And Other Not So Trivial Matters
By Jim Altfeld
I can’t think of anything much sadder than the words Schopenhauer spoke when he said, It is bad today and every day will get worse until the worst of all happens. Tied closely to that are the words of the faithful pessimists who believe in an afterlife, It will be over soon and there is a perfect life waiting for me in Heaven. My reply to this, “Perhaps. But, then again, perhaps not.” All any of us know for certain is the life we have right now. The very one you and I are living. All I am saying is that we need to take this life seriously, which includes our actions, the decisions we make and the choices we make.
Consider the idea of Eternal Re-Occurrence. Consider, instead of an afterlife, instead of reincarnation, having to relive every moment of your entire life, with all the joy, pain, ecstasy, agony, hurt, disappointments, thrills, suffering etc. included, over and over and over again. How would you live your life then? How would you look at the decisions you make and the choices you’ve made knowing that you will forever, relive the consequences of those decisions ad infinitum?
Add one more thing to the scenario of Eternal Re-Occurrence. Do you live your life in the manner you live it for fear of having to face your Maker and increase your chances of getting into Heaven? Or, do you live a life of good values and high morals because of who you are? Indulge me in this and humor me. Let’s stick with the idea of Eternal Re-Occurrence and eliminate any idea of an afterlife. What if, what you did and the way you acted in life became a universal law of nature for everyone else to follow? What if your actions and the things you did became a moral maxim? How would you act then?
Ok, so I now at least have you thinking. Let’s try this. Remember when, as a child, teenager, young adult, and for some us, just last week being asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And what was your response? A policeman, fireman, ballet dancer, doctor, lawyer, bank president, rich by the time you’re 30, etc., etc. Before you ever gave your answer, did you ever consider the real you and the things that drove and drive the real you? Did you take into consideration the things the real you is passionate about? Or, did you just give an answer that was either programmed into you or what you thought those asking the questions wanted to hear? I ask you, are you now doing what you love to do? Are you following your passions, or are you doing what you think others think you ought to be doing? Does a rose bloom for us to admire or for its own sake?
Consider this statement: I Want to be Happy! From what I’ve seen in my past sixty years, most of us pursue happiness, (a right granted to all U.S. Citizens by the U.S. Constitution), as though it were some commodity, wrapped up like a Christmas present, waiting to be found by anyone who has the where with all to find it. And then when we do find it, the happiness we experience is so damn brief. What it turns out to be, as Goethe explains, is our going from desire, to satisfaction and soon back to desire again. The point being that this type of happiness is not real happiness. Rather it is fleeting and merely temporary satisfaction.
So, the question remains, just where does one find happiness? According to Aristotle, the “Contemplative Life” (Bios Thoretikos) a divine activity resulting in the truest form of happiness and the highest life of all, was the way to go. I don’t necessarily disagree with him. I believe that happiness comes in the form of self-forgetfulness. It seems that whenever happiness does occur, I find myself lost and completely immersed in something or someone outside myself and something so much larger than myself. So much so, that I not only seem to forget about myself and time, but I actually travel beyond and outside of myself in the process. It is as though I no longer matter. I no longer focus on me.
I know for a fact that that has happened, but just where in the hell did I find that feeling of happiness and how do I find it again on a continuous, constant and steady basis!?! The answer lies in identifying and following those things that drive you! You find happiness in your passions. Passions can make you forget about yourself and can make time literally stand still.
When John Wesley, the cofounder of the Methodist Church was asked how he was able to attract such large crowds with his preaching, he said “I simply set myself on fire and people come to watch me burn.” Now that’s what I call passion!
Passion not only affects you, but those around you.
Yeah, but I wasn’t born with the advantages some others were born with. Ok, I’ll give you that. But, give me this…. Each of us is born with advantages, disadvantages, certain aptitudes, certain IQs, as well as physical and mental strengths, weaknesses and disabilities. Some are born healthier than others. The challenge is to make the best out of what you were given.
Once again, referring to Aristotle, he believed that everything is programmed toward a particular end and purpose. Aristotle believed that the acorn, for example, was programmed to becoming an oak tree with its entire being devoted to achieving that end. For man, we are programmed not only to reproduce and keep the species going, but also to ascend ourselves. As individuals, each of us has, or should have, our own unique purpose and chief aim.
I find it almost uncanny how each and every one of us arrive in this world with inherent gifts. As humans, each of us has a nature about us. Each of us has limits and potentials. Then, for whatever reason, we spend the first half of our lives abandoning them or letting others disillusion us about them. As young people, we are surrounded by expectations that may have little to do with who we really are. Too often, the expectations of us are held by people who are not trying to discern who we really are, but to fit us into slots. And, all too often, it is their slots they are trying to fit us in. If we’re fortunate enough, we then spend the second half of our lives trying to recover from the first half and reclaim the gift or gifts we once had.
Ability determines what you can do.
Aptitude determines what you can learn to do.
Aspiration determines what you hope to do.
Attitude determines what you believe you can do.
But passion determines what you want to do!
The trick, it seems, is to know yourself and the limitations, capabilities and potential that are part of your individual nature. If you seek out a life without understanding yourself and your own nature – your own limitations, capabilities and potential – you place yourself on the road to possible failure by putting yourself in life situations that your nature is not meant to handle. Much like a certain material is meant for specific applications, only. Should you use the material in an application it was not meant for and the material is doomed to failure.
Our deepest calling in life is to grow into our own authentic true self, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we, or someone else thinks we OUGHT to be. In other words, by not knowing and understanding who we are, we can go through life wearing one or any number of false masks. We fall prey to what some philosophical men call Oughtiveness. “You know what you ought to do?” “You know what you ought to be?” “You really ought to….” You become what someone or even yourself has convinced yourself, you ought to be, instead of what you really are. That includes what I consider to be the worst-case scenario, which is wearing someone else’s mask you may have picked up along the way and leading their life instead of your own.
My point being that by not understanding self, not knowing your own nature, not taking the necessary time to determine your personal chief aim in life, one winds up living an ungrounded life. As a result, one finds him or her self-conforming to a false image and a false sense of self. And, you can go through life wearing false masks or someone else’s mask without ever getting the opportunity to wear the mask that truly represents you. The tragedy is that you go through life portraying yourself as someone you really are not, based upon the misconception that this is the someone you think you ought to be, when in fact you really are not that person at all. Or, in the words of McAnnula, “It is perfectly all right to try to be everything you cannot be when you find that you cannot be everything that you are.”
Which brings me to this: Become Who You Are! According to Erich Fromm, Man’s main task in life is to give birth to himself, to become what he potentially is. For far too many of us, we do nothing but run, never allowing ourselves to reflect on where we’re running to or what we’re running for. Life goes on no matter what we do, but personal growth and development happen only if we allow it to happen and then choose wisely.
To become who you are, you first must understand what you have. Then, it is up to you to decide what you will do with what you have. The choice is yours. Do you become an advice-rejecting complainer and a couch potato, or do you become exceptional? As I pointed out earlier with Eternal Re-Occurrence, it is up to you to be responsible and held accountable for your actions, your decisions and your choices. You made them, you allowed things to happen and you cannot blame others for them. The choice is our own to make. Be a hapless victim or an active participant.
According to Heidegger, the inauthentic life is a life lead unaware. It is an unconscious life of white water river rafting. In an authentic life I am aware and fully conscious. I am in a state of enlightenment. I am my own witness to my own events.
Belief follows need.
What we see and how we interpret what we see confirms what we believe. And, what we believe shapes what we see. Right or wrong, true or false, we believe those things we need to believe in order to support our beliefs. Do I believe what I believe because of what has been instilled in me, or do I believe what I believe because of who I am? I firmly believe that by being aware of who I am, I am far more aware of what I truly believe.
To lead a life of awareness and authenticity, means being conscious of who we are, what we are doing, why we are acting or reacting the way we are and knowing we are a particle of energy that helps comprise that ocean of energy called Life! Simply stated, what we are is determined by what we think. What we think is often a result of what we’ve experienced. Our experiences are based upon those things to which we are exposed. And the experiences we expose ourselves to are based upon who we are.
Let me ask you this: Have you ever heard the expression you are what you eat? I don’t know about you, but I am not what I eat. I am not a peanut butter and jelly sandwich! What I eat is determined by who I am. I am not my job, either, nor am I my life’s situations, and I am not my experiences. I have the job I have, I have the experiences I have and I have the life situations I have because of who I am.
Whether you believe this or not, life truly IS exciting, or at least it should be. Life is also scary. It can also be cruel. And, without a doubt, it is always dangerous. To live life fully requires taking risks. To live it in fear, you can shun it, hide from it and waste it. You can hide on your couch, buy a bigger TV, not venture out and take no risks. And what a tragic waste of a human being that is?
Even worse may be discovering that you have just spent the greater part of your life and a great deal of energy on things that, in the bigger picture, were really not very useful or important.
For life to be an extension of yourself and a way to be ourselves, you must deal with life in the present. To do that, however, means saying YES to life. I accept death and all that comes with it. I accept that death is the impossibility of all future possibilities. I accept that death takes away all that I ever had and all that I will ever have. But, death also plays a crucial role in our awareness of life. It reminds us that existence cannot be postponed. It is through death that we see what is at stake. Any confrontation with death can lead me to rearrange my priorities. Death is, or can be, wonderful at providing us humans with a greater appreciation of life. But what if death comes before your real life has started. How tragic would that be?
Which is why I find it ever so important to enthusiastically say, YES to life.
On the flip side of that same coin, I feel strongly that death is not necessarily The End, nor is it final. I firmly believe that each of us can live on long after our death and achieve immortality. We can become immortal through our children and our children’s children. We can become immortal by having a building named for us, planting a tree, writing a great book, and through our works. It is all about giving meaning to one’s life. For, giving meaning to one’s life means going beyond one’s life.
What you are and what you believe you can be goes on well after your death. Become who you are is about making something out of what you have and what you’ve been given. To become who you are, however, requires you to LOVE who you are. Love what you have to work with and make something beautiful and exceptional out of it. Give shape to yourself. Create yourself. Take what you have and make the most out of it. Play off other people to grow and develop yourself. Transcend who you are. Aspire to be more. Perform a transfiguration!
In the Myth of Sisyphus, Sisyphus was forever condemned to roll a rock up the top of a mountain. When it would roll back down the other side, he would resume the task, over and over and over again. The beauty of Sisyphus is that he didn’t bitch and complain. He didn’t hate himself or the life to which he had been condemned. Instead, he took it upon himself to know the rock and understand the mountain. He used the knowledge he acquired to grow, develop and better understand himself, all of which enabled him to become who he was. It allowed him to transcend himself. You and I have the same choice. We can either, bitch and complain about the hand we’ve been dealt, or can use it to our best ablilties.
I, for one, believe in living life, every day of it, in a perpetual state of wonderment. And instead of cursing life, be forever grateful for the precious gift of sheer existence. We’re here. We’re here right now and what a wonderful opportunity it is to be here!!
I don’t marvel about the way things are, but that they are. I am not only mindful of the fragility of my being, but too, the responsibility for my own being. To become who I am means having to be in touch with my own self-creation.
Recognize that no matter how close you, me or any other human being gets to other people, it all comes down to our facing life alone. For me, that means facing the basic issue of my life and my death and thereby living my life more honestly and being less caught up in the trivialities. It also means learning that I must take the ultimate responsibility for the way I live my life no matter how much guidance, encouragement and support I get from others.
Which leads me to yet another one of life’s rules. Regardless of the situation in which you find yourself we all have three choices. We either come to accept what is, change what is, or walk away from it. And even in choosing to accept it, you have a choice. You can accept the reality of things for what it is, (not being in denial) and then elect to change it.
I leave you with these three final thoughts and a pledge:
- Uncertainty, death and impermanence exist and we must all learn to co-exist with each of them.
- The measure of your life will be the measure of your courage, contribution, trust, and how much you give back.
- If you do not take responsibility for your own predicament, you can never expect to change.
Your Pledge to Yourself:
I, ________________, from this day forward, shall no longer accept sorrow, disappointment and victimization to play a part in my life’s situations. Nor shall I any longer consider myself responsible for fulfilling the lives of others. I shall instead focus upon the birth of my true self, coming to know that I am life itself, and that I am far more than a mere composite of my past experiences and my life’s situations.
Signed by Date
Thank you for your time, interest and consideration. Your feedback is greatly welcomed.