“Generally, we tend to prepare too much. We say, ‘Once I make a lot of money, then I will go somewhere to study and meditate and become a priest,” or whatever it is we would like to become. But we never do it on the spot. We always speak in terms of, ‘Once I do something, then …” We always plan too much. We want to change our lives rather than use our lives, the present moment as part of the practice, and this hesitation on our part creates a lot of setbacks in our spiritual practice. Most of us have romantic ideas–‘I’m bad now but one day, when I change, I’ll be good.”-Chogyam Trungpa, “Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism.” Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, 1987. Pg. 237.
If you want your life to change, wait a year. It’ll change. Of course, it may not be for the better.
A study in 2008 found that happiness tends to follow a U-shaped curve, where the lowest level of happiness occurs somewhere around age 46. Yet, there are confounding factors. A death of a spouse, child or close family member, divorce/marital separation, imprisonment, personal injury or illness, or loss of meaningful work can all contribute to shifting our nadir of happiness into a different period. But, knowing that the 40s can be a difficult time, on average, and that life tends to improve after can be a helpful thing to know. It can be a source of hope.
Nothing is sure in this life but change. Are things difficult for you? All you need to do is wait. It’ll change.
I keep seeing Darius Foroux‘s writing showing up as a Pocket recommendation through Firefox. Recently, “The Purpose Of Life Is Not Happiness: It’s Usefulness” was the top recommendation. It ends on this note:
“Don’t take it too seriously. Don’t overthink it. Just DO something that’s useful. Anything.”
Being contrary, it reminded me of this famous Zen quote:
“Don’t just do something, sit there.”
Darius states on his main page that his areas of concern are: productivity, habits, decision making and personal finance. It occurs to me that the modern preoccupation with “Getting Things Done,” efficiency, “time management” and so forth is just a secular version of the Protestant work ethic. It’s an extension of the existing culture, where your value or usefulness is determined by how much money you make.
But, let’s take it at face value. Let’s imagine Elon Musk. He’s reinvigorated the space race, electric cars, energy storage, and other industries. Few people could make the claim that they have been more useful to society.
Elon Musk does not have a goal to be “useful,” broadly defined. He has a specific goal, i.e., to facilitate the colonization of Mars before climate change or some other extinction event closes the window of possibility for humanity. Everything he does is geared toward forwarding that goal.
A society needs people like Elon Musk for its long term survival. But, it doesn’t need a lot of them. So, what of everyone else?
Is usefulness to other people a purpose to which we all should strive? And what then of the people that do not have an obvious use, people that are a burden to society? Or, more ambiguously, people that aren’t useful in any obvious way? Or the fact that almost everyone will at some point be “useless”? How will we find value in our lives then?
This is where the Zen quote really gets to the point. People crave money, power and fame. All of these are “useful,” but they are also a distraction. They reinforce the ego. They make people dissatisfied with what they have or scared they will lose it. They make people less adaptable to change. Defining the purposes of life as usefulness is a recipe for creating unhappiness as our usefulness, however defined, changes.
“Years ago while interning in the rendering group at Pixar, I learned an important lesson: “interesting” things almost always come to light when a software system is given input with significantly different characteristics than it’s seen before. Even for well-written and mature software systems, new types of input almost always expose heretofore unknown shortcomings in the existing implementation.”
—Matt Pharr. Swallowing the Elephant (Part 1) pharr.org. July 8, 2018.
Probably true of any system.
“In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”
—”Taking a Fence Down.” The American Chesterton Society. Retrieved November 30, 2017.