Still of the Heart

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.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

8 responses to “Still of the Heart

  • rorypond2020

    I really enjoy those rare moments when I have absolutely nothing to do; I seek them out. Finding the time to just open up a book and read for pleasure is one of life’s great rewards.

  • wakemenow

    Wise words, Wyrd. I really appreciated them. Couldn’t agree more about individuals being like fractals, each unique in their own way. The portion that stood out to me most was:

    “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.”

    Fighting fate is something I struggle with, and grace is something I wish for but don’t really know how to achieve. Can’t seem to control the instinct to fight so far, because anything else feels like giving in and choosing complicity. Have any addition advice specifically for the rebel-hearted?

    🙂 Seriously. Good words. Practical information you’ve gleaned along your journey is valuable to us younger people, largely because we’re not offered nearly enough genuine handed-down nuggets of wisdom. In this day and age, too much propaganda and mindless chatter, not enough meaningful advice and thoughtful observations. Life is tough, with so much to keep up with, so many demands and expectations, to where it’s so easy to lose sight of what really matters and makes life worth living, and too easy to fall prey to stress and anxiety. Definitely necessary to take time to chill.

    And I get you about cell phones. Guilty as charged.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      The Stoics believed in fate and predestination way more than most sensible people would (although there is the whole subject of a deterministic universe, but let’s assume free will exists for now). I added the idea of chewing on the rope to get free of the cart, because I do believe you can change your life. Sometimes the consequences are large—and they can affect others hugely, as well (the classical image of the spouse who decides it’s all been a mistake, and that “self realization” depends on leaving and otherwise adequate marriage). But I do believe you can change your path.

      That said, the dog/cart image is still a good one. One may choose not to change—perhaps viewing those big changes as the greater evil—and then the result is the same as being unable to change. The cart is still going down the road, and the choice is walking or being dragged. I think the key lesson is that, if you accept your life (even if working to change it in non-extreme ways), then you want to find the good and the grace to make the path as pleasant as it can be.

      There is what I might call extreme change (abandoning life and those in it to seek a whole new path), and there is non-extreme change (say schooling to allow one to seek a better job). Sometimes extreme change does seem called for. I think we’ve talked about how it sometimes seems revolution is the only way this country’s screwy politics and government would change. Sometimes you do have to abandon ship, but the cost can be severe and one can never be certain the new path will be any better. Non-extreme change burns fewer bridges and costs less; retreat is more possible, and one can “test the waters” of the new path. Life is so complex and has so many variables that each situation is different and must be weighed individually.

      But I ramble… one more bit of ramble: I have always been captivated by the image of the “happy poor.” I’m not entirely sure it’s not more of media than reality, but I have known people with very little who were very happy. And, having worked in Hollyweird, I’ve rubbed shoulders with some very unhappy rich people (it seems that the more money you have, the more you obsess about money in myriad ways). I wonder sometimes if our affluent life in this country doesn’t create more misery than not.

      As to rebellion! Speaking as a dog who has spent much of life snarling, snapping and chewing at that rope, I can attest to the fact that it’s mainly the dog who suffers. And who sometimes causes suffering in others around. I once actually had a credo that, “If I’m not happy, no one around me is going to be happy.” It was very effective. If by “effective” we mean that it tended to drive others away or to give others the worst possible image of me.

      Even so, there are times when it’s worth it. As they say, one must pick ones battles. Long, long ago (shortly after college) I got into a discussion about credit cards with a friend. At the time, I had refused to own any, and he made the comment that there must be some payoff in taking such a (silly, in his opinion) stand. That comment was one of those keys that stuck with me all these decades. I barely recall the conversation at all, but I’ve always remembered that comment.

      There was a payoff in taking a “costly” (in terms of ease) stand. I was being true to a basic life belief of not spending money I don’t have. I still pay cash for most real-time encounters; it’s only been a couple of years that I’ve been using credit cards to buy groceries (most to help track how much I spend as I prepare to retire). And being able to gas at the pump; credit cards are handy there. But unless I happen to lack cash in my pocket, that’s about it. (I was once $9 short of making my own bail, so ever since I’ve tended to keep a fair amount on me even though those wilder days are far behind me.)

      Again I ramble. The point is, I think sometimes it does the soul good to rebel. And if one is the rebellious sort, ones needs to embrace that sometimes. The trick is picking the battle. I think it is a matter of weighing the cost of the battle with the benefit of doing battle. How shitty does giving in feel on a case by case basis? What is the cost, not of winning, but of battling at all? When it feels sufficiently shitty enough, and the cost can be borne, it’s time to strap on the sword. Even unwinnable battles do sometimes need to be fought just for principle.

      There is an old fable about the mighty oak and the lowly reed. In the various normal breezes and blows of life, the reed is whipped around at the whim of the wind. The mighty oak brags about how it stands so straight and tall, unmoved by the wind. Until the hurricane comes and cracks the oak’s trunk and down it goes, dead. The reed, pushed flat to the ground, arises when the hurricane passes and lives.

      Sometimes flexibility—not complacency—is a virtue, a strength. How to obtain it? How to choose not to fight? I guess that’s part of the journey; you get there one step at a time. We do choose our direction even if the path leads away from it sometimes. But we keep that direction in mind, keep our face pointed the way we want to go, and step by step we progress. And, oh sure, sometimes we slide down a cliff into a dark valley, but even then we keep walking, keep trying. Anything else is dying.

      (Man, it feels weird to prescribe even with your encouraging words. In some ways it’s so not me (“live and let live” being a key philosophy), but in other ways it’s very much me (many teachers & preachers in my family tree), and there’s a scary ego-attraction in doing do. But I do feel I have something of worth to say. It’s so hard to avoid sounding trite or pointless.)

  • Lady from Manila

    This will go down as one of my most favorite posts from you. Your response to “wake me now” is even good enough to make it as another blog post (which usually happens with several of your comments).

    You see, I love having conversations with my brother, my sister, my female best friend, and others whose company I enjoy and who are on the same wavelength with me. But I don’t like it when people brand me as strange because I choose who I spend my time with. I’m of the belief it’s useless forcing myself to be around someone who bores me to tears or whose personality doesn’t match mine. To be a normal social animal in my country, you have to be able to chill out with just anybody – regardless if they get on my nerves or render my existence miserable. Solitude and solitary activities are customarily frowned upon. Why can’t most people accept there are those who are basically shy, or who don’t socially thrive in large groups and superficial relationships?

    Also, in my case: I don’t know, but my own thoughts don’t stultify me that much :-), which means I can be fine with being alone.

    As you’ve written: “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.” Very well said.
    Oh, I can’t help gushing over another beautiful post of yours, Wyrd.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Well, thank you!

      I do wax prolific, don’t I! I try to avoid such long comments on others’ blogs, but on my own I figure they’re part of the article. I probably should learn to post them as new articles, though (maybe with ping backs).

      I don’t know if USAnian culture goes quite so far as to frown on solitary. More, as you first said, you get branded “odd” or “off.” We’ve had plenty of odd-ball famous eccentric loners, and the USA does have some “lone explorer” memes. But always, the “tribe” can be very disapproving of things it doesn’t understand and embrace. Such seems the nature of the human beast. (Actual animals are frequently even more intolerant of non-standard behavior in their ranks. At its core, it’s an evolutionary thing; weird behavior could mean defective genes.)

  • Blues Fairy

    This is my favourite post 🙂

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