The best is yet to come. A cheery proclamation about the future or a silent hope for things to come. Whether on greeting cards, in graduation caps, or lyrics in a song, the statement expresses the sentiment that warmer, sunnier things are on the horizon.
But what about when the best is behind us? When all we can see, to put it morbidly, is a slow slide into the abyss? For everything, there will be the day when we hit our peak, when we ran our fastest mile, wrote our best piece, or put together our most beautiful art. If striving is the base state of being a human, where does this leave us when the best has come… and gone? As cheerful as springtime with the promise of good weather and good times can make us, so the slow darkening of days, falling of leaves, and cold weather can also cast the dampening gloom. And this decline is not simply one for old age, but a continuing cycle of declines throughout life. The best gymnasts and football players often hit their primes in their teens or twenties. Triathletes or runners often in their thirties. Your best cholesterol levels and healthiest weights were probably as children. The most productive career years for many come early in their careers.
The response to this inevitable decline can be diverse. One option is, in the words of the poet, to rage against the dying of the light. We can become bitter, sad, and mournful. Slightly better, we can take the stoic option and endure. On the other hand, we can find new things to pursue that we can still improve at. We can contentedly reflect on the glory days. We can live vicariously through others. We can make the joy of the activity the object instead of the outcome. Even if it isn’t our fastest mile perhaps it can be the most fun. It becomes healthy for our goals and values to change. Status symbols, prizes, and awards give way to quality time, personal bests, and brand new pursuits. Like a good hike up a mountain, the path up is enjoyable for the challenge, the struggle to catch your breath, and the burning in your legs. The brief pause at the top is memorable and well worth the climb. On the way down you can breathe easily and talk while viewing your surroundings. The journey then is defined by transitions. From ascent to descent, and from trail to trail. Certain aspects of each portion of the journey are far better but there is a valuable and enjoyable component unique to each.
Be purposeful. Be flexible. Journey well.
There have been several mentions in popular media and news outlets referring to the actions of several current people being on the wrong side of history. They might be right. They could also be wrong. It is important to remember that history will judge the actions of today based on the values of tomorrow. It is very easy to look down upon those who owned slaves in America or supported the Nazis in Germany. It is easy to say that we would have acted differently than the people of that era. It is easy to say that we would run into a burning building or give the last of our food to help someone else. It is an entirely different thing to actually act in such a manner. The generations to come are a fickle audience, with the benefit of hindsight and the presumption that they have learned from our mistakes. Those who have stood out as heroes in bygone eras have done so by acting practically in the present, with provisions for coming generations, and a keen internal compass allowing them to weather the barrage of the criticism and hardship in the present.
The opposite of the strong internal compass is the self-esteem crowdsourcing the current atmosphere of social media has created. This method exposes us to the buffets of the judgments of others and the swirling currents of popular opinion. Encouraging generations of exemplary human beings requires a resistance to popular opinion in deference to the internal compass. Crowdsourcing our self-esteem prevents the formation of this internal compass during the formative years and replaces it instead with a superficial morality and character that are based, not on hard-won beliefs and values, but on the positive and negative feedback of acquaintances who may or may not actually care. At the end of the day, at the end of your life, being on the right side of your social bubble, or even history, is far less important than being at peace that you are sailing in line with your compass.
Polarization and extremism in the political spectrum. There seems to be the popular notion that the ‘other’ side of the aisle, the other side of the political spectrum is the problem, the most dangerous thing to progress and the current state of affairs. However this seems patently incorrect. Extremism, on either side of the spectrum, left or right seems to be the most dangerous thing. In a recent conversation with a well educated but misinformed scientist, he asserted that the worst thing that happens with left wing extremism is “a bunch of hippies getting high”. Within the last century the Soviet Union under Stalin and the People’s Republic of China under Mao are examples of far left political ideologies which rapidly generated a higher body count and levels of oppression than a big bag of weed. However, just because these far left governments were, to put it lightly, far from ideal, does not mean that a far right government is a good idea either. Germany under Hitler and Italy under Mussolini are two of the worst examples of behavior from the far right. This is the point of democracy. To prevent extremism by individuals in either direction. To use the numbers and the might of all the individuals in the population to counter bad behavior on both sides. Political wellbeing should not be thought of a game of tug a war but a seesaw. Instead of dragging others as far as we can to one side, our goal must be, as a large population, to congregate slightly to one side or another of center in order to balance out the nuts on the far edges. And there are certainly nuts on both sides.
Do you need an audience? Is perfection, is excellence the goal because your best is the only thing that will satisfy you or is excellence relative to those around you.
The people we consider great have very little in common with one another. The one thing that all of them have is an internal compass, a north star within themselves to find their way despite the fickle nature of the opinions of the mob around them. Both the cheers and heckles are equally untrustworthy.
As yourself if you require the cheers of the crowd or whether you privately revel in knowing your best was all you had. I have mentioned this previously, but it is worth repeating. The phrase “just do your best” has been hijacked and distorted. It has become an excuse for not winning, for taking some of the pressure off of meeting a more objective goal such as a place in a race or a score on the test. “Just do your best.” There should be, there can be, no higher bar than that. What this phrase says is that you leave it ALL on the floor. That at some point you fail, not because the effort was absent but because the personal limit of possible and impossible had been reached. “Just do your best.” That is call to be exhausted at the end of the day. That is the desire to keep going even when there is no one else above you to beat you and no contest to measure your worth. “Just do your best.” That is the internal compass that only you can read, meaning that you and you alone are the only one who will ever know if you are truly at your best. Your mediocrity may look like another’s excellence. Or your excellence may look like some else’s mediocrity. “Just do your best.” This says that it does not matter if your best is below average or so far above the best that no one else could hope to beat you. You are the goal. You are the measure. And only you will know when that goal has been reached. Your internal compass is all the audience you require. The cacophony of any audience is then, superfluous.
There is a quote that roughly goes “the heroes of today can only be revealed tomorrow.” Playing for the favor of the mob is not the way to find truth, happiness, or fame. Rather it is a sure way to lose yourself amidst the contradictory and competing advice.
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.
The endless stream of information being fed to us is overwhelming. New entertainment, narratives, and news stories are being uploaded at a rate that outpaces any hope of ever taking it all in. Up until recently the great limitation was the availability of information. However, now not the amount of information but the interpretation and packaging of that information is what ultimately determines how people consume the media and allow it to affect them. One of the problems now is that we can pick and choose. We can pick stories that confirm what we already believe instead of being confronted by opinions that differ from our own. We can pick content that entertains rather than informs. We can decide what we would like to know and can remain ignorant of inconvenient facts. With all of the information available to us today we absolutely should struggle with the issues facing our culture, mourn the loss experienced by those around the world, and plan wisely with how the earth is changing around us. However the opposite of this is also true. We have an endless supply of terrifying stories to choose from. There are continuous natural disasters, a constant threat of new wars, and uncertainty in the environment and the economy. One could easily sit at home, surf the web and repeat “this is bad” until one of those bad things hit close to home. Our responsibility is to engage with the serious issues of the day while maintaining our balance and perspective. Those who keep their critical minds and comical spirits through even the most troubling times are a benefit to themselves as well as to those around them. So while we do have a dictator gaining nuclear power, social unrest and discrimination at home, an endless salvo of hurricanes on our southern coast, famine in other continents, problems of addiction in our communities, on top of our own personal travails, nonetheless we must limit our stress to only those things in which we can affect change and allow the others to pass. This is not a call to ignorance or push away from unhappiness, rather a push toward change in a select number of instances instead of despair at the ocean of misfortune in the world. Start where you are, to do what you are able.