Personal Musings

Self, Meet No-Self

What’s a self-interview?

It’s what it sounds like: an interview with yourself. We all have an inner voice. I have to keep mine in check. This is one way I do it. He can be a real jerk otherwise.

I’d considered doing a self-interview in the past but, for reasons I’m not sure of, held back. I think it had more to do with second guessing myself: would people like this or think it’s straight odd? I could have as easily turned the self-interview into an essay but that’s not what I wanted to do. It was meant to pay homage to a now defunct arts and culture collective I once wrote for called The Nervous Breakdown (TNB) back in the early 2000s.

Self-interviews were a thing on TNB. Almost all were hilarious to a degree and it was a feature on the site I read religiously. Even for those that weren’t laugh out loud funny, the self-interview was, at the least, insightful in a way you didn’t see coming. It’s a peculiar concept because the questions aren’t manufactured like you see in a prompt journal. They build on the conversation as you go.

So I figured, screw it. I’m interviewing myself, and about a week ago, decided I’d give it a go.

It was early in the morning. My brain was still waking up, so I was dusting it off in a way. Interviewing myself led me down paths I didn’t see coming and it was fun. That’s the key ingredient for me: having fun while I write — not taking the process too seriously.

That’s my priority each morning I wake: to find the slice of humor in life, even when a situation isn’t hysterical.

I didn’t set out to write about my toenails and their relationship to the University of Virginia men’s basketball team winning their first national championship in 2019. Nor did I consider as I typed out the first words a few days later I’d reminisce about slamming my thumb in a car door before departing for South Boston Speedway.

But there I was.

Weird things are birthed when interviewing yourself. I’m sure there were folks who didn’t click on the story because of the title and there were equally others who did click on it that initially thought, “What the hell is this?”

“What the hell is this?” is not always a bad thing.

You never know where a self-interview will lead you. And, as I’ve written in the past, the audience I write for isn’t cut and dry. Everything I write is for my kids — not necessarily at their current ages, but the future version of them.

Growing up, I had no idea what was going on inside my dad’s head most of the time. It wasn’t until he wrote me a letter before he was diagnosed with leukemia that I saw a different side of him. That’s why my intended audience is the future version of my kids. It’s a way for them to know me better and how I came to be the person I am. I was a kid once, I remind them. I had a childhood. This is who I was. These were my friends. It’s hard to wrap your brain around that when you’re a kid though.

In other words, it’s talking to yourself?

Yes, absolutely. But not in a “I hear voices” kind of way, in case you’re getting that vibe. Your basic inner voice monologue package. We all talk to ourselves, right? I think the difference is: do you know you’re talking to yourself even if it’s in subtle whispers? Are you aware your knee-jerk reactions and emotional states have a starting point or are you just along for a ride you didn’t even know you signed up for?

Unless I toss him a spare jersey for the home team, my inner voice is impatient, easily frustrated, and has a temper. He reminds me of my past failures, my failures in the moment. He’s full of anxiety and tries to sneak in a dose of depression if he sees an opening. He views the world cynically. If he was a real person, I’d steer clear of him because I don’t like revolving in the same orbit as that type of human being.

But he’s in my head so I can’t avoid him. He knocks on my front door every day. If I don’t answer immediately, he rings the doorbell. If I still don’t answer, he tries to beat down the door banging the meaty part of his fists as he does so.

Instead of ignoring him, I open the door and welcome him in. It’s pointless to play the game he wants to play. I’ve learned to treat him like a heckler at a comedy show. He doesn’t like humor. Humor is his arch-enemy.

I talk to him. I shift his attention before he gets going on his negativity trip. He likes to catch me off guard, so I do the same with him: I catch him off guard first. For as much power as he wields, he’s not the brightest and is susceptible to trickery. He doesn’t even recognize a self-interview is a trick.

So do I talk to myself? All the time. Inside my head in a given moment and on a laptop screen when it’s available. That’s what writing is at the end of the day. I’m forming my thoughts into letters and words and outwardly expressing them. It’s therapeutic. I’m alone for the majority of my day, every day, and I view writing in a similar vein as someone having a conversation with a co-worker. They’re expressing their inner thoughts outwardly by talking. I’m expressing my inner thoughts outwardly by writing.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about myself, it’s that you have to put your inner voice to work for you before he clocks in and goes to work against you. “Against you” is his default, and man, does that guy put in long hours when he’s working against you. He doesn’t mind working a double or overtime either.

How do you trick him?

Aside from a self-interview? Any way I can.

Take last week, for example. I was driving my daughter to basketball practice. There’s a guy weaving in and out of lanes, driving dangerously. He comes up beside me. He wants to squeeze in front of me — and he’s doing that maneuver with his car where you hug the line and try to nose your car in — but the only way he can get in is if I brake hard. I’m not going to hit the brakes because I have a dump truck following closely behind me and my daughter is in the car. It would be unsafe since a Mack can’t stop on a dime. The other driver gets pissed at me and extends his arm out the window and flips me the bird as he switches to the opposite lane. He wasn’t twenty years old. More like 32. Emotionally immature.

Instead of getting angry in return, I deploy The Keanu Method. It’s a way of reframing a negative interaction. I pretend he has bad arthritis in his middle finger and can’t bend it. I actually have bad arthritis in my right middle finger. It’s a side effect of a punk rock life well-lived.

In reality, I know the guy is a Grade A a-hole, but that’s not my problem. That’s his. He’s not aware of how his inner voice sweet-talked his emotions into taking control of the wheel. He’s driving erratically without respect to the safety of others on the road, but at the same time, he’s not really the one driving. He’s along for the ride, completely unaware.

It’s all about his ego and where his ego needs to be and when it needs to get there.

I try to keep mine in check because my inner voice carries many, if not all, of the same traits as his inner voice. My initial thought, of course, was f— that guy. I can do zazen all day long but I still have an inner voice, as everyone, that likes to rile me up.

In the moment I flip the script. My inner voice doesn’t like re-writes. He forgets his lines when I reframe the incident as it’s taking place. When I find humor in what irks him. Then when I’m back at my computer, I write about it. There’s a big difference in your emotional state throughout the day when you let little things rub you the wrong way versus adding the salt and pepper that is humor.

So getting it out there and not bottling it up?

Have you ever seen the Pixar film Inside Out? It’s about a young girl named Riley whose family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco when her dad gets a new job. The supporting characters are her emotions: Joy, Anger, Disgust, Fear, and Sadness.

I’d put this animated film in my Top 10 favorite movies of all time. The writing is superb and does a better job at capturing our emotions and inner voice than about any book or film ever created in my opinion. Lewis Black plays Anger. The casting director nailed that one. Black’s character trips me out.

It goes south for Riley in Inside Out when she keeps her feelings to herself, when she tries to ignore the ways our complex emotions work in harmony with one another. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, stop reading this paragraph because spoiler alert: Joy thinks she has to keep Sadness away from Riley for her life to head in the right direction. But what Joy doesn’t realize is that Sadness co-exists with Joy. They form a symbiotic relationship. Once they team up, things get better.

Interconnectedness is an important theme in Buddhism. It’s a central tenet. As the Buddha once stated, “When there is this, that comes to be. With the arising of this, that arises.”

This and that exist because of dependent origination: the interconnected nature of all phenomena (mental and physical).

Once you’ve walked the beaten path of life long enough, you see the signs everywhere if you’re paying attention.

You bring up Buddhism and you’re doing a self-interview. Isn’t the idea of a ‘self’ in conflict with those teachings?

What Buddhism teaches about the self is not that the self does not exist. As with emptiness and nothingness, it’s a misinterpretation. It could be argued the root of the self/no-self teaching is about clinging. That’s part of it. But if I were to deduce it further, I’d first start with a connected concept (pun intended). The teaching is about interconnectedness: how the self and no-self are one.

No-self (anatta) isn’t a teaching that says there is no self exclusively. It is saying the self isn’t permanent and independent. It’s impermanent and co-dependent like the Joy and Sadness characters in Inside Out. With this, there is that.

Your present is made up of your past just as your future depends on your present.

I am me now at 42 as I was me at age 5. I’m the same person. But I’m also not the same person. I’m not speaking physical differences alone like I’m taller now, I have a beard, and so on nor am I saying life experiences are the sole reason. We are ever-changing from one second to the next, from the start of our day until the end. Our bodies and our minds are never in a fixed state. We are in a constant cycle of birth and death (samsara).

As Shunryu Suzuki, author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, said:

When you do not realize that you are one with the river, or one with the universe, you have fear. Whether it is separated into drops or not, water is water. Our life and death are the same thing.

Shunryu Suzuki. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

That sounds somewhat depressing.

It’s not. In our culture, at least in the U.S. where I live, we’re terrified of death. We love birth. We love babies. The world is brand new for them. They are pudgy and make us smile with their giggles. They remind us of an entire life being lived ahead — of a future.

We’re uncomfortable, many of us, around someone who is sick and dying. They remind us the past is not the present and that death will be our future soon enough. They remind us of what we think of when we think of the end, and it terrifies us.

But no one ever truly dies. My dad died but I’m an extension of him as is my son, as are my friends and other loved ones. There’s a piece of every dead person inside of a still living person. This is beautiful, not sad.

So it shouldn’t feel depressing to say we’re in a constant cycle of birth and death. Because we are: even when we die, there is a continuation.

I’ve written a number of stories about my friend Jeremiah here. He died seventeen years ago in 2007. I don’t write about him because I’m clinging to the past or because I’m scared I’ll forget him. I’ll never forget Jeremiah. I write about him because he is a part of me, including my present, and he always will be. The same goes for Brian, Gary, my dad, and others.

Would you say part of why you write is to work through grief?

Initially yes, and even years later if there’s anything I left unaddressed lingering. But after a few years, no, I wouldn’t place it in the grieving category.

It has more to do with reliving a memory and not shunning away a part of who I am because that person isn’t here physically any longer. Culturally, when we talk about a person who has died it’s in the past-tense. It makes sense at face value. But stories bring them into the here and now.

When I wrote I’ll Let You Drive the Golf Cart two weeks ago, I didn’t feel like I was in the past as I was writing it. I felt like I was there, on the golf course in the cart, in the present moment.

But to go back to grief, as a concept and process, it’s commonly said there is no right or wrong way to grieve. I have to disagree with that because it gives an easy out for someone to move toward alcohol or substance use and never return from it. We all know someone who has taken that path and I think we’d all agree that heavy drug or alcohol use is the wrong way to grieve. We don’t want a friend or family member to take that path and for those that do, we want them to return from it. Otherwise, we will be grieving them soon enough.

Grief is one of our strongest emotional states. It’s a combination of our most formidable emotions like anger and sadness. It can be devastating short- and long-term if you’re not careful. I’ve been tangled up in grief in the past and didn’t always handle it in a healthy way. I empathize with anyone that starts down the wrong path.

But it isn’t anger and sadness alone that make grief overwhelming. Happiness is at the core. You are angry or sad because the person you lost once made you feel joy and now they are gone. They made you a better person. Now you’re just left with memories but there is no physical presence you can see, feel, hear, or touch in the present.

Over time, if you accept your grief for what it is, anger dissipates and happiness is able to return with the co-existence of sadness. They aren’t mutually exclusive. They are a pair — interconnected.

How you handle anything in life has a great deal to do with how you manage your inner voice: an erratic driver on the road, drama at work, vacation plans, youth sporting events (sheesh) et al. Grief is no different. We all have to go through the various stages and work through it. It takes time and it’s hard. If there’s trauma involved, it’s even harder. But are you going to listen to the sneaky voice that tells you to pick up the bottle or the drug or some other distraction or are you going to choose a less destructive option?

Grief brings about The Great Divorce, as I call it. I’ve seen it play out over and over again after someone dies. It’s almost instinctual. I’ve done it myself to a degree. The Great Divorce is divorcing yourself from friends, family, and places that remind you of the person you lost. It’s a way of avoiding tough emotions. It doesn’t work in the end, even if you think it does. Instead of experiencing a loss in the future, you are engaging in a loss of the present that will continue into the future.

Nothing is ever the same after someone dies. Everything has changed. That’s impermanence at work. That’s understanding the self is not a fixed state, but unfixed and always changing.

The Great Divorce is thinking you can protect yourself from getting hurt again. That you can numb it away. If I cut myself off from this friend or these family members then it won’t be as difficult when something else happens. It’s wrong thinking.

Coming to terms with your grief isn’t about suppressing your emotions and playing a game of pretend with the world that you are okay. Every death is different as is our response to it. You can choose one fork in the road only to realize it’s dark in here and that’s not the direction you want to keep walking — or, you can keep walking down that path listening to the inner voice inside you that speaks of hopelessness, that a better way isn’t possible. We all know someone, perhaps many people in our lives, that choose to stay on that path.

When my cousin Gary died during the pandemic, I initially started drinking more than I normally did. I was trying to mask the pain. I’d go to work each day and the daily drama and backbiting that had become part of our company’s culture, I was frankly tired of it. My cousin and friend died and I didn’t want to listen to the bulls—t anymore. It was pointless.

During the same time, I had taken up running again. The day Gary was hospitalized was the first day I’d run in years. I needed to get out of my head (there’s my inner voice again), so I ran. When I returned home after my first run, I sat with my kids on our back patio and we did a breathing meditation.

“We are going to breathe for Gary,” I said to them.

Running and meditation helped me but they didn’t save Gary. But what I had caught a glimpse of while running was a lesson for myself. It didn’t take initially, not all the way. Gary died and I still drank. But I continued to run, too.

The two activities — drinking and running — were in conflict with one another. A few months later, I quit drinking completely. I made the decision for a few reasons: my wife and kids mainly. My inner voice put up a fight. He didn’t want me to stop.

“Cut back,” he said.

“Only on weekends” or “One a day, max.”

It was a trick and I didn’t fall for it. I know myself well enough at this point in my life. I tend to be all or nothing. That was almost three years ago now and I haven’t drank since but I still run.

Whether Gary recovered was out of my control. Because of hospital restrictions, we couldn’t even visit. I felt hopeless.

My kids could see that my wife and I were distraught at what was taking place and I wanted to be careful about it around them. Not ignore the situation. Nothing like that. My daughter, who was nine years old at the time, comprehended what was going on more than my son who was seven.

But I don’t like how sickness and dying are framed in our culture. Hope isn’t a bad thing but the end of someone’s life is not really the end of that person. I once subscribed to the belief the end was the end and once you make it to the afterlife, you can see them again.

Now what I believe is the end isn’t the end and I don’t have to wait for the future to still hold that person close to me. They are a part of me now and they always will be.

After my dad died, I used to get pretty pissed when someone would say, “You’ll see your dad again one day” because I didn’t want to wait for “one day.” I know it’s a well-meaning statement. It’s pointing to an after-life and a reunification. But I wanted my dad here, now, alive and healthy. I didn’t find comfort in “again one day” at that same time I was replaying images of him dying right in front of me in my head.

Some find comfort in this. I wasn’t one of them. Not in the moment.

It wasn’t until I was at church one Sunday when our preacher said, “It’s okay to be angry. I am angry” that I began to feel less alone in my feelings. His wife had been diagnosed with brain cancer a few months before and her health had deteriorated rapidly. I remember sitting in the pew and thinking, someone gets it.

That’s not to say other people don’t feel angry after someone gets sick or dies. Again, that’s a big chunk of grief’s formula. But we tend to push that emotion to the side in terms of communicating it verbally ourselves or someone acknowledging that emotion.

Like Joy trying to push away Sadness in Inside Out, we push away our anger in times of grief failing to recognize its interconnected workings within us.

How did we get here?

No kidding, right? But that, to me, is the beauty of the self-interview. You learn about yourself with this process. If I keep all these thoughts locked up inside my noggin, there’s a disconnect between who I think I am and who I am. What I think I believe and what I believe. And that’s not to say, what I think I believe is necessarily what I believe and is set in stone, but more so it’s working it out. But it’s never fixed and permanent, whatever it is.

I assumed this would be more humorous.

A self-interview takes you in the direction it wants to go. It’s far more serious in tone than I had planned. I should have talked about the hot flashes I now get at 7 PM each day despite being a dude. I call it Man-o-pause.

Does it bum you out?

The hot flashes?

No, that this was more serious than you’d expected?

It does. Well, it did. But I need to accept it for what it is. These thoughts were living inside me and clearly wanted to escape.

Any parting words?

Yeah, if anyone made it this far reading I’d recommend talking to yourself interview-style. Don’t keep it all up there. Write it down. You’d be surprised how helpful it can be. No co-pay required.

Thanks for reading. I write personal essays about every day life (often) with a touch of humor and nostalgia. Subscribe to get updates of new posts by email:

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