Having Your Shit Together.
I’ve had a couple of discussions recently with several people about what it means to have one’s shit together. My new girlfriend told me, about a month ago, about a conversation she had with her coworkers, in which she was describing me to them for the first time. She described me as (presumably among other things) “a healthcare engineer at [MECMC]”. The response she got from her friends? “Oh. So he has his shit together.” Which is nice, but not quite the point, I think. I think understanding this matters to me because the traditional, outcome-oriented model of professional and personal success is not, to me, an indicator of having one’s shit together.
A couple of my conversations have centered around lives in flux. My life was recently in major flux. I have friends going through divorces and trials with mental illness. Friends new to sobriety struggling with the concepts and with taking the steps required for recovery. We are all, constantly, transitioning from one stage of life to another. We are all, constantly, undergoing trials that test us and make us weary. Too many of us face that alone, either because we have no support, or because we don’t want to ask for help.
We are trained to look at outcomes as indicators. If the patient recovers, the intervention was a success. If our grant is funded, we were more deserving than others whose were not. But we know, or we should know, that these things are not so simple. Patients recover all the time with no intervention at all. This is how homeopathy “works” – give the patient nothing wrapped in a fancy package and wait for natural healing or the placebo effect. Fine grants go unfunded. Sometimes crap sneaks though.
We use these proxies because we often can’t tell the mechanism behind what’s actually happening. Some medical interventions really do work, in carefully-designed randomized controlled trials, despite having no known mechanism. We look at people’s outcomes in life: nice home, nice car, nice job, attractive spouse, and we assume that these things mean that they have earned their accomplishments. And for the most part, it’s probably true. They have. But that doesn’t mean that people without those things didn’t work hard, or deserve them.
Because we can’t know people’s motivations. We can’t know their hearts’ desires. We don’t know what drives another person unless we know them, intimately. The things that I value in my life may be utterly different from those that you do, and each of our values may be differently judged by the machine of traditional evaluation of things. But we all, even the most enlightened and modern, judge the people around us according to our own definitions of what is right and good and noble and just. Whether by a traditional moral yardstick or our own alternative metric.
And I’m certainly not immune. I can be as judgmental as anyone. I regularly see couples in MECMC, a man in a t-shirt and shorts with his hands empty. His female partner in full niqab, usually carrying a diaper bag and pushing a stroller. It’s hard for me not to judge them. It looks, to my eyes, misogynistic and cruel and just plainly, wildly unfair and toxic. But it is not my life. And while I want to work for a society where no one is subjected to that (or any lifestyle!) against their will, I also want to live in a society where everyone is free to make their own choices. I cannot understand anyone making that set of choices, but that’s the point: I cannot understand. People needn’t concern themselves with my understanding when making their choices.
So this is a long-winded way of meandering, perhaps, to the point of all this. What does it mean to have one’s shit together? If it isn’t about the outcomes of our lives, and it isn’t about the motivations that drive us? It’s perfectly reasonable to be looking to associate with people who have their shit together. We all want partners who support us and colleagues who advance projects and friends whom we can rely on. How do we find those people?
To me, having my shit together means that I am working daily toward controlling the entropy in my life. Maintaining my sobriety. That’s first. Doing the things that I am contracted to do for work. Being reliable for my friends and my new girlfriend. One of the things I have tried to adhere to for the past five or so years, since sobering up, is a line from the movie Heat: “I say what I mean, and I do what I say.” Obviously, I’m not perfect at that. I’ve failed many times (sometimes hurtfully, sometimes spectacularly) and will many more. But it’s a good principle.
Having one’s shit together means – to me – that despite the outcomes, we work to improve our selves and our surroundings. Despite the fits and starts we all have. Knowing that half the time, the best we can do is tread water. Knowing that sometimes making progress means stepping back to reset. Knowing that to move forward, we must regularly rest. It means keeping up with the requirements of life as best we can in the constantly difficult and trying circumstances. It means acknowledging and respecting the swales and peaks of emotion that attend that.
I most admire the people who make their own choices and follow their own paths while still engaging with the apparatus of society. Who are driven by their own desires, but temper their indulgence. Who are successful at what they care about, and supportive of those who care about different things than they do. Who have the determination to make progress in the face of despair and turmoil. And inside, I think most of us are like that. I’m hopeful. Because I think people are good.