#6: All the while though, we're also living
On how to navigate a life in which you will always be arriving
I have something embarrassing to admit: I often feel like I'm not living my own life.
Let me try to explain.
I get the overwhelming sense that my life — the one I envisioned I’d be living, that I was meant to be living — is somewhere off in the distance. I can’t say exactly what it looks like, but I know it's out there.
This sense permeates all aspects of my life: my identity, my work, my relationships. Occasionally, I get glimpses of that life when I review my yearly goals — like grow my net worth — or at the end of a long list of to-dos. It's written down in places. It also floats around as fragments in my mind.
Whatever it might look like though, I'm pretty confident that it's not the one I'm living right now.
It's not the one when I’m having a shitty day, like last Wednesday. It's not the one when I’m anxiously mapping out my next career move. It’s not the one when I’m fearful about whether my wife and I will ever get pregnant. It’s not the one, a lot of the time.
And because that life is not here, I find myself hedging. Or, waiting for that life to come. Because I can't be me until I'm actually living my life. Right? I also can't be a whole list of other things until then either: content, free, compassionate, and more.
I can also say that I've had this sense for 32 years now. Since I was born. And you know what’s baffling? I’ve put a hell of a lot of effort into planning for my life's arrival, like saving up and holding a few jobs, and it still hasn’t showed up somehow.
I've recently started to wonder whether this sense will ever go away.
I have come to realize I am oriented towards arriving.
And I’m now convinced that I will always be oriented this way. I will remain in perpetual motion. I will constantly be striving. I will eternally be moving towards a destination. And this will never change. I will forever be perspiring on the hedonic treadmill. I will never arrive.
And I'm willing to bet I'm not alone in this. We will never arrive.
All the while though, we're also living. Moments turn to seconds, which turn to minutes, then hours, and finally, days. Those days become years and make up the thing we look back on and call our life.
"How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing."
Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
Said another way: while we're busy arriving, we've already arrived.
We will forever be caught in this space between arriving and living; between what we desire and what we have; between our expectations and our reality. The person we want to become, and the one the mirror reflects back. The relationships we aspire to, and the ones we keep. The job we want, and the one we show up to on Monday.
So if we’re stuck in this space, what does this say about how we should navigate our lives?
Getting there as fast as you can
Arriving comes at a cost.
"What I dreamt of doing, I actually tried to do...I didn't stand on the fence and become a kind of exile in my own life. I actually entered it, and got right into it."
John O'Donohue, Imagination as the Path of the Spirit
Our orientation to arrive — to desire a circumstance that differs from our reality — directly impacts our well-being. If happiness = reality - expectations, we can attribute most of our discontent to our expectations outweighing our reality. Just ask the Buddha: Desire is, after all, the root of all suffering.
If we're going to be suffering then, we might as well suffer for an expectation that’s actually worth it. We might as well travel in a straight line, if we’re able. We might as well get to where we’re going as fast as we can.
Now, I’m well-aware of how difficult it can be to answer the question: “Where am I going?” Without a doubt, this is something I'm struggling with at this moment. There is no direct path. The destination shifts. The meandering is inevitable, and wonderful. What’s important though is actively engaging with the question; and being honest with yourself about the answers.
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters To A Young Poet
You might find that you already know the answer. If so, don’t wait; go. If not, that’s okay. But don’t let arriving for the sake of arriving get in the way. Don’t use it as a way to defer or evade. The point is to get there as fast as you can.
Concerning ourselves with the how
Since we'll never arrive, we should be far more concerned with how we’re arriving.
"The happiness of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts.”
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
If our lives are the sum total of our moments, then the quality of those moments should matter a lot. Possibly more than where those moments are leading us; or where we’re arriving.
Improving the quality of those moments ultimately requires improving the quality of our minds. What we pay attention to. The stories we tell ourselves. The patterns that define us. These things matter.
Whether we're present, or distant; whether we're intentional, or unwitting; whether we're compassionate, or critical; whether we're curious, or judgmental. These are the characteristics that we’ll ultimately use to judge the quality of our moments, and our lives.
These are the things that will determine whether we’re living our lives, or that one off in the distance.
If you’ve been reading these for awhile, you’ll notice that this format is a bit different than past issues. Inspired by my On Deck Fellowship, I’ll likely be experimenting with a few things over the coming weeks. If you have any feedback around what you liked about this one or missed about past issues, I’d really appreciate hearing it.