I feel like I could go for a good cry right now.
We humans are a fascinating set of contradictions. Life can be exhilarating and excruciating in almost the same moment, simply within the confines of our own minds.
Have you ever heard of the popular activity of gratitude practice? I could easily write a list of the many, many things I am grateful for at this moment (and I wouldn’t be exaggerating). The idea of this practice is to program your brain, through repetition, to focus on the good things and, in doing so, alter your reality to be more positive. It works, to a certain extent.
That is, until the moment I start thinking about the things I want in life that it seems I can’t have; not just superficial things, but life goals that seem just outside my grasp. Then we come to a fork in the road.
The calm, patient, Buddhist part of me says, “Don’t worry about it! What we have here and now is good, right, and wonderful. Don’t fall into the trap of creating suffering by dwelling on the desire for things to be other than they are.”
An immediate response, the driven, goal-oriented part of me says, “That’s crazy talk! Don’t be complacent; don’t waste time. We can change this. Take action! The things holding us back must be vanquished and overcome.”
This is one of the greatest contradictions in most self-help work, from Stoicism to Buddhism to many other modern philosophies: the tension between accepting things as they are (oneself included) and striving for improvement. These agendas – the Content Observer and the Intent Achiever — can be in conflict, but they can also coexist peacefully.
Or can they? In my case, peacefully seems far too generous a description. Even when I can look at both of these personalities from “30,000 feet,” so to speak, they don’t behave just because I’d like them to. In fact, each aggressively blames the other for all my problems.
Once the argument starts, the Achiever usually has the upper hand. It argues that, if I truly wanted the Observer to win, it wouldn’t be so difficult; I could simply choose absolute apathy toward my future circumstances and simply focus on present-moment appreciation. I could just smell the flowers until I waste away to nothingness. But, do I really want that? Apparently not, or this would be easy.
Worse, one of them has a trick up their sleeve—and I don’t know which one, or perhaps this is their most devious collusion yet—that says that following the Achiever’s advice is not only creating the very suffering that the Observer warns about, but, in addition, actively sabotaging the likelihood of getting what I want by rushing things and not allowing events to progress at their appropriate pace.
This is where the torture really begins: not only is there the difficulty of trying to decide which voice offers the better advice, but there is the constant fear that, regardless of which one I choose, in doing so I am complicit in the undermining of my own goals. It’s a nearly impossible conundrum and leaves me feeling approximately like this:
It might be different if I could see my personal goals getting closer instead of seemingly farther and farther away. In spite of internal achievements that the Observer enjoys noting (introspective learning, improving skills, and gaining appreciation for more of the world), the Achiever critically cites numerous failures: the distance from the people I’d like to meet or spend more time with, doubts about my ability to usefully contribute what I’ve learned to others, and how I’m falling behind on limited-opportunity life milestones (such as building relationships, starting a family, and achieving financial stability).
A glimmer of hope appears as I remember how easy it is to look at the rest of humanity and see that a very large number of us are in the same boat. Even those who have appeared on track with such milestones at certain points have often suffered at the whims of fate to see them crumble in an instant. I’m not the only one struggling, and, even if I weren’t struggling, success is no guarantee for the future.
But, it doesn’t keep the biological clock from ticking. Pressure mounts again, and the brief hope falters as I only grudgingly press forward.
I think about my vision. I can’t simply give it up. And yet, it seems to be ruining my daily life as it stands. Finally, I remember that, as a secular humanist, I get a certain comfort from the fact that, when everything ends someday, none of this will matter (see “heat death of the universe”). There is no such thing as wasted time, because all time will ultimately amount to nothing. We just get to try, and the chance to try is the thing to be most grateful for.
And, just like that, the Observer takes the reins again. Whew! Suddenly it feels like a moment of peace… And yet, in the long run, I suspect it’s going to be a bloody battle after all.
Wednesday Suggestion: Gratitude for “The Chance to Try”
I’ve spent a lot of time doing gratitude practices (for example, the Five Minute Journal, which involves writing down three things you’re grateful for every day). But, when finding myself in the mental quagmire I have lately, that hasn’t seemed sufficient.
Today, I’d like to focus on being grateful for “the chance to try” as the bridge between the “Content Observer” and “Intent Achiever” mindsets. It mercifully detaches any outcome from the process of exerting effort to change one’s circumstances, alleviating the fear of making mistakes (which few of us have otherwise conquered).
See how this resonates with you, especially if you are in a mental rut. Instead of 1) trying to focus on merely accepting things as they are or 2) buying into the internal gremlin story that failure to achieve your goals makes everything pointless, consider that 3) the pointlessness of everything is itself what frees you up to pursue your goals without penalty for failing. If that sounds a little crazy, even better; sometimes a good laugh at the human condition is just what we need to get our s