I usually lean towards descriptive writing more than prescriptive writing. I feel more comfortable describing my views and experiences than I do trying to prescribe a path for others.
But some blog articles I’ve read in the last months have made me wonder if I should try a prescriptive approach. This is something new for me, and I already sense a challenging path. How likely is it that someone who would benefit will read such a post, and how likely is it they would follow any prescription I might offer? And of course, what makes me think I can offer any prescription for another person’s life?
In any event, for whatever it’s worth, this prescription is labeled for those who feel dissatisfied with life, who feel a gap between what is and what they feel ought to be.
One of the key complaints I’ve read on some blogs expresses a gap between a life filled with activity and a desire to slow down, to “stop and smell the roses.”
And I admit, I’ve long wondered about people who fill their lives with things to do. I think that if that kind of fast pace is really who you are, more power to you! Still, I wonder sometimes is what people might be running from. Is all that activity a way of—as the old saying goes—not looking back because something might be gaining on you?
When I walk to my car each day after work, I notice how many people have a cellphone glued to their ear. After a day at work, they seem unable or unwilling to take a few moments of peace and quiet while transitioning from their work life to their home life.
Studies have shown that cellphones blur the lines between work life and home life. The same studies seem to show that this isn’t a good thing, that it raises the stress level in your life.
I also notice the people who can’t stand in line or drive their car somewhere without that same cellphone once again glued to their ear. What is this need to fill every moment with chatter? Is there a fear of being alone with your own thoughts? Have self-reflection and thought become dying practices?
Perhaps I look at this with an introvert’s eyes. The key difference between introverts and extroverts has nothing to do with shyness, but with which situations provide energy and which require it. Extroverts are energized by being with people, and they are drained by being alone. Introverts are the opposite; they expend energy being with people and gain it during their alone time.
That doesn’t mean people dislike the energy-draining situations. I enjoy my weekly Wednesday night “guys over” thing, and I enjoy parties, and I enjoy working with people. But those things drain me more than they energize me.
And while extroverts might find being alone draining, I think they still might benefit from sometimes seeking out such times rather than always avoiding them. While doing so might cost them energy, it may also return something of value.
So the first prescription is: learn to cherish the opportunity to be alone doing nothing. It can be a thoughtful and reflective time, if that is your nature, or it can be a time to just let silence and stillness have a chance to sooth and reset you in a crazy-busy world.
Another thing I hear is people asking the question what would “make you happy.” “What are your goals in life?” A frequent view is that life is a path towards some hoped for reward. A common image in America is the one of working hard—perhaps at a less-than-loved job—in order to enjoy your retirement years.
Why endure a difficult path while you’re young hoping that your later years will be “golden.” For one thing, life can be unexpectedly short, and you may never see those golden years. For another, life is uncertain; pensions can take a serious financial beating as many of ours did in recent years, the world can change in unexpected ways.
And finally, would you rather enjoy life while you’re young enough to take full advantage of it, or put it off until your joints creak and your muscles ache?
Which brings me to a second prescription: Life is the journey, not the destination. The path—which may end unexpectedly, or which may take an unexpected, undesired turn—is really all there is. If you constantly seek the path’s end, you may be constantly disappointed. If you learn to enjoy the path, you may find the journey more fulfilling.
And the question of what would make us happy or sad is, I think, a wrong question. Ultimately, nothing makes you happy or sad. How you feel about something is largely under your control. Of course, some things are so big we can’t help but react, but in general how you feel about your life is a choice you make.
The ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism has the metaphor of a dog tied to a large, heavy cart. The cart, pulled by oxen, is going down the road. Now the dog has two choices. It can be dragged down the road kicking and screaming, or it can accept its fate and choose to walk. (Of course, nothing says it can’t chew on the rope, hoping for freedom, while it walks!)
The point is that you can accept life gracefully or not. The dog is going down the road. Whether it does so gracefully is up to the dog. If it chooses to fight its fate and be dragged, the only one that suffers is the dog.
As I mentioned, this isn’t to say you can’t work to change your fate, that you can’t seek an opportunity for a different path. It simply says that you avoid terrible wear and tear on yourself by taking the path gracefully.
[I should, perhaps, point out that this doesn’t apply universally. Many suffer from mental illness or from lives that are seriously messed up (people trapped in abusive relationships or struggling with addiction, for example). Life is much more complicated if you cannot trust your own mind or the people closest to you. I do not presume to be capable of offering prescriptions for those in such straits.]
The classical division between pessimist and optimist involves the half-full glass of water. I’ve long thought the metaphor was only a start. Both the pessimist and the optimist just describe the situation. How about dealing with the situation? How about changing the situation? Get a smaller glass. Get more water. Drink the water and fill the glass with beer. Use the water to fill a squirt gun and have some fun. Give the water to someone who is more thirsty than you. Share the water with a friend.
Labeling things is only a beginning. Labels give us a handle and allow us to talk about things, but they don’t do much more. They can even be counter-productive, especially if we think the job is done in the labeling. In the end, what does it really matter how you describe the glass of water? Isn’t what you do with the water what matters?
One conclusion I’ve come to regarding people is that we’re all the same, and yet each of us is different when you zoom in on the details. We all share so much in common, but none of us is exactly alike. People are like fractals or snowflakes that way.
And for this reason, no prescription, no self-help books, no advice from others, is ever perfect. You must live your own life on your own terms and forge your own path. You must find the prescription that works best for you. People talk about needing to “find themselves,” and that’s another odd exercise to me. You’re easy to find; you’re right there, and you’ve been there all your life.
What you need to do is listen. Listen to yourself honestly.
To do that you need to find some peace and quiet. Put down the cellphone. Stop filling every moment of your life with activity.
Seek some moments of stillness. Seek the still of your heart.