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ON SELF-SOOTHING


Sitting on the shitter this morning I watched my dog, Max, play with his tennis ball. Gnaw on it, is more like it. Max does this every morning, waiting for me to get up and play. It's our little routine. Playing consists of me first throwing the ball to the other end of the house so Max can leap in the air and catch it with his mouth, then me walking down the hall to fetch the ball and throw it to the other side of the room. I play fetch, while Max, who gets me to do his bidding, plays catch and gets to have all the fun. And they say dogs aren't all that smart. 

Max prefers catching the tennis ball over merely gnawing on it, although he is quite capable of chewing it to shreds. And though he only gnaws on the ball to pass the time, it struck me that what Max is actually doing by poking holes in the tennis ball is engaging in what is known as self-soothing. Many animals self-soothe, humans included. During my medical residency, in that cold November month in Denver I spent burping babies in the newborn nursery, I learned about self-soothing as it applies to infants. When the caregiver is not around, a baby will stroke its own cheek and thereby comfort itself. It's a way to stave off loneliness. Being able to self-soothe is a good indicator of positive emotional fitness down the line. I learned this in the hospital and then went home to a Scotch and a cigar, and, if the urge seized me, a little stroking of my own.

Self-soothing continues through childhood and into adulthood, though as you can see from my example it can take manifold forms. For instance, many is the child who sucks his thumb, much to the consternation of his parents who must then pay the dentist to straighten his buck teeth. And most of us as children, including myself, had our blankets, or "bangee," as I called mine, which we'd carry around with us wherever we'd go. We'd never wash it, and we'd stand by as it was sniffed and sometimes chewed to a mere faded, soiled scrap. My bangee, a quilted number which my great grandmother fashioned for me from old dresses, and which even had my name sown in, I had whittled into a mere six inch by six inch square by the time it was ready for retirement. And I could only be persuaded to let my bangee go after I had been satisfied as to the guarantee of receiving a replacement. Which I still have, and use at least once a week. Though not to chew on, but to lie upon while I rock in my hammock. Like its predecessor, this blanket has never been washed, nor will it ever be. There's something about one's own scent which itself is eminently soothing.

Adulthood brings other forms of diversion for the self-soother. Some are expensive, some are free. Some are harmful, and some are healthy. I began drinking a lot of water my Senior year of high school. My mother used to complain about all the empty glasses littered around my room. It would take years before doing the dishes gave me any measure of peace, but now I actually enjoy the calming effect of household chores. In college water gave way to beer. Some days I'd sit with a six-pack and not stand up until it was down the hatch. Stagger up, was more like it. This can be a rather expensive habit for a man with a yen for microbrews, and hangovers exact a heady price of their own.

I did window-shopping for a while in my twenties. On Saturdays afternoon I'd head to the mall, often with a novel, usually a Patricia Highsmith thriller. I'd start on the first floor and proceed across the Westside Pavilion and up each level, stopping to rest and read when needed, and three hours later I'd return to my car empty-handed, but with money still in my pocket, which I spent on beer.

I also loved to go to the cinema as a youngster, usually once a week. When I hit my early twenties I decided to become a screenwriter, and so I went to the cinema more often, sometimes every day, and called it learning the tricks of the trade. Going to the bookstore used to do it for me, too. I didn't even have to buy anything. I'd just browse for an hour or two, starting from the letter A and proceeding down the alphabet till I came Z, and came away with a crook in my neck from craning to read the vertically placed titles. Then bookstores went out of business, and Amazon does the browsing for the reader, based on prior purchases. Since Kindle books are often free, I still read. 

Self-soothing for the adult often takes the form of hobbies. What do you do? Watch YouTube videos? Photograph your food? Visit new restaurants? Go for long drives along the beach? These all qualify. Nowadays I'm more of a minimalist, because I have less money. I prefer forms of self-soothing which don't make a dent in my expense account. Like lying in the grass on a warm, sunny day and watching the man-made clouds pass overhead. Chem trails or contrails is anybody's guess. I'd include kissing as a form of self-soothing, but it's done with another which disqualifies it, and there's no one else around me anyway. 

But there are forms of self-soothing which are non-physical and possibly more effective, if like me you have been known to suffer pains of the existential sort. I hope you enjoyed the prelude. But do you ever wonder what it all means? Why you're here? Do you ever feel alone in the universe, lost and confused and without a clue? Ever beat yourself up with worrying and anxieties, which usually prove to be unfounded and even imaginary, but that doesn't stop you from worrying again at the next available opportunity? Whenever I am burdened by the weight of my own existence, I remind myself that I can always put the burden down. Existence is not a burden. Worrying is. And so when I find myself worrying about the future, I remind myself that as a spirit I exist outside time. So really past, present and future are all the same for one who is timeless as am I (and you, too). If you picture things as entering time from an eternal world outside, whether past or future, then what's already happened is on equal footing with what's yet to come, in that they are already finished products. And so, if you don't worry about yesterday, what's the point of fretting about the future? 

And we all know that what we take to be of such vital importance in this moment, we will have completely forgotten about come next week. So I imagine that next week has already come, and the problem loses its sting. Problems are after all never solved by worrying about them. Either what you fear is imaginary, or if real your concerns take care of themselves. In the long shot that you play a role in the solution to your life's so-called problems, the solution usually arrives in a moment of inspiration which comes in a flash when you least expect it, and without your even trying. 

Case in point. Today we got the house appraised. The inspector was supposed to be here at 12:30 or 1. I didn't like the idea of a stranger surveying the premises. Instinctively it felt so invasive. So I girded my loins in preparation for having to take the guy on a tour of the property, explain this feature and that, then sit with him over a copious amount of paperwork and be cross-examined as to the true value of various sentimental items lying around. And these trepidations occupied my mind for almost 24 hours leading up to the encounter. This morning I watered the plants and vacuumed - and in so doing killed a lot of household spiders, sorry God. As if any of this would make a difference, but I didn't know what to expect. I've never been inspected! Then 12:30 comes and Chris (the inspector's name) arrives. I ask him if I can show him around and he says he prefers to walk the grounds on his own, but thank you. Ten minutes and a few photographs later he is out the door without so much as a handshake or a signature. Easiest $600 I ever spent. 

So stop worrying, and let your laid-back approach to life come to your rescue. Remember, hard as it is to believe, this Universe is not a hostile place, for it has deigned to allow you to exist, and so you will always be provided for. The moment you can bear the most devastating personal tragedy with the same equanimity with which I just vacuumed up that poor spider, you know you've mastered the art of self-soothing. In an infinite Universe we are each at the center, and the pain that you feel when things don't go your way is the same as what others feel when things don't go theirs, or when they go down the drain. And so I promise myself to let the next spider I see live, as long as it does so outside.


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