weren’t going to call me, and that I should just try to enjoy the beauty of the Transylvanian forest with a fresh blanket of snow instead of wondering why Romanian people get so angry when I try to locate my lost property. And even then, I probably only managed to muster that burst of positivity because I knew I’d be back amidst the westernized big-city delights of Manila a few weeks later. So… maybe not much progress on that one?
Being boring is wonderful: I believe I was born an old man, and it has taken me my entire life to grow into it. Luckily, if my current age and level of comfort with my own cantankerousness are any indication, I’m almost there! It took me this long to realize that I’m not into partying – in fact, I am actively opposed to most forms of fun. This is another old lesson, but it’s one that came powerfully to the fore when I was traveling at such a frantic pace that I couldn’t enjoy the mornings I most cherish: sitting at home with a good pot of coffee while catching up on light work for my clients – even if home is just an Airbnb or a hostel common area. In the end, all the thrills of Central America, Europe and Asia paled in comparison to that. I guess that makes me pretty boring, huh? Boring but happy!
It’s OK to be alone: Speaking of boring, it has taken me a lifetime of slow, arduous progress to reach the point where I can (almost) say I’m truly OK with being alone once in a while. After spending my adolescence feeling socially undesirable and unwanted, being alone – or at least, being alone without having any choice about it – seemed to me to be the mark of a loser. And so I spent much of my adulthood associating with dull or unpleasant people for the simple reason that they were willing to spend time with me. But one of the joys of growing into an old curmudgeon is that my standards for the types of people I want to spend sustained periods of time have risen to nigh-unrealistic levels. Plus, it’s even harder to find people you enjoy spending time with when you’re constantly sober. Being alone more is a natural consequence of having such snooty standards, and one that I have become quite comfortable with. Or is it not really being alone if I’m with my dogs?
Freedom is boring, and not in a wonderful way: When I nonchalantly tell people that I travel the world while working online, they muster a level of enthusiasm that makes me feel a bit awkward. “Wow, that sounds amazing! I wish I could do that!” they say. (My generally unspoken rejoinder: “Well, why don’t you?”) At this point I feel the need to give myself a boost of artificial enthusiasm so that my blandness won’t clash so violently with their wide smiles and gleeful eyes. But adding “What country should I live in next?” to the list of questions that one must periodically ask oneself doesn’t provide any ultimate solution to the restlessness and constantly encroaching dissatisfaction that permeate existence – witness the way that Manila went from being my Magical Happy Place to being a Pretty Good Place To Live, With Many Caveats. After all, there’s still that damn hedonic treadmill to reckon with, and at some point even the act of changing your scenery yields diminishing returns. You can run from the underlying causes of your unhappiness, but you can’t hide. Although, if you do have to hide, it’s great to do it in a place with nice beaches and no winter.
It brings to mind the trite Facebook posts I see shared all too often: the ones that say “If travel were free, you’d never see me again.” Really, I wonder? Would you give up all your friendships, meaningful connections and routines just so you could achieve the coveted goal of taking a selfie in all 196 of the Earth’s countries. (That includes Taiwan, by the way – I’m with Donald Trump this time, surprisingly!) For my part, I love the opportunity I’ve been given to see and experience this amazing planet, but endless freedom and novelty eventually grow tiresome, and I now find myself finding greater happiness in deliciously dreary routines: the morning pot of coffee, the daily piano practice, the 2 AM trips to Alabang Public Market to buy the freshest vegetables. And fuck selfies.
Learn to say no; if you can’t, offer a poison pill: After so much highfalutin navel-gazing, it’s time for some totally shameless mercenary thinking. As a freelancer, I’ve been hard-wired to accept whatever work I can get. It’s a form of thinking that dates back to those early days when I was trying to claw together a livelihood from a couple of lethargic clients. Unfortunately, my inability to say no – coupled with a puppylike desire to feel useful and accepted – has sometimes led to me accepting work (especially from local clients) that might not be the best use of my time or might not offer the best reward. But if I can’t quite stomach saying no, I’ve realized that I should at least demand so much money that it will wipe away all of my misgivings upon them accepting, or leave them in the position of being the ones to say no. It was from a similar perverse desire to risk alienating my overseas clients that I recently pushed a 20% rate increase upon them, even in the midst of a recession in Canada; they accepted it without exception. When they actually swallow the pill, it’s not a bad thing at all. Of course, there is the risk of deeply alienating the very people who provide you with livelihood, but what’s life without a bit of healthy alienation?
The Buddha was still right: Everything in the past year has pointed plainly at the truth that 75% of the pain I experience on a daily basis is caused by my restless desire to feed my fragile ego, and by my craving and attachment to worldly things and superficial pleasures. The Buddha was right, and it doesn’t matter, because I keep ignoring him. It’s been another year of refusing to incorporate indisputable truths into my daily life. Luckily someone dear to me recently gifted me with a small Buddha figuring which sits watchfully next to my laptop on my work desk. Whenever I look at him, he reminds me: “Stop making yourself unhappy, dumbass.” Of course, he does this very benevolently.
Don’t reflexively reject clichés; they are often clichés because they’re true: And yes, even this statement is itself a cliché. Writing this post has made me feel pretty icky, because I’ve realized that a little bit of life experience makes the hoariest gobs of self-help pablum resonate deeply. Is this why old people are so corny? Of course, all of this is exactly the sort of thing a hacky writer would say to excuse his hackiness. So either I’m a hack or life really is this corny – Perhaps 2017 will help me figure out which it is. Happy New Year, everyone!