Life is a whole lot of things all smooshed together. You can literally quote me on that.
It’s cruel, beautiful, harsh, joyful, mysterious. Sometimes it smells like herb roasted chicken. Other times it stinks of piss. Sometimes it’s just hilarious (I like that bit) and you want to keep laughing until your eyes dessicate, but it’s also a real bitch who’ll slap you hard in face without warning and then tweet to the whole world a red-faced picture of you in tears, with the comment “Stop attention seeking you prissy little cry-baby.”
I’m all for prodding into dark corners, so let me take some of the fundamental truths of life—these are some harsh truths you’d probably prefer to ignore—and smoosh them all up in your face like a chicken and piss pie.
You’re not immortal
Well done. You’ve lived long enough to read this article.
But today could be the day you keel over, emit your last pillow of intestinal gas and die.
We go about our lives as if they’ll just keep on going, day after day after day. And for the most part they do, until it doesn’t any more.
You know you’re going to die someday, of course you do, but the reality of your own mortality is one that your brain has a really hard time processing. Think of it like Justin Bieber trying to understand how the Large Hadron Collider works, or the Large Hadron Collider trying to collide particles of Justin Bieber together to discover how he got here.
Your brain can’t really fathom your own mortality, so it feels like you’ll be around forever. You assume that there’s time for things to work out. You think that there’s time to hit your stride. You think that there’s time for your life to come into focus.
But time is literally running out. You know how quickly the last five years raced by? The next five will be even quicker.
While this sense of being around forever is an illusion engineered by your brain, there is a genuine opportunity to make a difference while you’re here.
You’re not important
You’re the protagonist in your own story, like a less magical Harry Potter or a less murdery Hannibal Lecter.
You go about your life from behind your own eyes, perceiving the things that happen, processing the events you observe, assimilating learnings and dealing with shit when it inevitably hits the fan. All of this shenanigans is done as “you”.
Thing is, you’re just one among 7 billion others, each of whom do exactly the same thing. Wake up, do stuff, go to sleep. Whine about things. Laugh at people on YouTube. Worry about ageing. Feel pain. Make sweet love. Eat pudding. Sometimes all those things at once.
People don’t really care about what you do, what you think or what you do. They’re too busy with their own stuff to notice.
This sense of “I” as the most important piece of your world is just fine in some regards. It’s the thing that stops you jumping off the roof because flying looks fun or chopping off your own fingers to make pinky sausage.
But with it can come self-importance, the very thing that the Buddhists and Eckhart Tolle’s out there seek to let go of in order to find a more universal truth.
So here’s the universal truth (thanks for your work Eckhart and Buddhism, but I got this one):
You make the decisions
There are easy choices, like what to have for breakfast, where to live, what job to take, how to take care of yourself and what to jokingly call your private parts (in my case, I call them Stephen and the Twins).
Then there’s the stuff that’s beyond your control, like being laid off, a house fire or losing a loved one. I’m guessing you wouldn’t go out of your way to decide to have something awful happen, but there’s a choice present in every circumstance you find yourself in.
Yep, every single one.
I have an incurable, chronic, debilitating illness, for example. And I made the choice to partner up with it like we’re in some kind of Walter Matthau / Jack Lemmon caper movie.
You get to choose how you deal with grief, how you deal with people, how you see your story or a million other things.
Oh, it would be remiss of me not to mention that fact that letting somebody else decide for you, or the decision not to make a choice are still your decisions, even though it’s easier to think they’re not. You’re welcome.
Making decisions is the mechanism for living a life full of texture and colour. And if that makes you uncomfortable about the choices you’ve already made or scared about the choices yet to come, then good.
They’re all yours. Don’t fight them.
You’ll never have the answers
Answers are like socks. They make you feel all comfy and warm at first, but over time they wear out ’til you’re needing a new set, and then some days you just can’t find the damn things no matter how hard you look.
There’s so much value placed on getting the right answers, and let me take a moment to apologise on behalf of the personal development industry for our part in that. Sorry. We fucked that up a bit.
Answering questions like how do I know what’s right?, what if I choose wrong? or how can I be sure? become goals, and we pursue answers to them like reaching for a mythical cherry atop a cake of self-mistrust.
The irony in telling you that answers don’t matter while attempting to provide some answers isn’t lost on me. What can I say, life is weird like that. But the truth is that testing and learning is more important than finding answers. Otherwise you may as well be collecting beer labels or contemplating what your butt-hole wants for breakfast.
So let’s hear it for exploration without having answers.
You’ll never make it
Over the last few decades, success has been elevated in the West to the point where it’s idolised and worshipped. You may have heard of the classic Yale University Class of 1953 study, where researchers surveyed the graduating seniors to determine how many of them had specific, written goals for their future. 3% of them had done just that. Twenty years later, researchers polled the surviving members of the Class of 1953 and found that the 3% with goals had accumulated more personal financial wealth than the other 97% of the class combined.
Since then, industry has sprouted up around the notion of success (Zig Ziglar, Brian Tracey, Anthony Robbins and many more all quote the Yale study in their work) and people are hungry for it. If I can just make it, then I’ll be set, people think.
Only, the Yale study is complete bollocks. It never took place.
Yale University Research Associate Beverly Waters carried out an exhaustive search of the archives and found no evidence that such a study had ever been conducted. Says Waters, “We are quite confident that the ‘study’ did not take place. We suspect it is a myth.” Being vehemently anti-goal myself, I can’t tell you how pleased I was to discover this.
“Success” and “making it” imply an end point to your efforts, a point at which everything pays off when you can lie back and have your staff feed you grapes, wash your feet in champagne and tell you how gorgeous you look when you wallow in smug self-satisfaction.
But no matter how impactful you become, how many dollars are in the bank or how many lives you touch, you’re still you. Your issues are still your issues and your shit is still your shit. For all we know, Oprah’s terrified of odd numbers, Richard Branson has intimacy issues and George Clooney is bald as a coot.
Those things probably aren’t true (or are they?), but you’re never “done” and you can’t outrun your issues. This is why Hollywood stars come crashing down and why it’s widely found that winning the lottery has no impact on long-term happiness.
The real gold, I strongly suspect, is in engaging and connecting in ways both meaningful and nourishing. And to me, that sounds like a hell of a lot more fun too.