It’s funny how we have to learn the same critical life lessons again and again and again. This isn’t a function of aluminum pots or heavy drug use, nor is it a function of subtlety of the lesson or an obtuse personal nature. Something else is at work that makes a person slip up again and again.
Human weakness is undoubtedly a big part of this, as well as social pressure, ego, and the media. But before I carry on with this analysis, I suppose I should describe more clearly what exactly I’m babbling about.
I’m a little embarrassed and even a touch ashamed that I’ve fallen so far; I thought I knew better. I even have a rough draft of a book that describes the foolishness and falsity of consumerism, and how to live a free and independent life, one where self direction rather than consumption defines our reality. I lived for near 8 years aboard our sloop Fainleog, in a lifestyle that was rich, exciting, and yet profound and simple. I realized I needed very little be enormously happy. That life gave me a great deal of free time to write, meditate, ponder and simply be. Yet for a number of complex reasons I left it behind, sold the boat, and fell right back into a fairly mainstream life.
Since moving ashore much of my life has focused on work, money, and getting into debt. There have been tremendous struggles, conflicts as I sunk deeper and deeper into an off-the-shelf typical boomer life. We now drive two cars, live in a downtown condo, go on vacations, support the kids and parents, exchange our lives for cash, and wait to die.
So far this year most of my life has been spent trying to sell assets to pay off debts, and it looks like that’ll continue for several more months. That involves mostly arduous boring dirty grunt work that has no redeeming features beyond the cash they might bring in.
I’m trying hard not to be furious with myself.
Like I said, I knew better. I’ve been down this road so many times in my life, and each time the end result is the same: I lose touch with myself, with who I am, doing work I hate to own shit I really don’t care about. I can honestly say that the only significant possession I’ve ever owned that I’ve felt was worth the cost was my beloved Fainleog, and yet I’ve spend untold months and years living for the almighty paycheque
So how did it happen? Let’s get the obvious over with first: we live in a culture where we are continually prodded into purchasing and consuming. We are surrounded with evidence of excess, wealth, assertions of what “the good life” looks like, and encouraged to link our self-worth and esteem to what we own. That pressure never lets up, and is a continual spiritual headwind. If you don’t feel that pressure almost certainly it’s because you’re going with the flow.
Part is also simple human nature: who doesn’t enjoy shiny stuff? Tropical vacations? Shopping and spending money? And the ease of acquiring credit and fulfilling impulses makes it that much harder resisting.
Stuff is also a great distraction. A great many people I know work not for the joy of it but because they have bills to pay. It’s a hell of a poor way to pass one’s life, and the only compensation for the shitty job is what we can purchase with the cash we trade our lives for. This is a cycle not an event, so the earned cash isn’t usually invested in breaking the chain of servitude, but immediate gratification. Bills are paid, junk food is bought, perhaps a movie and a beer, a Saturday on the beach, and the cycle starts over again. A life distracted from things that carry real meaning.
You might think that for some of us that’s the very best our feeble incomes can provide, that there’s nothing left over for the grand dreams, but I think that’s largely BS, because as most people’s incomes increase, the cycle of earn/consume doesn’t break but the purchasing just becomes more grand. The cars are newer and more expensive, we move from the basement suite into a condo or a house, we start going on more expensive vacations. For most it seems, a consumer lifestyle is the final goal.
My situation is a little different in that the ennui and powerlessness started first, and I attempted to ameliorate that through work and consumption. Those 3 years caring for mom resulting in an emotional shutdown, in which I responded by making money and spending it as a distraction. I was so triggered by her presence I engaged in activities that were external, concrete, and gave tangible rewards. I wasn’t motivated by an intolerable job, but an intolerable home life.
So triggered I also craved a sense of power in the situation, and being able to pay for a tropical vacation for my spouse and kids gave my ego a great big boost. Sure it was a great time travelling abroad and everyone had a lot of fun, but the cost to me was so very high. I really didn’t even want to go, I just wanted them to have the opportunity.
It was important to me that they have the opportunity because I had discovered that when you eschew modern life, turn away from consumerism and live freely and independently, you end up with little to give others besides your wisdom, and that can be very difficult. When we live such a life you are faced with the choice between that precious role as patriarch –of provider and nurturer – or your own happiness and sense of integrity.
I gave up Fainleog to make my wife happy. I brought my mother in my home out of a sense of compassion and responsibility. I’ve gotten into debt for vacations out of a sense wanting the best for others. I’m glad I’ve done those things, yet the consequence makes me miserable. Is this the inevitable doom of the modern man?
Either I’m unique in this misery, or else a crapload of other men are equally so. The worst part of this is that I’ve become largely out of touch, insensitive, preoccupied, I’m less of a father or spouse, less of a citizen – I’ve become far less engaged in politics and activism.
But here’s the thing – research is beginning to show us that happiness and meaning in life are not nearly as closely related as we might assume. In fact they overlap very little. It seems that the more meaningful one’s life becomes the less happy we are, and the more happy, the less meaningful. It’s not hard to see why this could be the case – often what is most meaningful to us involves some kind of difficult effort or struggle. The easy stuff might be fun, but we only pursue the hard stuff when it has some great goal, some overarching import. In other words, meaning. We don’t tend to ascribe a lot of meaning to what takes little effort.
For most of us, we are happy when we are having fun, when we are at peace, when were not struggling, when there’s minimum effort and little stress. Try to imagine something grand and really important you can achieve while so occupied. While happiness can be a part of a meaningful life, it is insufficient in itself. Most of us need high goals, challenges, and especially service to others to find deep meaning.
My time with my mom was miserable, but very meaningful to me. Offering rare and privileged opportunities for my kids and wife is meaningful to me. My own happiness and pleasure –as much as I enjoy it – just aren’t very meaningful, not over the long haul.
I think I’m onto an aspect of the Human Condition, and a paradoxical one to boot. We all want to be happy, and we all want life to have meaning. But these can be opposed to each other. Perhaps the challenge is to find out where along the continuum we want our lives to rest. Some unhappy people sacrifice a great deal to do fantastic works and achieve a lot for humanity, and there are some really happy folks who offer little more than an example of how to be happy. For a long time I was more at the latter end, and now find myself pretty hard over at the other.
Of course, far, far too many are in the unenviable position of possessing neither happiness nor meaning in their daily struggles, and that has to be the worst way to pass through life, an indication that something is terribly wrong.
And it’s not like these are fixed, either. It seems that when we are young most of us are pretty much fixated on the pursuit of pleasure and happiness, and as we age, it begins to shift towards the middle and eventually far over to the realm of meaning as our time begins to run out. Over our lives we (hopefully) learn the spiritual limits of our own happiness and the importance of deep meaning found through service to others.
Perhaps the solution for the best life possible (whatever that means) is a more balanced mixture of the two, where we consciously forgo a certain amount of personal happiness for the sake of others – for the sake of meaning, while restraining somewhat the urge to martyr ourselves to a life of service to high ideals.
Just as an aside I’ve been asked to monetize my blog by a California tech company, by including advertisements for them. I”m tempted because this blog is expensive to host due to the high bandwidth and I’ve been carrying the cost approaching ten years, but I hate how commerce intrudes into all aspects of our lives. Maybe that’s just another universal human truth. For now I intend to decline. Maybe I should install a donate button?