Sunday, February 16, 2014

What do I know about Life? Not Much.



The goal of life 
is to make your heartbeat 
match the beat of the universe, 
to match your nature 
with Nature.

- Joseph Campbell


All my life I’ve tried hard, worked hard. Something inside has driven me to pursue my goals or what I believed was right.

These are some of the beliefs that motivated me:

  • I must honor my responsibilities,
  • If I want things in my life such as the ideal job, social life, and romantic partner I need to get really clear on what I want, write out steps towards those goals, and then take the steps,
  • If I just try hard and keep a positive attitude, all good things will come to me in time,
  • It is a certainty that I will find my life partner, it’s just a matter of time,
  • If I am honest and live with integrity, the truth will out and I will be vindicated,
  • If I work hard I don’t need to toot my own horn; ultimately my efforts will be recognized,
  • If I play fair in response to being unfairly attacked, others will notice and appreciate that I have taken the higher road,
  • Hard work is the only route to achievement,
  • A life without challenge is a wasted life,
  • If I keep trying for the things I want, eventually I will get them,
  • I must always do “the right thing to do;” and I will be rewarded for this,
  • The most important goal in life is to live authentically, and the route to that is careful self-examination and strident efforts at self-improvement,
  • There is some force in the world that is helping to guide my life and make sure that things work out.


I don’t believe these things anymore.

As a young adult I was swept up in the “positive affirmation” movement, which insisted that “thought manifests:” whatever I think will come true – think negatively, and negative things will come into my life; think positively, and positive things will come into my life. More than that, with positive thinking I will achieve an abundance of riches in my life. The only barrier is the tone of my internal dialog.

I spent hundreds of dollars that I couldn’t afford going to trainings and learning a language that made it hard to relate to folks who weren’t also attending these trainings. I relentlessly created lists to help define my ideal job, partner, friends, home, and bank account. I uttered affirmations, prompted by notes left everywhere, morning noon and night. I looked for meaning in the smallest things; if a train made me fifteen minutes late, I was certain there was a reason for it: a spiritual reason, intended just for me.

The reality of my life was that I was a young adult with a young child, I was an emotional wreck after leaving an abusive relationship, and we were incredibly poor. My life was rather desperate. And yet this philosophy I had taken on insisted that the only thing keeping me from extraordinary riches was my own thoughts. In other words, I was the only one to blame for being a poor, single, depressed mother; and the solution was so incredibly simple anyone could do it.

Positive affirmations did not get me out of this desperate situation. In fact these beliefs brought me to the darkest time in my life.

While I broke off abruptly with this spiritual group, many of the philosophies lingered in my subconscious. And they combined well with those I’d learned as a child: hard work and persistence are rewarded. Always.

Hard work and persistence have defined my life.

There is very little in that list that I believe anymore. I do believe that if I live with integrity, honor my responsibilities, and work hard, I will feel better about myself. But I no longer believe that these are the keys to bringing abundance into my life. There are no guarantees. Of the people in this world who work hard from birth to death, far more live in poverty than live in wealth. Not everyone finds the love of their life. Sometimes people find the love of their life, only to lose them to death. People die in accidents before they are able to fulfill their responsibilities, before they are able to achieve their potential, before getting to the best parts of their life.

I have plentiful examples of liars, manipulators, and egoists stepping on me and others on their climb to the top. They are rewarded while the rest of us who are working diligently, fairly and honestly, are overlooked.

I have gone to workshops, written out all my limiting internal thoughts that might prevent me from achieving success, drafted the criteria for those things I want in my life, created my “treasure map” collage, come up with steps and doggedly taken those steps.

Trying to gain a sense of community in the places I lived while rangering, I joined book clubs, writing groups, volunteered, went on group hikes, and participated in open social gatherings.  As time went on and I failed to achieve the social life I craved, it became harder each time to walk out my front door. I would push myself, make promises like, “you only need to stay 15 minutes, that’s all.” I had quotas such as a minimum of two social outreaches each week. And yet social fulfillment escaped me.

My goal of becoming a ranger was certainly my ultimate career pursuit. I have never worked so hard pursuing a career, then trying to be the best ranger I could be, then struggling to stick with it when it seemed everything was a struggle. Never have I worked harder. Initially I was driven by my lifelong desire to become a park ranger. While raising my son and holding down more pedestrian and lucrative jobs, I yearned for the freedom to do what I really craved. That kind of desire, long denied, can be a powerful motivator. And once I became a park ranger, I was also motivated to prove wrong those who did not think I had what it took. And after things became so very hard, I was unwilling to give up in such a way that I would feel like a failure. All very strong motivators.

But what have I learned? Hard work, honesty, integrity, these things don’t guarantee you anything. Living life “right,” trying to be a better person, this doesn’t guarantee you anything either. People who work hard, are honest and compassionate, don’t necessarily find the love of their life; some of them meet an early death; some of them live out their lives struggling to pay the rent; and some of them are taken advantage of by others. These things I know.

I suppose belief in Heaven might come in handy here, believing that my efforts in this life would ultimately be rewarded in the hereafter. But I don’t believe in this. How could I believe in a Heaven when Life can be so cruel and unfair?

How many times have I pushed myself to do something I didn’t want to do, because I believed it was the right thing to do? Too many times to count. It was my way of life.

And now, it’s as if I reached a point of saturation where I am longer able to push myself to do something that doesn’t feel good in the moment. Unfortunately this includes exercising, passing up the bowl of chocolates on my coworker’s desk, meditating, even getting outside to stretch my legs and breath in the fresh air.

In probing why I seem to have no will anymore, I realized that I cannot imagine a time when I will again have that internal drive to push myself for something in life. Because after more than four decades of trying that, I have concluded that pushing isn’t the road to success. Why push myself through minor discomfort (of sitting still, or doing 20 minutes of cardio), when I don’t believe that I have the means to create a life I love?

I can only conclude that I don’t understand how Life works. I don’t understand what I want in my life; I certainly don’t understand what I must do to reach for the life I want.

I have seen examples of people whom I believe have a realistic view of Life, and its inherent indifference. And yet they are satisfied with their lives. They focus on things that are important: friends, community, a love of roses, or building model airplanes, or reading mystery novels. They still do many things that are not particularly enjoyable: going to work every day, chores, taking out the garbage, taking the bus because they can’t afford to fix their car.

But I have also seen examples of people who seem to wrest so little pleasure from life. They hate their job, seem irritated by their spouse, don’t have any hobbies, and appear to move through each week waiting for the weekend, in an endless rush to their death.

What a shame it would be, what a waste, if I were to find myself at the end of my life without having found a way to find pleasure and contentment from Life.

So many things I know that are not true about Life. What do I know that is true about Life?

  • I know that I love my son and feel immense satisfaction at having him in my life.
  • I know that I feel a special closeness to my nieces, nephews, and daughter-in-law. Thinking of them fills me with a sense of love and a desire to be there for them when life is hard.
  • I know that I love animals, often more than I love people. I love them for not destroying our planet, for their beauty, for their loyalty and zest for the moment.
  • I know that I am awed by the strength, beauty, and resiliency of the Natural World. I love that a view of a misty lake can take my breath away, that the sight of sunlight streaming through trees in a forest can leave me speechless, that the layered colors of the ocean at sunset can mesmerize me.
  • I know as well that Nature can be ruthless, violent and deadly; all while being spectacularly beautiful. I know that in the natural world life comes and goes, that a single life is not measured so much as the ebb and flow of Life and Death. I know that beautiful, graceful animals are killed and eaten to sustain beautiful, powerful creatures. I know that the young often die. I know that these things happen without an accounting system: concepts such as “deserve,” “reward,” or “fair” do not exist. Life simply is. Death is the inevitable conclusion of a single life, though the timing and circumstances are not known beforehand. Species of plants and animals also have a lifespan, and over time many species will die as well. But Life carries on. There was a time before humans, and there will be a time after humans.
  • I know that the gazelle being chased by the cheetah has a surge of adrenaline and fear, just as humans do when faced with danger. And it is only our unnatural existence, so separated from the forces of Nature, which can get our brains stuck in the trauma. Animals in the wild literally shake off their trauma and resume their lives (Dr. Peter Levine).


Does the gazelle experience joy or contentment with life? I can imagine there are times the sun is shining on the plains and the grasses she is eating are tender and juicy, surrounded by her kind, that she feels something akin to contentment. When she lifts up her head to sniff the air, and breathes in the sweet fragrance of springtime, perhaps she feels something similar to joy.

What do I know? Life goes on, even while species, and individuals, ultimately must die. I know that even in the midst of tragedy, there is beauty. I know that struggling against the laws of Nature will only bring frustration and failure.

So from here, where?

I know that spending time in the natural world is always healing to me. I soak up its beauty. I am reminded that today’s troubles are finite and brief in the scheme of things. I am reminded that there is beauty even in death.

Perhaps it is time that I cast off the goals of our very unnatural and artificial society. Perhaps it is time to become a student of nature, to pay attention and learn what it is to be in tune with the natural order of things. Perhaps it is time to stop asking myself, “What kind of life partner do I want? What kind of dream job do I desire?” and start asking myself, “How can I live a life that is more in accord with the natural world?”

For now, I have almost no idea what that means, how that would look. Perhaps my diet would focus more on seasonal and local foods. Perhaps spending a little time outside every day to be a part of whatever the weather and the season brings. Perhaps finding a community garden where I can be reminded of the turning of the seasons, and what it is to dig into the soil, and to coax out of it plants that will someday feed me. Perhaps when I am confronted with difficulties, I can try to find the parallel in the natural world; and if there is no parallel, perhaps I can take comfort in the artificiality of the difficulty.


Dear Reader, what things do you do to feel more in tune with nature? How do you take comfort when our unnatural human society seems particularly artificial and ridiculous?





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