At age 43 I’m gradually realising that maybe life isn’t all about me
by E.F Nicholson
When I observe the events and circumstance which bring me most angst, hurt or frustration, more often than not they somehow revolve around things not being the way I want or expect them to be. These wants or expectations don’t have to be unreasonable or unjustified; rather it’s just about the reality of them not being met. The fact is, most of us don’t ever go around thinking our expectations of life and people are unreasonable. Hence, their “reasonableness” is what permits our sense of entitlement to feel wronged or hard done by. Yet this often rests on a kind of unconscious supposition that somehow I am the centre of the universe and everything should be set up in a way that is built to please and address my needs. The drive to view and filter my experience of life through assessing situations according to how they benefit myself is so hardwired into our thinking that it’s difficult at times to see how fundamental it is to the way we relate and experience reality. Our aversion to pain and longing for pleasant experiences constantly works at scaling life events according to how they “do” or “do not” move us towards that which we want. The self-centred decry of “what’s in it for me” or “how is this good/agreeable/beneficial for me” is socially deemed selfish, but in reality, it is operationally more often than not how we emotionally react to what befalls us.
We see this most acutely in the daily grind of everyday life. The things I “have” to do I overall begrudge and resent. The relationship dynamics that are challenging, tiring or confronting I resist and wish were otherwise. The bodily aches and discomforts are internally whined about. The stressors of unexpected hardship are seen as impositions on my happiness, and the mundanity of daily life’s tedious “to do’s” are somehow obstructing me from the grander life I imagined. In a word, the default to life not going exactly as I wish is “resistance”. The degree of resistance is determined by the degree that life and people are non-compliant to my expectations.
My most immediate relationships are the more obvious example of how this plays out. With my kids in particular there is a daily dynamic of me being up against how their behaviour and feelings are either working for or against me. If it’s not in compliance, which it often isn’t, I witness varying degrees of stress, anxiety and frustration. Yet consciously or unconsciously, looking at life as a linear process of trying to get what we want is set up essentially to fail, over and over, time and time again. Yet the repetition of its failed strategy doesn’t dissuade or prevent us from reemploying its faulty logic until our last dying breath. Then to add to this, our cultural, media and economic systems are set up to reinforce this rather than challenge and question it. We are told over and over that getting what we want from others and life is what it’s all about. Success is measured and venerated according to those who get what they want. Yet we fail collectively and individually to question not only its ultimately achievability but also its essential value. As even when we get what we want, the benefit is fleeting and the reward often whimsically brief. It’s like a hunger that is briefly satiated until of course it returns, again and again. The Buddha knew what he was talking about when he said desire was the cause of suffering.
Yet there is a shift that is possible, or a way of reframing the way we see our relationship and life events, not in terms of getting what we want, rather in terms of how we remember we are not the centre of the universe. Life can become an act of service for something bigger than ourselves to live through us. As reminding ourselves that life isn’t about me isn’t done from martyrdom or an existential sense of insignificance, rather as a celebration of being aware of the greater picture that we are not the centre of, rather an expression of. There is a freedom to be found in unshackling ourselves from the tyranny of our incessant wants and demands being seen as what matters most. It puts trust in our needs being met, not through subtle force, will or manipulation, but through love, sacrifice and compassion.
There are times I feel somewhat overwhelmed at the sheer mundanity and banality of my everyday life (I’m am also aware that my mundanity occurs within privilege that the majority of the world don’t experience, but knowing that doesn’t take away the fact that it’s how you can end up feeling). It’s like both a psychological and literal kind of Groundhog Day, where it repeats not just the similar routine of daily duties; sleep, wake up, kids to school, start work, shop, cook, take to kids basketball, work some more, TV, sleep, etc. but also the psychological and emotional routine of responding habitually and predictably to the various cues, prompts and button-pressing invoked from these same daily routines. In reality of the 40,000 thoughts the average person has a day, how many genuinely new thoughts and feelings do I have day in, day out? How does the filter of my expectations and typical thinking squeeze all that is actually new and alive into the same lived experience over and over? As the story of life is different every day, yet the narrative in my mind and mechanical nature of my responses is often the fixed and immovable part.
Here we can depart from the standard attempt to just try a little be harder to get more of what I want and maybe consider the fulfilment, connection and aliveness I think we all yearn for is found in the embracing and giving ourselves to exactly what is front of us; a pair of shoes not put away though I ask this to be done for the 200th time, an angry reply from my eldest daughter to a reasonable request, an overcrowded bus I expected to be empty, a reply to a message I never got but thought I deserved. All of these small interactions and mundane events invite us to respond with consciousness and awareness, rather than unconsciousness and habit. To be in service to a love that flows through all that finds beauty in ordinary circumstances and people. This isn’t to prescribe that we become passive, permissive and constantly yielding, rather it is the value of remaining ever-aware that what goes on, what someone does or doesn’t do, how events do or don’t unfold, me getting what I want and things ending up the way I want isn’t what matters. Not identifying with the part of us that just wants our own way allows us to be present with what is.
I see and marvel this in kids’ ability to be effortlessly present. They are still at an age where they can be spontaneous, joyful and at ease in the “here and now” far more than us serious adults could muster. At times, I remind myself and my wife to stop, relish and just breathe in all their presence and unabashed earnestness. Not to wait until we get to sixty and look back and think about what “happy times we had back then” but rather to understand that it’s all happening now. Each and every day I bear witness to the wonder and splendour of life and love in the miniature of every daily grind. A grind I so often moan about, like the two critics in the Muppets, stuck in my head ceaselessly and cynically commenting on what’s wrong or displeasing. As when the dangling carrot of things being better, different, improved is removed, we can finally see that we have it all. Right now I have all I require, as what I require is just the awareness that this universe and the creatures that populate it haven’t been built, created and crafted for my benefit. In actual fact, I am here for their benefit, to let the grace of life live through me and let my life be in service to that truth.
In this frame, life returns to colour and all of creation suddenly surrounds me, speaking, singing and sharing in magnificent song. Not just in the smiles and moment of joy but also in the sadness, hurt and pain. Life in service, not to ourselves but grace, allows us to value, appreciate and take in all of life. It opens a space that is filled with life’s beauty and totality. As we step aside, we are not left with empty space, rather we can finally see, hear and be with what was always awaiting and hoping for our return: life as it is, rather than how we want it to be.