Freedom, to me, was always the promise of adulthood. As a child it was easy to imagine the grown-up version of myself living life on my terms. I would pursue happiness whenever it suited me, and have the sort of fun that adults had, whatever that was. In the meantime, I felt it was best to seek my parents’ and teachers’ permission for just about every action I wanted to take. I understood that permission was a privilege, not a right, and with any Yes came a profound sense of freedom. I just needed someone to give that freedom to me.
The Yes, for example, enabled me to play with total presence. I didn’t have to wonder if there was something else I should be doing while I was playing; I just had to play until I wanted to do something else. There was no effect of guilty conscience or regret for how I’d spent my time. That’s the power of permission. And because my mind was completely engaged and free from worry, playing actually felt fun.
At the age of thirty-six, I am more or less an adult. Also, I happen to be self-employed and married to someone who really has no interest in controlling other people (jackpot). I have no one telling me “no.” Ever. And yet, as free-to-be-me as I may be, I have felt more restricted and tethered down in these adulthood years than I ever did as a child. The reason? I have had no one telling me Yes.
I don’t know what happened, but somewhere around the time I got married, I decided to start telling myself no. A lot. I had been playing in three bands simultaneously—saxophone and drums—when I was single. I enjoyed hiking in the woods, had a dangerous, little love for rock scrambling, and an insanely dorky love for writing software in my spare time. I was able to tell myself Yes back then.
Then I got married, and somehow I got it in my head that our marriage, in and of itself, was supposed to supplant all the activities I’d so enjoyed in solitude as a single guy. I thought that’s what marriage was: foisting upon that special someone the entire burden of making me happy. Who needs time alone with a saxophone when there’s a perfectly good wife sitting here on my couch? I thought. Perhaps I ought to stare at her for the next four hours while she tries to read her book, asking her repeatedly, “So, whatcha wanna do?” Gee, why does she seem so annoyed?
It hadn’t occurred to me that Kristen, more than anything, just wanted me to be happy. Not married to someone who makes me happy, just happy, entirely of my own doing, no matter what. That was the sort of guy she wanted to be with, and that's exactly the person I should have been all along. But like a lot of guys who are just trying to be good husbands, I couldn’t possibly accept that marriage was so easy, that a spouse—within reason—could live so freely. After all, what kind of husband comes home from work and plays the drums for two straight hours? What kind of man forsakes the occasional Saturday with his wife so that he can climb the faces of rocks without the aid of ropes or anything invented in the name of safety? The answer, which Kristen has been desperately trying to tell me for the last ten years, is: a happy one.
With that in mind, and having realized that I had abandoned all my personal hobbies for absolutely no reason, Kristen recently gave me a blanket YES to pursuing my own fun and fulfillment—though she couldn’t believe that I felt I needed her permission. Her exact words were, “You should be filling your bucket every day, Dave—it's your job to fill it, no one else’s. I’ve got my own bucket I’m responsible for.”
So, I tried filling my bucket, and as it turns out, I kind of sucked at having fun. It had been way too long since I shut the world out and played with total presence. I sat down at the drums and though I was keeping time I wasn’t connecting to the music. Same went for the saxophone, my hikes, and a pathetic, ill-advised attempt to climb a tree (tall rock faces are in scant supply where we live).
In each activity, I was blocking my own enjoyment with thoughts: How dare I take a break from writing, which is my job, so that I can play the drums, which is not? I should really be spending these thirty minutes with the kids, rather than playing my saxophone. I am a grown man with a mortgage and car payments; why am I sitting in this tree?
Though I’d been given permission by someone to go and play, everything felt empty, and here’s why: the permission to play has to come from within.
More often than we realize, the only person telling us not to have fun is ourself. We think, “What kind of person am I for doing this?” when our happiness really depends on our ability to say, “I owe it to myself to do this.”
Yes, you have bills. Yes, you have a job (or maybe you don’t, and that’s taking a toll on you in untold ways). Yes, you have some fairly weighty obligations to others. But you also have an obligation to yourself—to your health—first and foremost. Maybe there is someone in your life who’s encouraging you to do what makes you happy, and maybe there isn’t. The only permission that liberates, however—the only permission that truly matters—is that which you give to yourself.
So, keeping in mind that I’m not a doctor and have literally zero professional qualifications backing me up, here’s something that you can try. If you’re so inclined, give yourself permission to do one thing today that refreshes your spirit, that fills your bucket. Nothing unlawful, nothing that conflicts with your morals or beliefs—because those things probably don’t fill your bucket, anyway. Just pick something that brings you joy—working out with the music turned up, or having coffee with a friend—and tell yourself, “I’m giving myself permission to do this today. I owe this to myself. No one else can fill my bucket for me.” When you’re done, notice how you feel. You may just feel happy and present, like a child, and empowered, like an adult.
If you'd like to connect with David Finch or read more of his work, you may find him on Facebook (here), or visit his website (here).