Thinking About Feeling


cartoon by hugh macleod

“Though we rush ahead to save our time, we are only what we feel” — Neil Young, On the Way Home

In Grade Two I learned not to feel. Until then I felt everything, with all my heart — I fell in love for the first time when I was five, and the world was perfect. In our neighbourhood we’d play tag or hide-and-seek or football or go skating or just bounce a ball against the steps to see who could catch it, until the sun went down and we could hardly see, or in the winter until the moonlight and lamplights made the new-fallen snow glisten like diamonds, and our hands and feet got numb from the cold and we’d stoke the wood fireplace in the temporary shed beside the outdoor skating rink. And we’d sing our hearts out. And cry inconsolably for hours when a tiny bird crashed against our windows and our attempts to nurse it to health with sugar water in an eyedropper didn’t work. And stories were as real as life. And we’d get so intoxicated by some moment of simple joy we’d  laugh until we fell down or threw up. And we’d race home in torrential and violent thunderstorms, fearless, drying ourselves sitting in front of the hot air radiator, with the smells of dinner coming from the kitchen.

But in Grade Two something changed. Some of the kids at school started to lie. Or to threaten to hit you or take something from you. Or they’d say things just to be mean, even the girls. Where everything had been cooperative, collaborative before, now everything was a competition, and if you weren’t smart, fast, coordinated, tall, unblemished, well, you were a loser. If you were good at school but not smart in other things you were a suck, which was worse than being stupid. And for the girls you loved, it was no longer enough to be authentic, to care, to be imaginative and playful and faithful. You had to be handsome, clever, worldly, funny in a new and impossibly complicated way. You had to be something you weren’t, and couldn’t be, and didn’t want to be.

It became dangerous to feel too much. The twisted kids who you used to feel sorry for discovered they could manipulate others, and in the anarchy of the schoolyard they suddenly had power. It was like they were inflicting the damage inside them on everyone else and no one was saying anything, as if what they were doing was normal, or impossible to stop. Kids who’d been in boarding schools or juvenile detention centres bragged about how tough they were, that they were survivors and you’d better get tough or life would get very hard for you.

So I learned to stop feeling. I withdrew into myself, and was labeled a “shy kid”, which I’d never been, and for nearly ten years I lived in a world of my own, a “daydreamer”, a disengaged and marginal student, an “underachiever”. I would let homework pile up until I was sick with dread about getting caught out, and then work like mad to get most of it done, but I’d never really get caught up. If a girl talked to me, which happened rarely, I would almost pass out from anxiety, from not knowing what to say. I was completely disconnected from the world and from myself. I couldn’t dance, or swim, or do sports. I was no fun. I just wanted the world to go back to the way it once was. Eventually I forgot what that was like; it was too hard and painful to remember. Finally I stopped feeling lonely because I couldn’t remember or imagine any other way to be. That was the last thing I stopped feeling.

I was rescued, in my last year of high school, by an Unschooling pilot program that I’ve written about elsewhere on this blog. My adult life was, until recently, plagued by bouts of deep depression and chronic anxiety, but at 18 I had broken through, become functional, learned to love again, and to believe (perhaps too much) in myself. I had become, after years detached from reality, an incorrigible idealist, and still am, for all the good that’s done me. When you live inside your head, in your imagination, every dose of hard reality is a blow, a disappointment, a fall from brief and fleeting grace. But I had learned to be clever at a few things, thanks to my peers, and that cleverness and a renewed self-confidence combined to make my adulthood one of almost uninterrupted success, at least in the ways that our society measures it — position, money, material possessions. Purpose.

I was happy with my success. I was, most of the time, numb. The one feeling I had that came up fairly often was anger, and it was ugly, so I learned to suppress it. I was good at suppressing things in myself. I’d had a lot of practice. And when crises came up I coped with them the way I always did — a mix of retreat into depression, anxiety, procrastination, and, finally, figuring out all by myself what had to be done and, when there was no other choice, doing it.

Thirty years later I woke up and realized that what I wanted in life was not the many things I’d achieved and acquired, and that in their pursuit and accomplishment I’d forgotten about the things that I once thought were most important: Ending the devastation of our planet, which was now being perpetrated by, mostly, stupid white men of my own once-idealistic generation. Stopping the suffering of animals. Bringing human population back to sustainable levels. Bringing equity and justice and dignity and opportunity to the 99% of the population who struggle all their lives against impossible and unfair odds just to survive and to be, once in a while, happy.

For the last decade, most of it chronicled in this blog, I’ve tried to understand how the world really works and why it’s so awful (at least, to an idealist), and what we could do to create better ways to live and make a living. I’ve learned a lot, and, I told myself, as soon as I retired I would put this new knowledge, and my new health (the result of overcoming a terrible illness four years ago, also well chronicled in this blog), to good use.

This year, I retired.

For the last few months I’ve lived the life most people dream of — retired comfortably from paid work, living in a paradise, debt-free, worry-free, loved, loving, open to love, very healthy, free from any onerous responsibilities or commitments, and free to do (or not do) whatever I want each day.

    As some people warned me might happen, I’ve become a bit lazy (and perhaps hazy) as a result. I’ve made far too little progress on my What You Can Do (to make the world a better place) list of intentions*. So what am I doing with my time? Bottom line: I’m not spending any more time on reconnection, capacity/competency building, activism, new model creation, reflective and creative activities  than I did when I was working full-time (i.e. still three hours a day). The six hours a day (average over a seven-day week) I used to spend working I now spend in play, in cooking and housekeeping.

    I tell myself I deserve to spend some extra time playing — just doing whatever I feel like doing on the spur of the moment each day — as part of the transition from paid work and as part of learning how to manage my days effectively and responsibly now that I have no external demands on my time.

    But I have this gnawing feeling that, freed from anxiety, I’m actually getting ‘spacey’ — even more disconnected from the real world, and from my feelings. For example, I recently hiked around the Island to three of Bowen’s best beaches, and then played around with the photos I took of them, for hours; and I used telephoto pictures, Google maps, Google earth and triangulation tools to identify most of the mountains and houses I can see in the distance from my new house. And I’ve spent quite a bit of time meeting new people and attending various events I would never have found time for when I was working, just for fun. These are pastimes, diversions.

    All of it has been somewhat disconnecting, and left me disengaged from the real world. These activities are mostly pretty superficial and emotionless. I’ve begun to wonder whether, suddenly finding myself without other people making demands on my time , telling me what I must or should be doing, and without constant feelings of time pressure and expectations — my freedom from anxiety has become freedom from feeling.

    What is it I’m ‘diverting’ myself from? Why is it that I’m only really connected with my feelings:

    • When I listen to good music,
    • When I fall in love,
    • When I play with animals, or
    • When something, late at night, usually connected with water, or wind, or light, or the sounds of wild creatures, stirs my heart?

    I came to this island, this paradise, for sanctuary — protection and healing. Sanctuary from what?

    In the gorgeous Reid & Shamblin song “I Can’t Make You Love Me“, made famous by Bonnie Raitt, about not having a choice when it comes to love, there’s a line:

    “You can’t make your heart feel something it won’t”

    What is the matter with my heart?


    [*My ‘Report Card’ on my five sets of 2010 Intentions, to date:

    1. Some aspects of my morning Reconnection practices (meditation, exercise, presencing, art/music composition, gratitude, body/senses/feelings/instinct awareness, letting go, and spending time in wild places) get done periodically. But it’s hardly a daily practice.
    2. I’ve made limited progress in starting my afternoon Capacity/Understanding/Competency Building activities, Activism projects and New Model Creation activities.
      • I had intended to increase my competency or capacity in ten areas: presentation skills, conversation skills, demonstration skills, creative writing skills, self-awareness, facilitation skills, problem/stress management, life balance, time management and empathy. I’ve taken a few workshops but I don’t think I’ve made any significant headway (e.g. from my work on empathy I’ve mostly learned that I’m misanthropic). I have been learning to cook, and to host. And I’m still learning how the world really works, which is endlessly time-consuming.
      • My first set of Activism projects (facilitating collaborations of people working to find creative, effective, ideally non-violent ways to stop the Alberta Tar Sands, and factory farming) haven’t made it past the early planning stages.
      • Likewise my New Model Creation intentions — other than a bit of writing I’ve done next to nothing to advance any of my four favourite better-way-to-live models/movements: Unschooling, the Gift/Generosity/Relationship Economy, Intentional Community, and Transition to a post-civ society. And my novel/film script, imagining a strange, joyful, amazingly diverse post-civilization human society, remains unwritten.
    3. My evening Reflection and Creation practices (blogging, creative writing, music composition, dance, play, drawing and photography) started well, but (except for play) have since slowed. My blogging pace is the slowest it’s ever been.]
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    17 Responses to Thinking About Feeling

    1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Thinking About Feeling « how to save the world --

    2. Rob says:

      I wonder if you are really really really tired – and that actually what you are doing is resting?

    3. Wow ! really an interesting post on Feeling :). I seriously suspect you might be too tired after writing this long post ;)

    4. David says:

      Hi Dave,

      Much love and respect for your unstinting honesty. You’re clearly dissatisfied with your progress towards your set goals. And maybe not (yet) discovering the new goals towards which you may be making real progress. Doldrums: temporary? or chronic? A problem that many would love to have. Maybe your new-found community needs some of your gifts; in fact, it’s certain that it does… somewhere. While you reorient your life, why not divert yourself by finding a place to pitch in. You won’t be making progress towards your lofty goals, but you might be keeping some neglected tools sharp.

      OTOH, it’s presumptuous to offer advice at a distance, on the basis of a few hundred words of written self-diagnosis. Only if you’re feeling really cramped or discontented should you worry greatly about the gap between your ambitions and the way things are playing out. Maybe there is something forming below the surface, stirred up by the external changes in situation and by your intentions… ?

    5. M Wms says:

      Whatever is wrong with your heart, is wrong with mine. But I don’t view it as wrong. You say that what you call your diversions have “been somewhat disconnecting, and left me disengaged from the real world. These activities are mostly pretty superficial and emotionless.” I do these same sorts of things, I think, and in doing them I feel engaged with the world, like I’m swimming in a sea of bliss and heartache. Maybe you feel restless and disconnected simply because you’re not doing what you set out to do? How do you know that the diversion isn’t the path (or _a_ path)?

    6. vera says:

      A thought… I am wondering, Dave, if the obsession with goals and achieving them isn’t really part of the old paradigm. Maybe your deep self is telling you it’s time for something completely different now?

    7. Joan says:

      Dave, you’ve made HUGE life changes in the last few months. it’s gonna take a while to process all that. i’m with Vera and David: let go of the obsession of achieving the goals and find a place to pitch in. and the pitching in doesn’t have to be connected to the goals. or put another way, find _a_ path (not _the_ path) and flow with it. you came to the island for sanctuary from the old way of life. stop trying to recreate it.

    8. Gena says:

      I think the answer is in the title. You don’t think about feeling. It is not to be analyzed or parsed into centimeters of understanding. I would think you would have a lot of freeing and grieving to do for the life that was and is no more.

      There are new adventures that await a shift in perspective from what you thought to be true. Learning to live with yourself with minimal human distractions.

      It strikes me funny that a man in the heart of his desired world is still not content. I tried hard not to respond because I am nowhere near as far on the path of the journey you are on.

      Still, defining your current life as lazy is counter to your stated purpose and intent? I mean, don’t you have to do the things you are advocating before you can encourage others to pony up?

    9. Nathan says:

      Perhaps your mention of activism projects brought this to mind, but I came across this quote in a book about databases strangely enough:

      “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

      Apparently this was one of Max Planck’s thoughts, but it did make me think that a lot of activism is focused on changing things *now*, when in fact the most important thing is to grow something to supplant a dying paradigm in the long term.

    10. Rebecca says:

      I am a new reader to your blog – and so it feels a little presumptuous for me to comment – but when I have felt discouraged or blah, your blog lifted my spirits. Made me feel less alone with my own visions of the way the world could be. I experienced something similar when I took a month off – the longest break in my working life – to work on my “project” to help accomplish some of these ideas. I only spent about 3-4 hours working on this supposed raison d’etre – the rest was spent cooking, organizing, wandering. It is comforting to me that someone else experienced this.

      Perhaps this dilemma is one described well by E.B. White:

      “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world, and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”

      Thanks for the inspiration.

    11. Dave Pollard says:

      Rob, Mike, David, Beyond, Vera, Joan, Gena, Nathan, and Rebecca: Thank you all for your empathy, your quotes, and your counsel.

      It’s funny — when I write these “heartfelt” posts they’re just my way of thinking out loud (I’m not expecting reassurances or advice, though I do appreciate them). But when people I know who read my blog but don’t post comments themselves hear about these posts, they tell me they can hardly wait to read your comments, which shows, I think, how valuable these little conversations are, and how, awkward as it is, blogging does allow real conversation to occur.

      And though I’ve said it before, please know that although I rarely “join the conversation” replying to comments on the blog, I read, think about, and appreciate them all.

    12. Pearl says:

      When one goes from a bright room to a dark one, for a while one can’t make fine distinctions. there can be a flailing panic of disorientation, vulnerability but one doesn’t decide, omg, I’m blind!

      but when one moves from habit or context of high emotion to a narrower band of nuance, one may feel for while a false equivalency with numbness. absence of feeling. the senses are adapting to new range of sensitivities. see how you see in a few more months.

    13. Jon Husband says:

      Might be interesting for you to explore more what you know and don’t know about how you experience, or feel, feelings. Such untidy things.

      Are you addicted to anxiety, and in its absence “feel” guilty ? After all, you’ve had what .. 40+ years ? … of some one or more anxieties driving your thinking and behaviour virtually all of the hours you are awake.

      Yes, you live in a society, and have been shaped by it .. wherein an absence of purpose is very very suspect. On the other hand, I think it can be very purposeful, and powerful, to look anomie directly in the face and understand, deeply, that there may indeed be no purpose to your (or anyone else’s) life AND that in aggregate, all of our lives matter .. very much.

      You’ve only been retired, and play-full, for a very short time. I doubt, somehow, that you’re used to it yet.

    14. Hi Dave,

      Anxiety is unsustainable. It’s a destructive force and we don’t realize it until after the damage is done. I have anxiety and it resulted in alcohol abuse, then Crohn’s Disease. I’m considerably less anxious now because I’m not capable of staying anxious. And there have been many times in my life that I couldn’t feel and I wondered why. Now I’m learning to feel without the destructive anxiety. It has taken a lifetime and I haven’t progressed as much as I would like. I don’t have good advice; I just wanted to share my thoughts and feelings.

      Thank you for your post. I feel less alone.

      Take care,


    15. Will says:

      “I recently hiked around the Island to three of Bowen’s best beaches, and then played around with the photos I took of them, for hours; and I used telephoto pictures, Google maps, Google earth and triangulation tools to identify most of the mountains and houses I can see in the distance from my new house. And I’ve spent quite a bit of time meeting new people and attending various events”

      These don’t seem like diversions at all to me. You are learning about the place where you’ve found yourself – both its geography and community. This knowledge might serve you well at some point in the future.

      Don’t be so hard on yourself – humans learn through play, after all.

    16. John Graham says:

      I talked myself out of mentioning this, but it popped back into mind as I typed in my other comment, “if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”…

      When I first read this post, I remembered a dream I had when I was eight (and tiny and a bit different and overlookable), that I flew to school in my Greatest American Hero costume, and swooped down to push the girl I had a crush on out of the way of the school bus which had suddenly appeared.

      Not sure why I wanted to share that.

      Who is now? Is it still her?

    17. Channing says:

      Oh, Dave,
      What is most painful about your post is the flogging you put yourself through — seems like standard Judeo-Christian guilt about not being at work hard enough or actively enough to save the world. Let go, friend. It’s okay simply to be in the world, to learn one’s neighborhood, to feel one’s life and see how it fits and seriously to begin working from the inside out and not outside in, as most of us in this culture do. It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s terrible not to be able to love oneself because we haven’t yet succeeded in saving a stubborn, almost intransigent world. Back in the day, a referee for a boxing match would tell the fighters, “Protect yourself at all times.” Ditto. And love on.

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