“I am crowded inside.” – Pradeep Venugopal
We are, all of us, crowded inside. Echoes from the past. Experiences of the present. Dreams of the future. And the tape loop of all of our thoughts and fears. Myriad possibilities, co-existing.
And sometimes, a cacophony of competing voices.
The challenge is to resist the urge to smother some of the voices. And rather to create a space for different and sometimes even opposing ideas to co-exist. Life is messy, and our desires sometimes contradictory.
No, I’m not talking about some kind of Orwellian doublespeak.
But rather I’m pointing out that all of us have conflicting needs, and sometimes the space between who we’d like to be and who we really are is wide. To accept that this is the case, and simply be with it, while challenging, moves us in the direction of self-acceptance and growth.
Knowing ourselves means becoming acquainted with our own voices, especially the ones that tell us things that we don’t want to hear, or things we’d rather not admit to ourselves.
We have inside of us our own wisdom and power, if we are patient enough to learn to access it.
What if you already know the answers to the questions you are asking?
And if you connect to your own wisdom, and your own power, what happens next?
I recently heard author Dan Buettner speak on the topic of longevity. He made two key points. One is that at least 20% of people don’t have 3 close friends: the lack of close friends is a significant health risk. The other is about the importance of having a sense of purpose in life: people with a sense of purpose live longer. It seems like isolation (sometimes increased by technology) and lack of purpose together constitute a lethal combination.
One of the things that surprises me when I talk to people is how many of them don’t have a strong sense of why they’re here, or what they want to accomplish. I wonder if retirement might be related to losing a sense a purpose: Buettner said the year you retire is the year you’re most likely to die, probably because so many of us rely on our jobs for a sense of identity and purpose.
No matter what your age, identifying (and living) your purpose is crucial to achieving a deeper sense of satisfaction in your life. Buettner spent a lot of time studying various groups around the world in places where people are living 100+ years. He noticed that they all had various things in common. I could list them here, but it’s more to the point to say that several major differences have to do with community and social structure. In other words, the centenarians in these populations had a sense of being useful. They had a purpose.
Buettner says that identifying your talent or skill area, and then finding an outlet for it, is what leads to a sense of purpose in life. I think a lot of people know where they excel, but the challenge can be finding an outlet for it. It often requires creative thinking. One of my favorite books for identifying and living your purpose is Mira Kirshenbaum’s The Gift of a Year. She says, “Knowing what you want and translating it into something doable is a better route to happiness than denying what you really want because it seems impossible in its purest form.” In other words, make your desires doable by taking one small step that brings you closer to what you want.
One of the most amazing trips you’ll ever take is the journey of self-discovery. Inquire within.
Sometimes the things we want aren’t good for us.
This message has come to me in various forms, from several different people, in the last couple of years.
I think it has to do with the way we want to see ourselves, and the difference between how we want things to be and how they really are. And maybe even the difference between who we want to be and who we really are.
For example, for a very long time I’ve wished I lived in a warmer climate. I imagine how much better I’d feel if it was warm year-round. And perhaps it’s true. I might feel fantastic.
It’s equally possible that I might not appreciate it the way I imagine I would. Now, I value each day of beautiful weather, because I know it won’t last. But if every day was perfect weather, I doubt it would have the same meaning for me. I probably wouldn’t spend as much time outside as I do now.
Another example would be having the desire for personal space, and the ability to make everything just the way you want it. What if, when you get exactly what you want, you find that you miss the company of others, and you would rather things be a little bit messier, but a little more lively? On the flip side, what if you’ve wished for years for companionship, and when it arrives, you realize how much you miss the quiet?
Over the years, I’ve learned that things in our lives are the way they are for a reason. It’s often an opportunity to learn something. If we can stop resisting what is, we may be more able to see how a current circumstance or situation can be an opportunity to grow.
What if everything is as it should be, right now?
An important part of being an adult is being a good parent to yourself. In other words, looking out for your own well-being.
This means giving yourself permission to say no – to anything that doesn’t serve you.
If you’re used to saying yes a lot, saying no might be a bit difficult at first. Especially if, like so many people, you are worried about what others might think of you. Or, if you feel like you are letting someone else down by saying no.
Being a good parent is actually a form of practicing good self-care. It’s about being learning to be kind to you.
Now, if learning to behave in a loving way towards yourself is going to be a process, you’re not alone. I know that I was well-practiced at lecturing myself and pointing out my own mistakes, and it took time to re-learn those habits. It can take some practice to become a good parent.
The first step is noticing how you typically talk to yourself. It’s all too common for many of us to over-commit, or say yes to things we really don’t want to do, and then berate ourselves for not getting it all done.
Honor what you really want or need: practice saying no.
Saying no to what you don’t want leaves you plenty of time to say yes to what you do.
I recently celebrated another birthday, and it gave me a chance to reflect on the way that we tend to assign certain meaning to milestone birthdays, or to have internalized judgments about who we should be, or what we should be doing, at a certain age or stage in life.
Age is just a number. And yes, 50 is different from 20. But is one better than the other? Not really. There are pleasures to be enjoyed at each stage in life.
We often fall victim to our preconceptions about what a certain number means, since there’s really no hard and fast way of determining of what it means to be a particular age. I’ve known people in their seventies and eighties who were vibrant and active, while I’ve known people much younger who were completely mired in the idea that “it’s all downhill from here…”
It’s only downhill if you think it is.
And since you’re the one writing the story, you can create the landscape any way you like.
“I’d once heard that we are nothing but our stories. Forget the blood and bones and genes and cells. They’re not what we are. We are, rather, our stories. We are an accumulation of experiences that we have fashioned into our own grand, sweeping narrative. We are the events and people and places to which we’ve assigned symbolic meaning. And it’s when we step outside our stories that we feel most lost.” – Ken Ilgunas
I’ve written about stories a lot here. And this quote from Walden on Wheels is a reminder that everything that happens to us in life becomes part of an inner narrative. I’ve said over and over that it’s not the events themselves, but the meaning we attach to them, that’s important. One really great example of that can be found in Life of Pi. And, if you’re looking to explore the meaning of your own stories, I recommend Everything Happens for a Reason.
Stepping outside of our own stories can be one of the most valuable experiences in life. While losing the certainty of the narrative can be an unsettling experience, it also contains an incredible opportunity. Sometimes we’re so busy slotting people and events in our lives into the prefabricated story that we lose the ability to experience them as they are. (“Oh, this always happens to me…” Cue the self-pity, entitlement, or whatever you like.)
Sometimes getting lost is just what’s needed. When we step outside of ourselves, we gain a whole new perspective on just about everything, that is, if we allow ourselves to just be a little lost. To experience the surprises that await us outside of the familiar and predictable.
Enjoying the journey, detours and all, is part of living well.