Often, the turning points in our lives don’t come with signposts and are only clear in retrospect.
What were yours? What was that moment in your life when you decided to do something, or you impulsively acted, and after that nothing was really ever the same?
Mine was August 17, 2019. I had dropped off my youngest son for his final year of college in Santa Barbara and was sitting on the 101. I had gone about twenty-five miles. In three hours.
I thought about the thousands of hours of my life that had been spent in front of a windshield. I thought about the ugliness of the freeway. The unhappiness of every single stranded, caged occupant, of which I was one. I thought about how many more thousands of hours in my life I was going to spend repeating this quintessentially unhappy act of driving, and compared it with the total number of hours I actually had left to live.
The calculus hit me hard and I made up my mind: Never again in this life will I drive a car, and to the maximum extent possible I will avoid even sitting in one.
At that moment I wasn’t simply mired in traffic, I was mired in life. My 32-year-old marriage was falling apart. My friends were giving me a wide berth. My kids were angry at me, or worse, hurt, or worst, angry and hurt. It seemed like there was nowhere to go but down and downer.
Little did I know it, but that decision to get out of the well-worn groove carved in asphalt for me and every other Californian unable to imagine life without being chained to a steel cage, was something that would lead to a cascade of changes, the sum of which would redefine my life and what I wanted from it.
Liberation from the cage meant that every client meeting, every court appearance, every trip to the grocery store, every task that had previously been done in a cage powered by dead forests would now be done on a bike powered by glucose. That thing alone sheared away so many needless activities because now the act of getting around was reduced to its true cost: Not the cost of a gallon of gas, but the caloric cost of pushing a bike for miles through traffic.
Did I say traffic? That’s a wrong word, because on my bike there was no traffic, only cages that I got to peacefully ride by as they stewed like tomatoes at red lights, construction, entry ramps, parking lots, gas stations …
Once the cost of getting there gets measured in calories, you go a lot less to there, and once the cost of buying or moving things has to be converted into lugging it up a tall hill on a heavy bike, you buy and move a lot fewer things, and the things you move are lighter. Way lighter.
With fewer places to go and fewer things to buy and have, life started to de-clutter. Insoluble problems, too vast and complex to even understand, began resolving themselves if not into solutions, at least into clearly defined problems. And each pedal stroke seemed to draw the problem even more clearly. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a pretty big one.
People had told me since late adolescence that I was “angry.”
“So?” I responded to myself. “It’s an angry world out there.” And as Chaucer would say, “For leveful is with force force of-showve.” It’s permissible to meet force with force.
But once I gave up driving I began to see my anger as something more unusual than the standard rage of a pissed-off driver or a rude sales clerk or, more commonly, a jerky bike racer. And with a little help from a friend, I was able to pinpoint it as the anger that comes from being repeatedly beaten by a parent as a small child. I won’t go into the steps of this analysis, but let’s see if we can agree on this much: When you are beaten by the parent who loves you and protects you and whom you admire more than anyone on earth, it makes you mad.
It took a lot more pedaling before I came up with a solution, because things that happen when you’re young become who you are. You can’t un-beat the pain and you can’t un-live the anger; you certainly can’t unwind the years.
But for me it came as a revelation, a revelation that everyone around me already knew, that anger and lashing out, as painful as they are to the recipients, are really nothing more than insecurity about my own self-worth. When your value as a child is wrecked by violence, then, I think, your psyche reframes the ego as a thing that is strengthened by violence towards others–physical and/or emotional.
In a word, I was terribly insecure.
That was almost funny because my avocation, bike racing, was a forum where I went to great lengths to demonstrate the opposite of insecurity. Hard rides, group ride beatdowns, bitter road races, challenging fondos, all these things were fora where the trump cards were strength, discipline, mental fortitude, toughness, the very things that are stripped from you when you are beaten as a child.
Likewise, my vocation of lawyering was a battlefield where competition, adversarial contests, wit, and resourcefulness reigned supreme. And it was on one long commute to San Diego that I recalled the words of a great trial lawyer and criminal law professor, Michael Tigar, who said “Every trial lawyer is a towering ego tottering on the abyss of insecurity and failure.”
He didn’t say every great trial lawyer. He said every trial lawyer.
There were many hundreds of more miles pedaled, turning over these self-evident truths and trying to figure out where they led, or more precisely, how to untie the emotional knots that had been so tightly bound during my eventful childhood. That’s when I got what sounded like a crazy suggestion. If my problem was that I’d had my self-worth stripped away, why not build it back up, and do it with words, and do it myself?
In January of this year I started getting up every morning, going into the bathroom, looking at myself in the mirror, and imagining my dad holding the four-year-old me in his arms. I waited until the picture was clear. I could see his big, black, bushy beard, his kind brown eyes, and could feel his strong arms cradling me in the crook of his elbow.
Then I closed my eyes and repeated this: “You are a good boy, Seth. You are a smart boy, Seth. I love you, Seth.”
And I did it for three or four minutes.
When I opened my eyes I realized that I felt better. My heart rate had dropped to almost nothing. My face had relaxed. I could stare at the guy in the mirror and see mostly the same person, but a little different, a little less tense. A little, very, very little, less angry.
I did this for a couple of months and though the anger melted slowly at first, after a few weeks I could feel it calving off like an iceberg into a boiling sea. When I finally stopped doing it, it was as if a huge cauldron had been cooled, and I knew it because things that heretofore would have whipped me into a frothing rage affected me little or not at all.
I began to have little or no reaction to politics. I stopped judging people as harshly, and eventually hardly judged anyone at all. I dissociated from all my social media accounts and eventually closed them. I found myself being quiet in groups, no longer on stage, no longer grasping for the brass ring of cynosure.
Most incredibly, I stopped screaming at motorists who tried to kill me, and eventually stopped even flipping them off.
With the covids came a cessation in recreational bicycle hostilities a/k/a group rides, and another piece of the picture came into focus: A lot of my enjoyment of cycling really had been anger management, finding an appropriate place to channel highly antisocial impulses and emotions. Once the group rides died, my quieted anger meant that I had no desire to join them once they started up again, however furtively.
The turmoil of the shattering marriage continued, but my angry reactions to its demise and my guilt at my responsibility for it dissipated the more I rode slowly and contemplated the relationship between anger and failure, anger and unhappiness, anger and the inability to see things as they really are. Because the real impediment to being angry is that it clouds reality, good and bad.
Anger clouds reality in a good way because it allows you to forge ahead where otherwise you’d quit and go home, but in a bad way because it allows people to deceive you as to their intentions. When the behavior of others was filtered through my anger, I couldn’t see them as they really were in relation to me, but only as they were in relation to my anger. Good people knew that and made allowances for it, but less good people used it to great manipulative advantage, made me their puppet, made me their dog.
Still pedaling, I took a rather long bicycle life, and 82 days later came back to a world that hadn’t changed much, but to a life that had changed irrevocably.
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