Life, you’re not meeting expectations

I’ve accomplished and experienced much in my life, things that countless others probably never will. I owned my own business for twenty-seven years, from the time I was eighteen years old. I once won a trip to Hawaii, and, another time, ten-thousand dollars on a lottery ticket. A nationally-renowned author personally selected something I wrote in a contest. I’ve watched a performance from the general manager’s box in the best opera house in the world, and stood on its stage. I’ve met three governors, numerous celebrities, and exchanged a personal gesture with the president of the United States. I built a fabulous house in the best neighborhood in town when I was 25, and owned a million-dollar property on Cape Cod. I’ve been on the radio and television, had my picture in a nation-wide newspaper, and an article written about me in a national magazine. I’ve had several brushes with death, but skirted them every time.

When I look back on some of these occurrences, I find it hard to believe they happened to me, an unassuming, introverted bumpkin from the cultural wasteland of Eastern Connecticut who grew up humbly and relatively unambitious. And yet, in spite of my good fortune, I can’t shake a nagging sense that life has failed to live up to my expectations. What kind of an ingrate am I?

Are my expectations unreasonable? Perhaps I measure a rewarding and successful life by some other criteria? To be sure, there have been undesirable occurrences as well: relationship attempts that never made it past limerence; the loss of pets, friendships, and my only sibling; a permanent disability in my left hand; the eventual loss of my house, business and fortune. Easy come, easy go. Everything is temporary anyway, right? My life’s former successes have been on a downward trajectory for years, and the roller coaster has few highs left. Pessimism has spiked as I’ve gotten older, and there’s not much genuine hopefulness left on the horizon. I look forward to little, save the simple, selfish and temporary pleasures of my favorite shows, music and food. My safe places. There may not be anything wrong with this except that I’m fifty-five, not seventy-five, and am already drawing the curtains. Have I experienced too much too early in life? Am I burned-out, jaded, cynical? Am I having a normal mid-life crisis? Can I even name what might make me happy, or dare hope for it if I could?

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I might wish for a relationship, but I decided a while back that I’m not cut out for one. All attempts have ended quickly, as I don’t seem to know how to not be so damned independent. I don’t know how to be part of another without losing myself. I don’t know how to trust. I’m too selfish. No one would tolerate me. Oh, there are a million reasons, and it’s always seemed easier to just avoid the whole emotional mess, lonely and unfulfilling as it may be.

Were I in the position I might wish to retire and spend time traveling the country. I used to travel a lot and have visited about twenty states, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. I used to be much more adventurous. I used to dine out a lot, go to the theater, get together frequently with friends. I used to have friends. My excursions out of state and to concerts and operas in recent years have all been done alone (hey, I give myself credit for at least having some adventures, solo or not). I haven’t travelled outside New England in sixteen years. It’s been just as long since I’ve dated anyone. I’ve been stuck in a job for ten years that’s not right for me. I’m in both stasis and solitary confinement, a long-term comfort zone that’s not very comfortable. I’m not sure if I’m punishing or protecting myself, but it’s really no way to live.

I have some guesses about the reasons for my existential decline, for giving up early. Some of them are rooted in my unusual personality type, INTJ, which is rather rigid, narrow and unforgiving (of self and others). Suffice it to say that I used to feel like a success, and no longer do. When I was younger, my intelligence and good grades made me feel worthwhile. After I graduated, my business provided me with much of my identity and sense of self-worth, even if I failed miserably at love and relationships (common INTJ pitfalls). Now, working for others, I feel undervalued, insignificant and unfulfilled – a cog, a drone, a lockstep soldier with no individuality or creativity. My youth and boundless energy has turned grayer, fatter and more sedentary. I’m afraid to take risks. My trust is shaken. My outlook has gone from eternally hopeful to hopefully eternal (by that I mean I contemplate death and decline more often, something I rarely gave a thought to before). At some point I started feeling old and unsuccessful, unable to control my destiny and the vagaries of life. I don’t live up to my own expectations.

Is this how most “old” people feel, I wonder? Am I old? How am I going to come to terms with this stage of my life? How am I going to get out of this funk? Many people didn’t wake up this morning, and I’m having a decade-long pity party. So now I can also beat up on myself for being selfish and ungrateful (I’ve always had healthy doses of both. I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy). If anyone reading this wants to slap some sense into me, I’m right there with you.

Any therapist would likely tell me that, to answer an earlier question, I am both punishing and protecting myself. My rigid isolationist exile protects me from others, and others from me. It’s safe and predictable. There is a limited range of feeling and emotion. Not having friends or significant others prevents loss and disappointment. But does it really? I’m disappointed now.

All I know is the clock is ticking, for all of us, and sitting on the bench is no way to live. As I write this I am reminded of a favorite movie from my youth, Dead Poets Society, which I used to strongly identify with. It’s about friendships. It’s about mentors. It’s about being inspired. It’s about coming out of one’s shell, about living and losing and seizing the day (carpe diem!) It features this quote from Thoreau in a particularly heart-wrenching scene that brings tears to my eyes even now:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

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The meaning of life

Socrates

Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” – Albert Einstein

I’m currently taking a philosophy course, which, of course, involves pondering the big questions. Some people don’t concern themselves with such things (they’re the ones blathering on cell phones in the checkoout line). Me, I’ve always pondered life pretty heavily. It’s my nature, and I like it. Sure, it can make me seem a bit arrogant at times – and I suppose I am to a degree – but things have to make sense to me. It’s a classic trait of those with my personality type (“INTJ” on the Myers- Briggs scale, a topic for another time). If it doesn’t make sense to me, I can’t get behind it. This is no doubt why I have so much trouble at work, following the often non-sensical dictums of a corporate retail giant that often doesn’t have a clue as to how things go down in the real world. But I digress…

I found myself criticizing the arguments of Socrates in class this week. Yes, the Socrates, the founder of philosophical thought. The one so famous that he can go by one name, like Cher or Liberace. Everyone in the class was kissing Socratic butt, yet I was finding fault with him (so like me at times!) I figured either I was a genius, or a moron, and the professor would either love me or hate me. But something about Socrates’ arguments just wasn’t making sense, and I don’t care who he is (ha! that’s so like me, too: question authority!).

He was on trial, at age 70, accused of “impiety” (denying the gods of Athens) and of corrupting youth by teaching blasphemous things (like encouraging them to ask questions and not believe everything they’re told). So far, so good. Bogus charges. He mounted his own defense in the courtroom, though many were already against him. You see, he had a habit of going around asking lots of questions that made people really think about their beliefs, convictions and assumptions. Often, this had the unfortunate result of making them look stupid (and Socrates look smart). Not a good way to win friends (the arrogance factor). Yet Socrates was the first to admit that he really “knew” very little, but that he was smart because he was aware of his ignorance while many others were not. Hmmm… OK, that’s a good first step on the road to knowledge, I guess.

Where I started to have trouble was in his claiming one thing, yet seeming to act in a way that suggested he believed something else. He claimed to have no fear of death, arguing that while many see it as a “bad” thing, there is absolutely no evidence of this (something I also have often considered). It may be, he argued, the best thing since sliced bread (which they didn’t have in 400 BC). Yet he was in court defending himself to avoid death (which was the penalty he knew he would get if convicted). So, apparently he was uncertain, which is one reason I didn’t believe his claim to not fear death, or to not be a super smartypants, or several other arguments he made.

Apparently, the jury didn’t believe him either, because they convicted him. He was indeed put to death. This was over 2000 years ago. And at 70, he would have died soon anyway in an age when the life expectancy was much lower than it is now. This got me thinking about the importance we place on things. I used to have a fortune cookie fortune taped to my desk at work that said “will it matter a hundred years from now?” No. It gave me perspective on the dozens of things I could stress out about daily at work. In a hundred years, nobody will remember you or I (well, maybe me, because I’m arrogant and will make something of myself). Seriously, the things we worry about today will not matter one whit in a hundred years, or ten, or even one. Do you remember what you were worrying about a year ago? If you do, does any of it matter now? Probably not – at least not in the same way. Everything is subject to change. Even the thought that any of us “owns” anything is absurd. The possessions you see around you will all likely be gone a hundred years from now, and the ones that aren’t will be “owned” by someone else. Nothing is permanent. “Heaven and Earth shall pass away,” as the good book says, just as everyone who has ever lived has, or will. Personally, I find this quite comforting. Because what we’re all really afraid of isn’t death, but of being alone in it. And you couldn’t ask for more company than the billions of people who have already died ahead of you. If you don’t find that comforting, well, maybe I need my head examined. But FDR was right, you know. About fear.

But this post was supposed to be about life, not death, you say. Well, it is. They’re very related. Did you ever wonder why a baby cries when it comes into the world? I mean, hasn’t that ever struck you as odd? If the world is so great, why come into it all upset and ornery? What kind of way is that to start out the journey? People don’t leave the world making a big fuss like that. No, I think there is something much better outside this realm we call life – always have. I’ve never believed in the concept of hell, except that maybe we’re living it now compared to what lies ahead for us.

There is a teaching at the beginning of “A Course in Miracles” that explains how nothing has meaning in and of itself. Everything in your life – from objects to people’s actions to your dinner last night – has only the meaning you have ascribed to it, and this meaning is based solely on your experiences with those (and other) things. They may mean something totally different to someone else. So, what I’m getting at is (and here we get back to Socrates): ask questions. Examine your beliefs about things. Why do you believe these things? Just because you believe them, does that make them true? What would happen if you believed something else, how might your life and attitudes change? (according to your belief, so be it unto you). Are you even aware that you always have a choice what to believe about things and people (remember, they have no independent meaning, just what meaning you give them). In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, Hamlet comments to his friends that Denmark is a prison. His friends strongly disagree with his assessment, to which Hamlet replies (and this beautifully illustrates my point here, and is one of my favorite quotes) “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (Act II, Scene II). How easily we forget this; that we have a choice how we see things. Even death, the ultimate “bad.”

Which brings me full circle to my stated topic, the meaning of life. My favorite spiritual teacher is Eckhart Tolle, who wrote a most amazing book called “The Power of Now,” a work so profound that I couldn’t read more than a few pages at a time. Every other sentence was packed with such wisdom and mind-expanding thoughts that I had to sit with them for a while. In that book, he says that life has no meaning. We bring meaning to it. This is just like we discussed – things have no meaning in themselves, even life. We give them meaning. That is our power. We are the spin doctors of our lives. Perception is reality. So why are we so nearsighted most of the time?

Alex, could I have “Create Your Own World” for a hundred?