This article was originally published in The Startup.
Every January 1st, birthday, the start of a semester, 1st of the month, Monday morning, or another arbitrary marker, countless people across the world declare that are going to get their shit together — like, now.
From henceforth, everything will be different. Immediately.
It’s a nice idea. In theory. The idea of having your shit together is vague and means different things to different people, but it’s usually some amalgamation of being stable:
- Financially (i.e. spending under control, saving money, no ‘bad debt’, on track with paying off ‘good debt’, regular income)
- Physically (i.e. eating properly, exercising, avoiding/limiting alcohol and other drugs, in good overall health)
- Mentally (i.e. happy, content, not depressed, accepting of yourself, confident, self-assured, embracing amor fati)
- Socially (i.e. in a solid relationship, socialising regularly, getting on with people, making friends, happy family)
- Spiritually (i.e. whatever that means to you: fulfilled in some capacity)
- Career-ally (yeah, that’s not a word) (i.e. in an enjoyable, satisfying job, progressing well, learning & improving.)
For some people, having their shit together means being happily married with a little brood of kids, a paid off mortgage, and shiny hair. For some, it means managing to pay the bills, get laundry done, shower once in a while, and smile sometimes. For some, it means passing out drunk on a front lawn less than three times a week.
For most of us, it’s more of a mindset. We know it when we feel it.
For moments here and there, we think we’ve got the hang of it.
It’s that feeling on a Sunday when your apartment is clean, the cat is flea-treated and napping peacefully, the plants watered, inbox in order, plans made, bank balance healthy, face mask on, whatever.
In Going Sane, a book about what sanity means, Adam Phillips raises an important question.
Is sanity about accepting yourself or about changing yourself?
“Should the project be to attempt to cure ourselves, or to accept ourselves as we are? Should we, in short, think of our madnesses, our symptoms, as a toolkit we have evolved for dealing with reality, for getting by; or should we think of them as a kind of truancy for our lives, an evasion of what we need to do, a weakness?”
Are our flaws, our inability to ever truly get our shit together for long, “an integral and necessary part of our lives or are they superfluous?”
In short, getting your shit together is not about being perfect or infallible or trampling down your natural urges.
We all know that’s impossible and when we chase it, we’re just using an unrealistic image to beat ourselves over the head.
We are using the belief that we could be perfect as an excuse to dislike ourselves at a fundamental level.
We are building a glorious marble statue of who we could be if we weren’t ourselves.
Because getting your shit together is really about growing up and becoming an adult.
Children don’t have their shit together. They are chaotic bundles of confusion, stumbling wide eyes through the world, motivated by pleasure and unquestionably following their whims.
Phillips beautifully describes this as an ‘original madness’ and the process of growing up as like the Biblical concept of the fall.
We fall from childhood and find ourselves in a world where we are not enough. We can never be enough.
Suddenly, we cannot do as we wish. Suddenly, we know that pushing against the boundaries will only harm us. Suddenly, our emotions cannot overwhelm us and we must suppress them.
Suddenly, we must start the project of undoing everything we learned about the world in childhood. Suddenly, we are possessed by the desire to do things we saw as wrong, disgusting, impossible or simply not our domain. Suddenly, we are full of shame.
With that shock fall from childhood, we discover so much that we don’t like about life.
Phillips writes that for the adolescent, “one of his moods, one of his most gripping preoccupations, will be a sense that life is impossible, that life doesn’t work…that life is too painful.”
Because no one could possibly love adulthood, at least not at first. You’re no longer allowed to play all day, sleep when you wish, pout and have others concede.
Worst of all, you are faced with the insurmountable task of understanding everything that happened to you as a child and what it means for your future.
And you find yourself imprisoned by the defaults you developed at an early age. The ultimate task is to “convert childhood trauma to adult triumph.”
“Part of the project of adolescence”, Phillips writes, “ is finding out what makes adults so addicted to life.” Part of getting your shit together is moulding a life you can be addicted to.
A life you don’t want to lose. A life that somehow still involved what Phillips describes as the “infantile pleasures of being loved, adored, stroked, held, cuddled, infinitely attended to and responded to, and thought about; of only sleeping and eating and playing” because “these are the truly satisfying pleasures.” Despite the unavoidable truth that you can never have your shit together if you do too much to chase infantile pleasures.
These pleasures are, well, pleasurable because they let us be in a state where we are enough. We are complete. There is nothing but the joy of the moment. To get our shit together, we must turn away from that sense of wholeness.
“All blueprints of what people should be like are at once denials of reality and attempts to create it anew.” The image of a person with their shit together is that denial of reality. The urge to be them is our attempt to recreate ourselves.
We can never hope to manage both. But we can hope for something even better.
There was a magical time in my life when I truly had my shit together: the last few months of college.
After being in terrible health for years, my heart and blood and bones got the all clear.
I was doing well at college, enjoying my classes, keeping my notes in order, finishing assignments early and getting As. I was in a happy relationship and had a social life.
I got up at 6am every day, meditated, exercised, was vegan, and laughed a lot.
I was so, so, so happy. Happier than I’d ever been before or since. Happier than I’ll probably ever be again. I practically glowed with joy and confidence. Nothing phased me. Everything went my way.
Each day had that glow you get when you’re at a concert and a song you love is playing, and you’re leaping six feet in the air, and you can’t understand how you’ve ever been sad in your life.
It didn’t last. Of course it didn’t. Looking back two years on, it’s hard to even imagine I was ever that happy, that I’m capable of that.
It’s hard to convey the nostalgia I feel for those moments: drinking bad coffee in the college canteen as I wrote essays, running into the sea fully clothed with friends because we could, driving around after friends started getting cars and going nowhere for the fun of it, pub quizzes, little gatherings, the giddiness that comes with having just turned eighteen.
Even then, I knew it wouldn’t last. A friend and I went to Paris for what proved to be the best week of my life. We got matching matchbox tattoos. Mine has the word toujours on it: to represent the sense that whatever happened afterwards, I would always have Paris, I would always have that beautiful memory.
And then, suddenly, I no longer had my shit together.
It happened in fits and starts. Moving out. Moving half a dozen times. The end of that relationship. Drifting away from friends. The death of my grandfather. The death of a friend, later. The death of all three mice. Starting to work. Everything crumbling and changing and falling apart.
Although Phillips offers a few different definitions of what sanity means, one stands out: “Sanity is a talent for not letting whatever frightens us about ourselves destroy our pleasure in life…The sane create, the mad merely suffer.”
Because that’s what it really means to get your shit together.
Understanding what you’re afraid of. Understanding all the things that you count as not having your shit together. Understanding that those urges will always keep bubbling up and derrail your efforts to get everything in order.
And not letting that ruin things. Letting it be part of it all. Figuring out what matters, and what you should focus your energy on and what you should let go.
Which is a lot. Our time and energy are limited. There’s only so much shit we can get together. We can’t have it all. We can have so much, but we can never have it all.