opposing forces

John Brennan

opposing forces
Creative Logician

Where do I live? I live in a self-contained world of opposing forces.

When involved in anything mathematical my brain switches to automatic pilot. Whether it’s a simple act like balancing my checkbook or a more complicated one like developing multi-functional, inter-dependent spreadsheets brimming with complex formulas, the moment inevitably comes when my actions become rote. I’m making decisions, weighing options and doing all the things required for accuracy, but feel as if I’m not really there.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve always grasped mathematical concepts fairly effortlessly. Algebraic equations, probability rules and statistical theorems purr in my head like a finely tuned engine. You see, a certain symmetry exists to it all, a well-mannered sense of order and predictability. Not only is the answer always within reach, it’s the precise answer. Math is anchored in a realm of established rules and procedures. It’s real, logical and, God help me, bores the socks off my feet.

Art and creation…now that ain’t no math test. Writing plunges into the bubbling whirlpool of the human experience. Photography and other visual arts do the same, if on a more immediate and urgent level. However rendered, art is boundless. It can potentially reshape our perception of everything. How staggering is that! It also severely derails my bedrock need for systematic progression.

All my life numbers have offered the easy route, the brightly lit superhighway. Conversely, creating something from the wisp of an idea is a fragile road obscured by darkness, fraught with hairpin turns and crammed with unknown dangers. At every intersection my brain, with its enormous powers of persuasion, relentlessly steers me towards the superhighway while my soul gently points in the opposite direction, down the unpaved path, whispering the sultry truth: the struggle to create, exhausting in its variables, disconcerting in its randomness, and counterintuitive to the way I’m wired – engages, and ultimately, exhilarates me.

dreaming realist
Dreaming Realist

Every morning an alarm crashes into my subconscious like a bus without brakes. I blindly fumble until it is silenced, then lie quietly and stretch, feeling my muscles loosen and noting an occasional pop in my joints. My eyes adjust to the burgeoning light. Acclimation to reality has begun.

Meals must be prepared, bills paid, errands run, deadlines met. When not at work I squeeze in everything else during the remaining hours. This existence is far from unusual and I embrace the responsibilities of daily life, fully appreciative of their importance. Yet…

…I often unexpectedly drift into the ether and plot out extravagant scenarios for my incredible future, a future I don’t especially plan for or consciously work towards. I never consider how these amazing lives will magically materialize, just what I’ll do when they inevitably do.

I picture a bungalow in Kaua'i where blissful mornings lead to lazy afternoons and star-filled evenings. The rich fragrances of hibiscus, birds of paradise, gardenias and orchids waft through the house while the delightful song of the Kaua'i 'amakihi adds a lilting sweetness to the air. Eyes closed I can almost feel the warm Pacific breeze.

Or I imagine an endless journey across America with nothing more than a serviceable car and enough cash to alleviate any pedestrian concerns about money. I pass through backwater towns where decades lope by unnoticed. I enter great cities (Chicago! San Francisco!) whose pulse bursts through the soles of my boots, races up my legs and slams into my heart like a shot of adrenaline. I embrace the endless majesty of the American West where the sky and horizon are inseparable twins. Time is irrelevant and every dreamy fantasy represents life’s grandest possibilities...

…Until an unwelcome noise – a honking car, a crying child, a breaking glass – slaps me back to reality. It’s jarring, but I am comforted by the knowledge a return to the glorious ether may only be a breath away.

outgoing introvert
Outgoing Introvert

The instant I enter any large gathering I am simultaneously struck by the two lines of thought: (1) “Oh my God, who are these people? Where did they come from? What can I possibly contribute to their engaging and sophisticated conversations? Why am I here??” neatly accompanied by (2) “Wow! Feel the energy radiating through the room! I can’t wait to jump into the fray, share a meaningful observation and witty comment, become an integral part of the evening! Bring me a martini! Action is at hand!”

By nature I am reticent when thrust into unfamiliar social situations. My inclination drifts towards the peripheral, a familiar face or a peaceful nook where I can nurse a beverage and eat hors d'oeuvres, safely removed from the drivel of gossip and chatter. Nonetheless, as I sip a cocktail or nibble on a chicken wing, another monster roars to life. I am compelled to pull myself from the corner, join the revelry, interject and debate, and yes, dance in the strobe light! I’m helplessly driven to participate.

Sudden personality shifts concern me, especially if they…well, concern me. When thrust into the world of mixing and mingling basic assumptions about who I am and how I act transform, not unlike Clark Kent when he removes those glasses. Maybe I’m a frustrated actor who plays the only stage available to him. Maybe I’m overcompensating for my innate shyness, stopping just short of putting a lampshade on my head. (Usually.) Maybe there’s a desire to be acknowledged and recognized, one deeper than I’d care to admit. Maybe maybe maybe. But once removed from these situations, once back in the car I reflect on what transpired, shake my head in disbelief and ask, “Who the hell was that guy?”

motivated sloth
Motivated Sloth

I’ve never understood boredom. I don’t mean those fleeting instances trying to plug a stray 10 minutes. I’m talking about sustained periods of time when smart people, blessed with good lives and sound health, cannot conquer their tedium. Their helplessness is so pronounced and self-pitying. Frankly, I’m tempted to grab a large mallet and whack some sense into them.

The “I’m bored” argument is habitually framed with “not” – not having enough money, not being in the right place, not having friends available, not having new ideas. You know what? “Not” is not good enough. With a pinch of creativity and dash of ingenuity anyone can fill empty hours. However, if the argument is framed with “I can think of many things to do, but I’m too lazy…”, now we’re talking.

Lazy comes calling if what I do (or, actually, don’t do) affects only me. When I’m alone an internal war erupts between the rebel forces of the “Doers” battalion and the hometown lads of the “Comfy Sofa” regiment. The Doers insistently point to the clock and stress precious seconds are zipping by, seconds I-will-never-get-back. The Comfys blithely point to the coffee table and its cadre of remote controls and fun magazines. God love ‘em, the Doers fight the good fight. But my loyalties far too often fall with the Comfys.

Oh, given the right circumstances I will join forces with the Doers. Tell me my languid behavior impacts someone else, my lack of progress disturbs other people’s plans (even in the smallest way) and the guns start blazing. Suddenly, I’m Roosevelt on San Juan Hill! My abrupt motivation has little, if anything, to do with personal fulfillment. It comes from the prospect my inertia blocks others from moving forward. It’s that simple.

This “lazy for me/motivated for others” dichotomy may seem strange to an outside observer – and I’m sure I could fund a psychologist’s vacation home if I chose – but I see it as just another happy-go-lucky trip through the diverse neighborhoods of me.

beautiful tensions
Beautiful Tensions

From their quizzical expressions to their “let me get this straight” questions, it’s pretty obvious many folks don’t hold my conflicting tendencies in high regard.

“Let me get this straight…

… Math comes easy to you, but you shove it aside. For what? To read? To write and take photographs, both which cause struggle and don’t generate a livable income?”
… You are firmly grounded, yet drift off to la-la land on a whim to sketch out outlandish flights of fancy you don’t even try to pursue?”
…You prefer the shadows. However, you’ll just as quickly jump on stage in front of dozens of strangers to perform kamikaze karaoke on New York, New York?”
…You’re content to sink into the couch except when your outstretched legs mean others may have to skirt around them? Then you hop to attention like a trained dog?”

For years these contradictions drained me, leaving feelings of weakness and indecision. Wasn’t it enough being pulled in 50 different directions every day by stuff which swirls out of my control? Must I also do it to myself?

The answer, of course, was “Yes.”

What’s missing from a casual observation is this phenomenon forced me to look beyond my artificial walls and recognize other opportunities, to experiment. We are trained to seize a direction and see it through to the bitter end. Like heat-seeking missiles, identify our target and fire away! This choice fails to consider heat emanates from many places, frequently very diverse places. Limiting ourselves to the hottest source blinds us from experiences we can’t begin to fathom.

Where do I live? I live in a self-contained world of opposing forces. From their absurdity comes a startling power to construct dynamics which magnify the marvels embedded in each day. They fuse to create an amazing kaleidoscope of light and hues which illuminates even the darkest hours. Where once I misunderstood my beautiful tensions I now happily embrace them. They allow life’s colors to pop and sizzle. And, let’s face it, without them I’d be just another guy living in a black and white world.