You are enough
How much time have you wasted wishing for more opportunity, better stuff, better relationships, better vacations? Has all that wanting diminished you ability to be present and happy in the moment? Are you seduced by the hollow rewards of social media likes, career advancement, and luxury lifestyles? Could you appreciate your life, exactly as it is?
As an adult we grow out of our childhood habit of crying when we don't get something that we want. But as adults, do we fall prey to the trap of obsessively wanting something better than we already have? The desire that somehow feels bigger or more urgent than what actually exists in our lives.
What if what you have is enough?
For most of human existence, staying alive was enough. Longing for something else was just part of existence. We were just happy to be here: if there was something that we couldn’t have we could just deal with it, come to terms with it very quickly and move on. Today, if it feels like we don't fit in some how or we’re not happy that's treated almost as if it is a moral failure.
Where does this pressure to be living our best lives come from ?
Sometimes it's hard to track where this stems from because it's so present both within us and all around us. It's in our homes and it's coming at us from every direction when we leave our house. It's also coming from inside us because we ingest the same messages from our culture over and over again. Our culture has become largely poisonous because it focuses us on distractions and escape and the promise of a better life as long as we can improve ourselves every day. Those promises and those distractions lead us to sever our relationship with ourselves. They sever our ability to appreciate our lives in the moment.
What is it that we want so much of?
The short answer is everything. The structure of our lives is pretty much determined by our high capitalist society. In this system, we are taught two things: that we need more at all times, and that our longing is not just a simple animal drive to survive, but instead is directed towards things that we can buy in order to make our lives better. Our longing then becomes something that we need to fix by having more things. We are also taught that we satisfy that longing by buying more, by being more, by seeming more to other people.
It is as if we are products to other people, as polished as something you might buy.
We naturally experience all of this noise in our heads as not being good enough, not being polished enough, because an animal (and we are still so at a basic level) has a really hard time being a product. We experience the acute emotions associated with longing and of self-consciousness about not being a polished product. We have internalised the experience of this gap as its own kind of moral failure, as if somehow we are failing to live up to normal adult human experiences.
Are we being directed to become humans that look and seem happy rather than actually experiencing happiness?
For many in modern life, our only experience of what it means to be a happy human being is mediated to us through social media like Instagram or images of that celebrity looking perfect before they go to the gym, or an image of that gorgeous celebrity couple looking in love on a 50 foot billboard. We are so good at selling the image of the idea of happiness that it's difficult to experience anything other than envy when looking at such images. We are also at the same time so far removed from what it might be like to be that person in that image that we assume that these fantasy people don't experience the same sensations and longing, or the jitteriness or self-loathing that we do as normal human beings. When we spend so much time among these imagined images, when we spend so much time swiping this imaginary happiness that you can't experience, but belongs to other people, combined with a modern news media feeding us a palpable sense of dread and doom in a non-stop cycle directly into our consciousness, this becomes a recipe for severe dislocation of the self.
The extreme longing that we experience as a result of this is wrapped up in the sense that somehow, “I am doing something wrong, I am the one who is failing”. It is a dominant part of our cultural narrative that there are winners and losers; the winners are achieving greatness, the losers are not. they obviously did something wrong if they are not great. This is the moment that we are living in.
This brings us to a place where we tell people who are very ill that a positive mental attitude may somehow make them feel better, along with the corresponding attitude that if we are not well, if somehow our lives are not going well, then we only have ourselves to blame. It's interesting and disturbing to think about how much we are held accountable for things that are beyond our individual control. In the way that we tell stories about people who are sick even in our own lives, we tend to move straight onto trying to find a cause that explains why it is that they are ill.
We are fed this illusion of control. Capitalism and the way that things are marketed to us at this point in time gives us the impression that we can control every outcome of our lives. There's always a path to more happiness or an exit out of feeling bad. And by bad we really mean feeling anything, because to feel things is, in and of itself, a moral failure - apart from feeling elation which is highly valued but an extremely rarefied thing to strive for. Every other emotion that you can feel is treated as somehow out of control and not good. And we are supposed to fix these things because in every other area of our life in which we are marketed things, we are told there is a better way.
We have been sold and internalised the notion that we should be living our best lives, that somehow we should be optimising every level of our existence, we also feel that we have full control over things that are actually largely out of our control like sickness, impoverishment and other disastrous outcomes. This dominant marketing narrative places is the onus of responsibility on the individual by saying that if you were smarter you wouldn't have ended up here. It also assumes that somewhere there is a cure for whatever ails you and if you haven't found it yet it means you haven't battled hard enough. Only weak people are capable of being destroyed or experiencing misfortune. This places enormous pressure on people not to find themselves on the wrong path when in reality our path is most often not of our own choosing.
It is magical thinking to assume that if I make the right choices I will somehow end up on the right path.Just because I buy a year-long membership to a gym doesn't mean that this inoculates me from being ill for the rest of the year. We know this rationally, yet at some level we buy into this tempting and comforting fantasy.
What does this experience feel like? Some days we may be sitting there thinking that we are living the dream life; we have everything that we thought that we would want, yet we still feel like we are missing out. The daily minute realities of even having to tidy up our living space or having to clean our windows means that we can somehow feel like we're not living this carefully manicured, product-driven life that we are led to believe is the idealised existence. Somehow it doesn't feel like how it was supposed to feel even though our actual experience of what that feeling might be is completely imagined and marketed to us, leading to this sense of longing that can only be satiated by buying things, or promoting and curating a sense of self that is completely dislocated from our actual self.
The fantasy of attainable luxury
Imagine owning a beach house and being able to just be and stare at the waves all day long, waiting for inspiration to strike, or being able to experience stillness and luxuriate in the presence of your own breath. The sort of image that you might see filtering through your social media feed, perhaps as sponsored content on Instagram. Now, imagine the number of people you would need on hand to make that fantasy come true. Imagine sharing that space with your kids and the chaos that may ensue. Imagine the snatched moments of stillness that are only available when everyone else if asleep. And even then, you have a list of chores that need to be done as long as both your arms. Even if we pretend that a fantasy like this is possible, this is the fantasy of luxury - only attainable to the very few in modern society. The illusion that this life is attainable also sells us the idea that the feeling of this life would be the pinnacle of human experience. And that it is attainable to you, if you buy the right products, make the right choices. And if you can’t, then pretending to others that you live a lifestyle in line with this perceived peak experience is something that you can do, with just a few clicks of your smartphone. The problem is that the feedback loop reflected back you you means that at some point you realise that the self that you project to others isn’t the real you. And you have started to forget who the real you is. So you continue to manufacture yourself in line with the messages you have internatised about what a good life should look like. Because everyone else seems to be happy, right? But why not me? It must because I'm not trying hard enough.
Part of understanding what you really need in order to feel good is auditing what your preferences are and what you care about. If you care about aesthetics and how things look then it's important to realise this. There's nothing wrong with that if that's what you really care about. Working out what is it that you really care about is important because time is limited and how you spend your time is critical. But it's also important to realise that just because things don't look as you would prefer them to look does not mean that you are living a bad life. It is not a binary good / bad outcome. What we lose in the cultural marketing narrative that we have internalised as to what constitutes a good life is the nuance. The idea that not everything is going to be good, all of the time, every single day.
It matters how you feel - all of your feelings. Marketing yourself as a commodity, so that you present yourself as a product, always developing, always seeking perfection, always self-optimising is ultimately a dehumanising experience. Life doesn’t move in this neat linear progression, but we have come to believe that if it doesn’t, then we ourselves must be at fault. Much of the blame that we point inwards, also ends up getting pointed outwards too. If we are not careful, we start to blame others for what we perceive as their failings, when actually, just like you, much of the life they experience and the outcomes they face are out of their direct control.
How do we solve this?
Thinking about small fixes that add up rather than grandiose fixes that are likely to fail is one way forward. And those small fixes boil down to an attitude of compassion. Compassion for ourselves and the experiences that we have, combined with the acceptance that life may not be as glossy as the images we are constantly bombarded with. Understanding that the path to happiness is most often not under our own control also then extends this compassion to others. The realisation that the happiness we are sold is likely to be manufactured and that the experiences and lives of others are not a product that we consume, but are in fact the real experiences of difficult and messy lives that don’t fit neatly into 140 characters, or a filtered image, and that our longing for simpler, cleaner aesthetics of life can’t be solved with purchasing a new set of filters, or using that 15%-off coupon.
Learning to live in the present means starting to let reality in. Time passes quickly. You are getting older right now. Counter-intuitively, grounding yourself in the knowledge that this moment takes you one second closer to your end actually has the effect of slowing time down, rather than speeding it up. Rather than looking for an escape or a distraction, actually trying to make life go more slowly might be a solution. We live in a culture of panic, of seizing the moment lest the opportunity that is here right now expires and goes away. We have so much frenetic distraction in our lives. Part of the solution is to recognise this for what it is - unrealistic imperatives to meet the longing that has been manufactured for us, and ingested by us in its entirety. We cannot hope to feed this longing because it is insatiable, with drastic consequences for us and the ecosystem in which we exist.
Don’t live your life like a pie-chart. It is not a zero-sum game. You don’t have to do everything right now. Spend time figuring out what you don’t want to do, as well as what you want. That will help you to figure out what is important to you. Understand that this will change over time. It’s ok to change too.
Maybe life is more like music. Perhaps a good life is composed by developing your ear, being attuned to your feelings, and understanding your instincts. By understanding your fears knowing them by sight means you are less likely to seek distraction or escape, but can hold them, deal with them, and know that this is a universal human experience and it is part of what connects us, as well as the manufactured happiness that we are all encouraged to long for. Write them into your life’s music. Design how to deal with them in your own life and seek help and connection when you need it. Music has rules too, but it’s good to know what they are rather than following them, blindly.
Sometimes, knowing the rules can guide you when you are lost. I hope this blog post does the same.