"I can't be trusted. They say, I can't be true. But I only wanted more than I knew"
"It took an hour/maybe a day/but once I really listened/the noise just fell away"
The problem, of course, is that we acquire all these notions and desires. It's not enough to be reasonably content, blessed with kind people around us, and materially sufficient. It's not enough to have a reasonably good mind, discernible skills, and workable hobbies. It's not even enough to obtain the things we thought we would be darned lucky to obtain. We just want more.
It doesn't help, either, that some folks have the simple formulae for how to gracefully accept less. I regularly make saints, prophets and acolytes of people not only of the light-givers of my faiths, but also of those who have no faith, or altogether different faiths than my own faiths. One such set of saints are the "simplicity" folks. These movements insist that voluntary reduction of material consumption is a really good thing. This always strikes my small town Arkansas sense of humour a bit funny, as although my own childhood was in the main spent on the lower lip of the upper middle class, I grew up with solid, bright, good people who lived essentially simple, middle class, well run lives because that was all their resources would permit. Still, the notion of being a bit greener and a bit more mindful by living on a bit less is compelling. It's just that it's yet another, albeit a secular "say this three times and you are one" formula for "the good life". One can want this simple life very much, and yet the goading to want this life, even when it is hard to achieve, can itself turn into one more reason to be dissatisfied. You know, "I chose the simple life but now I'm frustrated because being simple is so darn complicated". I'll never forget the truly admirable simplicity movement advocate I knew personally who probably fit most folks' definition of saintly; still, her affectation was that she continually talked about how complicated her life could be for want of money. Her construct of simplicity always seemed a lot more work than complexity ever could be. The old Skeptic Magazine article trumpeting a poll that rich people in general are happier than poor also comes to mind here somehow.
But my topic is not The Simplicity Movement, or the Greens, or the rich. My topic is the problem of how we derive a whole complex set of notions for how life should be, and how we all spend so much mental energy on notions of what our lives ought to be but aren't.
I perhaps should not generalize this so much; maybe everyone else has a different experience than my own. In my life, I now have many of the things I one day dreamed of having. Yet, though I'm in general a half-full type of guy, once in a while, in a down moment, half-empty occurs to me. It's true that the 40s are more this type of time than any time from, say, late teens through 24 or so. But the thing that "amuses", for want of a better word, is how I can redefine the problem to make my achievements less impressive.
I find over and over in my life that folks I meet define their life's personal problem so that it is unsolvable. Got that college degree? Pretend to yourself it was a piece of cake. Do well in law school? Knock the rank of the school you attended. Get published someplace? Tell yourself 'that's easy, anyone could do it'. Got a good job? Think of someone who makes more money. Make a lot of money? Worry that you sold your soul. Redeem your soul? Worry that you make too little money. I fortunately never fell prey to the common "feel like a fraud" thing, but I sure have had that feeling that every time I achieve my goals, my goals radically shift.
Part of this is healthy. We are goal-oriented creatures. An in-law suggested to me once that one should set oneself material hurdles which are hard to meet. The theory was that career action would then be focused on getting x paid for, instead of worry about the value of the career choice. I don't follow that philosophy at all, but I sure get the notion. The notion is that we all think ourselves to death, and judge ourselves without mercy.
Of course, most of us are reasonably well read, and can quote Lao Tzu or the Buddhist writings. We know to accept the balance, and to find the harmony. But perhaps it is a harbinger of age when one has met so many "harmonized" practitioners who use a rhetoric of mindfulness and live in a reality of deep self-judgment and ambition about material and social matters.
But I wake up and realize I am "burning inside" for some material or social acquisition--oh, nothing picaresque or Erica Jong-ish, but just the day to day "wish I were better at x, wish I had more time with friends, wish I did more to help" type of stuff. We all want to "have it all". I know it is chic to blame this on the media, or our acquisitive American culture, but a cursory reading of literature of centuries past shows this is not new, and is probably a western human commonplace. So many times we don't know what we want, until we have what we want, and then we want more.
Now here, I suppose, I should quote the Dalai Lama, and say I feel much better now, and have resolved this issue. Maybe I could even either raise myself up or attack myself to put a nice coda on things. But I don't really have a simple solution. Doris Lessing once said something to the effect that the great flaw of western culture is the notion that to define a problem is to solve it. Instead of pretending to any solution, I'll just play with it a bit.
Here I am a fellow traveller, for instance, with the New Thought people. New Thought has a real emphasis on appreciating the rightness of what one has, and using a confidence that one can change the things that aren't working now. New Thought goes an extra metaphysical mile about the Great Universal Mind putting a thumb on the scales in a good cause, which isn't really my take. The great universals seem to me to serve higher callings than as my personal home improvement course. But the notion that we should bathe in what does work for us is to me a profound notion. It's just words, of course, and words are not deeds. But it does resonate for me.
Maybe it's naive to count blessings instead of sheep. But I think that many of us are hard-wired for a form of thankfulness. Even those of us who no longer buy the metaphysical constructs and myths attached to that sense of thanks have that place inside that needs to be grateful. That "need", it seems to me, is just as important as the many things we lack but feel we need.
Maybe we need to name what does work, as if we were the first two people on earth naming the animals (silly metaphor, of course, as I can in my mind hear "name him cro-magnon--and get him!"). But I think that the lost art of reckoning goal achievement, instead of merely material things or passionate conquests, is an art worth restoring (of course, passion and money can themselves be goals, of a sort).
I can't really speak for the collective "we", but I can say that this week's project is totaling up wins, and trying to convert personal losses into wins. It's not that I'm keeping score. It's that I need to know I am not losing track. It's not that we need to "love ourselves" more; that's just too ambiguous a phrase. It's not that this will "solve" anything; I doubt it's much in the way of medicine. It's instead that if we are to be truly honest with ourselves, or rather if I am to be truly honest with myself, I must see how well I met my goals, what choices I made, how the choices play out.
I must also see, during that bit of quiet assessment, what I choose now.