August 30, 2017

Trying Too Hard Almost Always Fails

I'm going to discuss one of the hardest topics for me to take to heart myself. Perhaps it’s because I was raised in an agnostic-ish environment. Perhaps it’s because I tend to worry about money more than other things. Perhaps I’m just a stubborn ass (like many of us tend to be). In any case, it’s very hard for most of us to set our minds on the higher things in life. Across world religions, cultures, and philosophies, we’ve pretty much all been taught by old wise guys with crazy-long beards since the beginning of time to not get tangled up in worldly affairs, money, ice cream, sex, and all that fun stuff. Instead, we’re told to look to bolder and better, more transcendent things—wisdom, virtue, love, and the like—and trust that the acquisition of these nobler things will ultimately facilitate and lead to the fulfillment of our miserable earthly existence and the natural increase of our fleshy essentials.

If that sounds ridiculous and hard to do, you’re in the vast majority, likely sitting right next to me on the dunce bench. Here’s an example. For those of you who are looking for love, you may have noticed that often the least effective and most embarrassing way to find it is to go looking for it. This might be a little different today with online dating and whatnot, but in the recent past if you wanted to meet someone (beyond a quick and casual encounter) going down to the bar might be the worst way to find what you’re looking for. In fact, the best way to meet people that you’ll really get along with and share common social values and cultural bonds with is to simply do what you enjoy doing in a social setting. If you like to play tennis, then go play tennis with other sweaty tennis-y folks. If you like playing role playing games, then go down to the local nerd cave and do so with your fellow neck-beards (and beard-ettes). If you’re into the music scene, then go to music shows with other wily musician folks. And, so on and so forth.

The worst way to get something you want is to focus only on getting it.
Often times, the worst way to find something you want is to focus only on seeking and getting that thing. Sounds counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? I agree. It sounds totally stupid to me too. Nonetheless, it’s our human burden to bear. Maybe it’s built right into the cosmos as some kind of disciplinary feature, like an existential electric fence that gives us a shock when we try to grab the wrong thing. This isn’t to say that if you need a job that you shouldn’t be looking high and low with an open mind and a sharp eye, or if you can’t find your car keys that you shouldn’t be methodically retracing your steps through your house until you find them. What it means is that we gravitate to the types of things that we seek, while often missing the exact things we want, for whatever reason. I don’t make the rules, I just waste a lot of time trying to sort them out on the back end.

My philosophical guess is that most of the things we seek—be it money, success, comfort, companionship, etc.—we often seek with reckless abandon, and we usually do so with the wrong motivation. We scramble for money out of fear of poverty, we claw up the corporate ladder out of blind ambition, we look for a partner out of indiscriminate lust, and so forth. Before you get all twisted up in the pants, saying, “Speak for yourself! I just want real love and a good job,” understand that I’m making some broad strokes here, and that even if you don’t fall into these psychological traps often, we all do them from time to time. If you can find me someone that’s never made a bad choice out of fear or done something stupid out of thoughtless ambition or desire, then we also need to talk about this fantastically huge steel tower I own in France that I can’t wait to sell you.

Everything we cling to here on this spinning ball of dirt is temporary.
Back to the notion of the cosmic electric fence… What is it worth to you to get some of these things you want so bad? Are you willing to compromise your whole lifestyle to “make it work” with someone who’s simply available for companionship? Are you willing to ignore your family or sacrifice your moral principles to make more money or get that big promotion? Do you think you can maintain that social fa├žade you put on in order to “fit in” for your whole life and not really be the person you are? Trying too hard almost always fails. Maybe the vast and imperceptible machinations of the cosmos that I’m always talking about (whether a conscious or impersonal force, depending on your beliefs) function in such a way as to guide us to bigger and better things and slap our hand for ignoring them in favor of little temporary things that are fleeting and unpredictable. Money is easily lost and stolen, friends become enemies, jobs lay you off, and loved ones die. Everything we cling to here on this spinning ball of dirt is temporary, including ourselves.

One of those ancient, bearded wise guys, Socrates, once said, “Man must rise above the Earth, for only thus will he fully understand the world in which he lives.” Think of the ants in the ant farm. Do they know what goes on outside their little plastic walls while they focus only on digging through the dirt? A certain Jewish carpenter from antiquity, by the name of Jesus, that you may have heard of, later said, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” He went on to point out how the birds flit around doing their bird-business, singing their songs and pooping on stuff, not storing up food or worrying about what they’ll do tomorrow, but are still pretty well taken care of by nature (last I checked the pileup on the hood of my car, there was no shortage of birds). How many times have you spend so much time worrying about this or that legitimately worrisome thing, then looked back on the time you spent worrying and realized that you missed a whole bunch of things that happened while you did?

That’s the challenge. We’re given a big, fat brain full of wild potentiality
I repeat for the sake of posterity—I have a very hard time with these concepts myself. It’s hard not to worry about what we’ll eat tomorrow when we need to eat to live. It seems an impossible task sometimes not to fret ourselves into a bleeding ulcer over our next source of income when we know we have to buy groceries for our kids in a couple of days. That’s the challenge, I guess. We’re given a big, fat brain full of wild potentiality—capable of either locking itself up in a knot of insurmountable anxieties or enjoying the moment while reaching to profound transcendence of thought—and we’re always in a struggle to make our natural gifts work the properly and productively. We want security and stability by nature. It’s the inheritance our ancestors left in our genes since the days of fighting for raw, animalistic survival in the harsh wilderness. Now, in our cultured and societal world, those instincts still work, but have nowhere to go but out to the everyday worries.

Despite our inherent need for security, to set things up in a way that we don’t have to worry about them or pay them any mind, life is a constant struggle. Yes, it’s a struggle to survive, in a way. But, for many, it’s also a struggle to apply our rationality in productive and healthy ways to grow ourselves and enjoy the one life we’ve been given by chance, by choice, by God, or whatever you happen to believe. So, try not to worry about the little things—the pocket change, the daily chores, the sweaty mate-animal next to you. Tend to those things like you should—use your hard-earned money wisely, go to work and be a functional member of society, love your spouse and let them know regularly. But, all the while, look upward to bigger and bolder things. And, above all, don’t let the worry rot your guts out, because it will happen easily before you know it.