How then might we live?

February 14, 2022

War of attrition

Everything seems to run down or running out. Your youth, your bank balance, your energy, and maybe even your career. Perhaps you have stopped for a moment and thought - what is this all about? The grim struggle from morning to night.

In your twenties you were passed a baton and someone shouted "go!" and instinctively you started sprinting and probably haven't stopped since. You've played it all by the book - you are likely married, mortgaged and maybe even have a hernia for your trouble. At the start, sheer brute force and vigor drove you forward but now sensing you have made ground, it might be ok to slow down to take stock of the situation. Likely you are somewhere in the middle of the pack. There are many ahead running at the speed of a thousand gazelles, while the lions are picking the weaker ones off at the back. But for the grace of God, you are making it. Barely.  

The question we should all be asking

How did it get to this, you wonder? What is the purpose of my life? How then should I live?

This is a perplexing question which most don't take time to think it through. We just go with the current of life. Thoreau pointed out that most of us "lead lives of quiet desperation".

Rapid changes in society, loss of faith and changes in work over the last 50 years will have made matters worse. Recent Gallup studies highlight that over 80-90% of employees are actively disengaged or not engaged in their work. Something is wrong, and we have many people drifting aimlessly and hopelessly through life.

Maybe you have the wrong end of the stick

The good news is that we are all here for a purpose. You are not a cosmic accident - there is a reason YOU are living at this very time.

The bad news. Do you remember all that stuff they taught you at school about how you could be anything you wanted to be? How you should aim for greatness - well, mostly, that was a load of rubbish. You will never be an astronaut and vast riches probably will be elusive. You were destined for ordinariness. You will probably never be famous, and they won't be building statues to you.

Hear me well, this does not mean that you don't count or have no value, as the culture might suggest. You are here for a reason. That reason is to create, to restore balance, and to share life's burdens with others. Just maybe not in a Fortune 500 company or on YouTube, but in your own quiet corner of your village or neighbourhood.

"You are here to create, to restore balance and to share life's burdens with others."

Do your duty where you are put. Shape your world within arm's reach.

The question, though, is will you humbly play your part as a supporting actor or are you holding out for the breakthrough role that will probably never come your way? You only have one job at any moment that you can uniquely fulfil. Many will fall short on this simple mission through too much striving, perfectionism, or mindless distraction. They will miss their daily reward by living either too far in the future or worse, living the past.

The world we inhabit is an arena of ideas and action. Not all philosophies are created equal. Actions often have unintended consequences as they are filtered through the complexities of life and relationships. The world is dangerous, yet the rewards are there for the reaping. Safety and comfort are not the goal instead, seek strength. The former comes through the latter.

This is not a message of mediocrity, but a challenge to ask if the progress you are making is well directed. Do you have a sound philosophy for life? Are you making it up?  

The lie of the secular western culture is that you can have it all, if only you become more productive. You can't have it all. Time is finite and you only have a responsibility to make an imprint within the small sphere that you inhabit. If the ripples of your life travel further afield, so be it.

8 ideas to get you thinking about alignment and your purpose in your current situation

1. Find meaning living in accordance with your personality

You can't push water uphill - you must work with the tools you have. Many of us, myself included, have put ourselves over the years in areas where we don't shine. If you are a creative, spontaneous, type, you are probably not going to excel working in detail-oriented book-keeping. Choose your work carefully. You will spend most of your waking hours there. You can only kick against the pricks for so long before you go mad or ruin your health. If you are working in an area, you are skilled at - energy begets energy - you will have more vitality for the evening and weekend. Your ability to give the best of yourself each day at work will flow into and enhance all areas of your life.

2. Find meaning in the chaos of life

If life is too easy all the time, we are doing it wrong.. This seems counterintuitive. Just as a muscle needs exercise to grow, we need resistance in life to flourish. We should hope for testing and difficulties that lie just within our capacities to bear. To carry the heaviest burden that we can manage. (To quote Peterson) For in this zone - meaning is found. It is the area between the known and the unknown. Looking back to my earlier life - the times with the greatest memory imprints and learning were times where I was thrust into the unknown - For example the time I left home to live in France for a year in my early 20s or when set up a business that failed. Soon the unknown became familiar and these difficult times created memories of either deep personal satisfaction or hard-earned experience  - a well that I have been able to draw from repeatedly, improving my decisions and helping me to put context into life. Too much chaos or order is a bad thing - and I expect to come back to the management of this over coming months in this blog.

3. Find meaning close to home

With the advent of the 24-hour news cycle and social media doom scrolling (a news feed filled with unrelenting misery or hot button items designed to provoke you) it is no wonder we are all a little on edge. Every weather event is a portent of imminent climate destruction. Presidential incompetence in the US will lead to the end of democracy, wars and rumours of wars - In reality, none of this stuff matters unless it is happening right now in your hometown. With the best will in the world, there is little you can do about Brexit, the budget deficit, or the alleviation of world hunger. You may have got stressed out about these issues, but what are you actually doing to resolve them except for nearly provoking an aneurysm as you type an angry tweet? What actually matters is close to home. For example, at the breakfast table, while you are scrolling through the news, are your children and your spouse set for the day? Are you checking in? Do you leave the house in good order with kind words or encouragement? If world hunger really concerns you support a charity such as 'Compassion' and sponsor an individual child and write to them every month. Is your house tidy, are your bills up to date? Start thinking closer to home and make sure it is squared away first before looking to fix complex problems further afield.

4. Meaning is not found staring at your smartphone

Put your wretched phone down. Some people are waking up. Look at your phone for 2 hours 30 minutes a day and in 10 years you will have wracked up 10,000 hours staring at a tiny screen. I have been profoundly guilty until recently of spending too much time on my phone. It is an ongoing battle. I win more days than I lose now, but you must take decisive action and I will discuss this in future posts. This source of distraction is stealing away most people's lives. It robs us of our joy. It is addictive and you will regret it. Wake up now.

5. Find meaning in small daily pleasures

We all remember the peak experiences of our lives, the wedding day, our children being born, the time you bought your first brand new car. Life cannot and should not be like this every day. We should consider these irregular moments as the punctuation marks in a life well lived. As you scroll through Instagram or consume other marketing material, you will sense that you are missing out, that you have not achieved enough for the age you are. Social media and marketing can be manipulative. Sure, it is useful to inform of a new product, but it is designed to hold your attention and create an element of pain to nudge you to consume whatever it is they are selling. With social media - you are being consumed. Your precious time and attention is the fuel that keeps this beast alive. Instead, I encourage you to stop and look around you for a minute. Have you forgotten what you really enjoy? The simple daily pleasures that make life worth living. As I type, the winter sun is streaming through my window. I'm sipping a coffee and enjoying its life affirming glow. This is uncommon in Northern Ireland, so I take a moment to relish it.. to soak it in and I'll be all the better for it. As my grandfather used to say, "Little with contentment is great gain". Try to enjoy the small things that used to matter to you. Ban all digital distractions while doing them.

6. Find meaning in helping others

With this point, I'm telling you nothing new. It almost sounds like trite advice, but honestly, many of us live with a 'quid pro quo' attitude to life, asking, what is in it for me? We all know deep down that it is not about us.... Life comes into colour when we set our own needs aside for a moment and think of others. Think locally or personally. Help with something where you will see immediate results. Sending 2 pounds every month to the WWF doesn't cut it to save a polar bear you will never meet.  

However, having said all this, I am awful at receiving help. If I have a problem, I'll largely try to fix it myself or pay someone to fix it. You might be like this as well. When someone has a problem that I can fix - It makes my day and warm glow hangs around a while. So next time you are stuck - actively look for help - don't rob someone of their chance of an endorphin boost. It also means that when they are stuck, they will come to you and a relationship can be deepened.

7. Find meaning in tradition

Traditions bind families and societies. The hair-shirted neo-puritans like to tell us that everything we once held dear is evil or some such nonsense. Of course, times change the old should give way to the new, but there has been a cultural assault on all that we once held dear. Our faith, institutions, rights of passage and festivals. It is as if we should raze and replace all with something approved. I urge you not to let the things that bring joy and a sense of belonging lapse.... Tradition binds the past with the present and points to the future. It reflects the best of us. It reminds us from where we have come and gives us space to be grateful. Just because you don't understand something, don't reject it out of hand. It is there for a reason. Jeremiah in the Bible writes, "This is what the Lord says: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Jer 6:16 NIV).

8. Find meaning in truth (authenticity)

Take the narrow road and be a person of integrity and honesty. Someone that others can rely on when the chips are down. Don't be flakey. This requires consistency and daily authenticity. Albert Camus, in his book “Les Justes”, he has a protagonist referring to the front rank at the last minute. This is where courage is found. We all imagine ourselves to be the hero, but when the moment calls, will your reflexes prompt you to act with moral or physical courage? Or will you slink away hoping someone else will deal with the problem? Every day, you are making hundreds of decisions. Each one takes you closer or further away from being that person of character that you should be. Living in-authentically or putting up with the indefensible will cause you to die a 1,000 deaths a day. Your conscience will be dulled and those who will ultimately rely on you will suffer.

Work from the inside out

To close this topic in the quest for meaning, we must acknowledge its subjectivity. My purpose, though, is to jar you to question the road that you are on. Are you on the hamster wheel going through the motions because that is what we all do? Do you ever stop to reflect? Healthy competition and a little striving are a good thing but don't be consumed with the future, chasing mirages, when there are unique problems close at hand that only you can fix today. Start here. Don't get too distracted by what you think you should do at some distant point in the future. Look around, who needs you now, what can you fix or improve to completion today?

Parting shot

To live a worthy life, you do not need riches, fame, or beauty. - You can be unimportant, unglorious and unseen. Do the best with what you have, be truthful, courageous and caring. Then your life will count.