What else are we to do?
Regardless of what I am doing, I find it helpful to ask, “what else would I be doing if I were not doing ___________.” There is a big lag between the big picture questions that we ask and the day to day activities which occupy the vast majority of our time. Reconciling higher ideals and ambitions to low order processes is often more difficult to do consistently than establishing a higher ideal in the first place. A common example of this goes:
Q: What is my higher goal or ambition?
A: I want to love people?
Q: How do I do that?
A: By being nice or kind to people (Whoever said that nice/kind=love should reevaluate)
Q: How am I doing that?
A: By doing the same things I would always do but with a smile and maybe a nice compliment to people.
Or some variation of this. We can agree that this is certainly not bad, however it results in steps that are not really concrete or actionable. When I am considering whether or not my day to day work is aligning with overall goals, it is easier for me to ask, “what else would I be spending my time on?” Often I work until reasonably late at night. In some cases this can be a negative, in others a positive. When I am considering whether it is a negative or a positive I use that question. If the answer is that I would be investing in relationships by having a drink with or helping a friend the extra work is called being a workaholic and is a negative. However if the answer is that time would be spent watching Netflix or staring at my navel (just to make sure its still there-fun fact, sometimes you can see it bounce with the pulse from your abdominal aorta), then the extra work is called ambition and is a positive. By asking a more simple, yet direct question, I am better able to evaluate my use of time, and thus also my priorities. If you ask this question and find a better use for your time, transition to that new task or activity. If you ask this question and find the answer is less worthy of your time, continue in your task knowing you are operating at your optimal already.
The most compelling thing about most stories, whether that be movies, TV series, books, even video games or comics, is that there is a gradual progression that happens within the main character. Stories of fiction and nonfiction both compel us with this transformation. Throughout the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling we see Harry begin as a relatively whiny young boy and become a young man willing to sacrifice himself for his friends. In Lord of the Rings we see a hobbit step out of the comfort of his small village to take a stand against an evil much larger than himself. In Schinder’s List we see Oskar begin as a rather hedonistic businessman to a man who sacrificed his business and his personal wealth to protect his workers. In A Tale of Two Cities we see Sydney give his life for another ending with the famous quote “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known.”
While the adventure and drama within a story are certainly exciting, it is the transformation and growth that compels us to keep coming back to the story. Consider it. Our favorite stories are not the most action packed or even the most well written. They are the ones in which we identify with a character and watch them develop through the pressures and hardships of the story.
The challenge then for us is to grow, to progress through the adventures and the difficulties we face. The greatest failure of any story is to arrive at the end, through all the turmoil and all the strife, and be the same person as the one who began the journey. As dynamic characters in individual stories the adventure is not set, the characters have yet to be filled in. Pick the adventures, roll with the punches, find sojourners to travel with, and let the experiences change you.
Life is hard. Sometimes we make it harder than it needs to be. Actually, often we make it harder than it needs to be. In daily life this can be for a handful of reasons including:
- The sense of the importance of each tasks becomes inflated. Simple tasks like picking up groceries can become stressful if it feels like the success of the days rests on every task. In some sense when the completing the list becomes the ultimate goal completing list can its own stressful task.
- The importance of our role in the task becomes inflated. I always find it funny when I get sick and the world keeps moving just fine. Progress is still make, nothing falls apart, and sometimes, people barely notice I’m not there. Humbling and relieving at the same time.
- The amount that we can affect the outcome becomes inflated. Sometimes watching stats in real time, whether that be a sports game, election results, or stock prices, it seems like I can push result one way or another by elevating my blood pressure. That is, that the more I stress about an outcome the more likely it is to come out in my favor. In reality many of these things are unalterable by my actions. Understanding how much influence we have on the outcome is key to how much pressure we feel.
The point is that many things in life ARE difficult. So let’s save the heavy lifting for those instances and do our best to enjoy the other adventures that come our way.
Marx is often quoted as saying “Religion is the opiate of the masses.”
More accurately and articulately he said:
“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of people is the demand for their real happiness.”
Regardless of your thoughts on religion, whether organized or not, hopefully a common goal is the abolition of illusory happiness and the demand for real happiness. Most will agree that opium is not a problem when it is used appropriately for acute relief of pain in a self-limiting environment. However it becomes a great evil when it is used for escape and becomes an addiction. Unfortunately even amid the recent scourge of the opioid epidemic in America there is an easier, often encouraged form of illusory happiness and escape from reality. Media, whether that be TV shows, social media, creative forums, news outlets, games, or movies, provides an escape. Who hasn’t started watching TV or scrolling through facebook and realized several hours had passed in short order. While this is absolutely better than shooting up with heroine from a shared needle, the desire to escape reality through artificial happiness through digital media can be just as easy. Considerations of our place in this world, our goals for our lives, and the plight of those around us are easily drowned out by the noise of media. (As I am writing this I am surrounded by three screens with news and medical queries demanding to be read, so this is as much a reminder to me as to anyone else).
Especially during busy weeks I have tried to begin to consider the why behind my use of media. Why am I pulling out my phone? Am I expecting an email or phone call? Why am I watching this show? Is it because I enjoy the story or because I don’t want to think about more serious things in the time before bed. Why am I scrolling through social media? Is it to connect with and encourage others or is it to try to see where my life ranks in relation to theirs? Why am I looking through ads online? Is it because I actually need something or is it in the hopes that a creative advertiser will convince me a new product was the element my life was lacking?
To the end of the abolition of illusory happiness and the demand for real happiness, let us be mindful of what we invest our time and our talents in before they become an addiction we cannot overcome.
Make your own compass, find your own north star.
Two books, read in combination, make this poignant point. In Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis, Martin Arrowsmith, a medical student who becomes a physician and a scientist struggles between the pursuit of scientific rigor, treatment of suffering patients, and the expectations of society around him. In Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, Dagny Taggert rejects artificial notions of altruism to pursue what she loves for her own enjoyment. Warren Buffet refers to this compass as an internal scorecard (see The Snowball by Alice Schroeder). The internal compass is not a fixed or unalterable construct; rather the internal compass provides direction when the easiest course of action is to follow the applause of the mob. Like a dog chasing its tail or a compass in an MRI machine, with the ever changing preferences of the audience no progress can be made. In any direction one will find a plethora of critics and yes men, supporters and detractors, comrades and enemies. The internal compass is not a rejection of absolute truth but a rejection of the noise as a way to find that truth. In life the compass is adjusted by new events, new experiences, and new knowledge, but never by the roar of the crowd. Having an internal compass means that the applause of others does not signal the finish line and that the jeers of the mob do not mean that one is going in the wrong direction. Develop this compass, adjust it as you discover more, trust its direction, and follow it home.
Movement is only progress if it is towards the goal.
Make your own compass, find your own north star.