My mom has told me the story countless times. I was 12 years old and most of my friends were starting to get boyfriends. “Do you wish you had a boyfriend?” she asked me one day after school. In my mind, I picture myself sassily snapping in her face before breaking out into song: “I-N-D-E-P-E-N-D-E-N-T , do you know what that mean? I pack my own lunch, I tie my own shoes … “
But, apparently, I actually rolled my eyes and said, “Please, Mom. Like I’m going to look back at when I’m 30 and be like, I wish I’d had a boyfriend when I was 12.”
It doesn’t have quite the same oomph, if you ask me, but people always seem to be impressed when they hear my reply, saying that my 12-year-old self was mature or wise or had perspective.
Personally, I find the story kind of sad.
Well, my 12-year-old self cared more about what 30-year-old me would think than what 12-year-old me really wanted. (Not that I wanted a boyfriend anyways, I ain’t nevah need no man.) And such a story is just one example of an incessant stream of forward-thinking that doesn’t stop even when we are 30-year-olds (okay, 21-year-olds). Of course, it’s not usually my dismissive idea of the future — that what happens now doesn’t matter all-that-much because one day it will just be the past. Instead, oftentimes it’s an optimistic vision of the future, and that can be just as dangerous.
Because focusing on the future, like I did when I was 12, discounts the present.
Karl Marx touched on a similar concept when talking about religion, saying that it is “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.” Religion promises paradise in the afterlife and provides an illusory, happier world for those who face economic hardship or inequality or struggles in this life. On the one hand, that may provide heart in a heartless world. But on the other, promising a glorious afterlife also gives little incentive to make the world any less heartless now.
The difference, of course, is that with religion, the better life is separate. In our lives, such an illusory future in a sense leads us, if we do focus on the present, to focus even more on what we don’t have precisely because we assume or hope we will have it down the line.
“Narrow your life down to this moment. Your life situation may be full of problems – most life situations are – but find out if you have any problem at this moment. Not tomorrow or in ten minutes, but now. Do you have a problem now?”
The answer he says, is probably no.
Most of us, at most times, are faced with what we see as plenty of problems, though … and we usually tend to think happiness is right on the other side of each one. We are one adjustment or achievement or relationship or raise away from being happy. From getting there. From things working out.
Heck, as kids, we’e asked what we want to be when we grow up and pick “career paths” as if becoming an adult (and one with a job that we love and excel at) was a space on the Life game-board — as if there is a finish line.
The real game you end up playing, though, is one of perpetual stepping stones, a sad, adult version of hop-scotch, of trying to find an end that doesn’t exist. Because not only is happiness not a finish line, but happiness should probably not even be the goal at all.
No, “happiness” is part of the problem.
As Alain de Botton talked about in one of his lectures, we tend to look at our problems (and lives) as if something that was supposed to go right has gone wrong. It’s not just that we are constantly working towards whatever we don’t have, but that we believe implicitly in a world where we don’t have lost keys, where we have no traffic, where we marry ever after and find jobs that are fulfilling and so on.
The tough reality is that all those things are not the norm. Nothing was ever supposed to go right – which means nothing could really go wrong. Life is, as he puts it, “an essentially troubled and compromised affair.” Yet that is not the expectation we set for it.
Instead of trying to make life good or great or glorious, we should realize that life is good enough. That the stars aren’t going to line up and, if they do, they aren’t going to stay that way. That bad things will happen and most jobs are boring and life is expensive and you will lose your best friends and you will have you heart broken and goddammit a lot of the time life just sucks.
But even more than that, we should realize that it’s okay – that not being 100% happy or successful or perfect is actually perfectly normal. We should living our dark moments fully, as he poetically puts it. We should embrace them.
As I might have mentioned before, when I want to embrace my sad moments, I listen to this song:
But that’s not what we’re told. We’re told the complete opposite.
We see everyone else having more fun than us on Instagram, having things we think we want but probably don’t on Facebook and we feel even worse. More specifically, we feel like we are doing something wrong.
This is partly because our society perpetuates the myth that everyone can succeed. While a pull-yourself-up-from-your-boostraps, you-can-do-anything-you-set-your-mind-to attitude can, once again, be hopeful and inspirational and lead way to plenty of opportunity, it also leaves us feeling like we haven’t achieved enough. The idea that anyone can make it — and that those who make it deserve to do so – also implies that anyone who doesn’t make it also deserves that fate.
And so we blame ourselves and hop to the next stepping stone in a never-ending line and destined-to-fail attempt to fix whatever we think we are doing wrong.
But really, much of what happens in the world is in the hands of someone else. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t shape what you can, but it means you shouldn’t stress over what you can’t.
As David Foster Wallace wrote,
“Both destiny’s kisses and its dope-slaps illustrate an individual person’s basic personal powerlessness over the really meaningful events in his life: i.e. almost nothing important that ever happens to you happens because you engineer it … 99.9% of what goes on in one’s life is actually none of one’s business, with the 0.1% under one’s control consisting mostly of the option to accept or deny one’s inevitable powerlessness over the other 99.9%.”
Or as Charles Yu put it,
“Time isn’t an orderly stream. Time isn’t a placid lake recording each of our ripples. Time is vicious. Time is a massive flow. It is a self-healing substance, which is to say, almost everything will be lost. We’re too slight, too inconsequential, despite all of our thrashing and swimming and waving our arms about. Time is an ocean of inertia, drowning out the small vibrations, absorbing the slosh and churn, the foam and the wash, and we’re up here, flapping and slapping and just generally spazzing out, and sure, there’s a little bit of splashing on the surface, but that doesn’t even register in the depths, in the powerful undercurrents miles below us, taking us wherever they are taking us.”
Maybe we all — especially me, whether I’m 12 or 20 or 42 — need to sit back and just enjoy the ride. And maybe if we stopped trying so hard to be happy, we’d be happier anyways. (But I wouldn’t count on it.)