In my last post, I suggested that the majority of people choose not to thrive. It seems a bit crazy; after all, why would people choose to be unhappy and unfulfilled? In a way, it’s about delayed gratification, playing the lottery, and strength training.
It’s very popular in certain circles today to say things like “he’s just where he needs to be right now” or “it’s all good.” The implication is that there is some sort of preordained plan. Any misery is sent to teach you something. And when friends are clearly about to make a really stupid choice, there’s nothing you can say because they’re doing the best they can.
There’s some real wisdom in this – some. The past is the past, so any bad choices that people have made that led to their current circumstances are fixed – you can’t undo where you are now by wishing you had done things differently in the past.
And we all have this constant struggle between an idealized version of who we want to be and the limited person we actually are. In my mind, I always choose the healthy dinner over the hamburger. In reality… well, the reality is that none of us can manage to hit the mark all the time.
But there is a danger in this line of thinking, too. The danger is that we start to lose the ability to distinguish between good and bad choices. It’s one thing to say that we can’t undo the bad choices we’ve made in the past, but another entirely to say that any choice you make now is the best you can do.
See, the catch is that the “right” choice is also often the “hard” choice.
Exercise is the obvious metaphor. To get strong, you need to push yourself. It takes effort. You need to struggle at your very limits against things that resist you – literally. You get sweaty and uncomfortable and sore. And worst of all, there’s no immediate pay-off. Face it, if you could work out hard and look great instantly, but it would wear off in 24 hours, every one of us would work out every day. But it doesn’t work like that. Slowly, over time, in ways that are often imperceptible, you get stronger and fitter and your clothes start to fit better. So, we have to be committed to doing the work every day and, to a degree, take the results on faith.
Almost everything works like that, but for the really important things – those things that help us truly thrive – the pay-off is even harder to recognize and the timeline even more uncertain.
Parker Palmer says: “the deepest things in life come not singly but in paradoxical pairs, where the light and dark intermingle.” To really thrive, we need to be willing to dive into that scary mix of light and dark. We need to be willing to explore our shadow to find our light. It takes a kind of courage far beyond bungee jumping or extreme mountain biking.
And no one can guarantee paradise (and you should be extremely suspicious of those who do) or material success (be even MORE suspicious of them). So, why bother?
Because if you push yourself a little every day, straining against those things that push back, you start to develop inner strength. You start to manage little fears easily and can move on to bigger and bigger fears, ultimately confronting the BIG one – mortality. And that strength starts to pervade the other aspects of your life. You start, as Diane Ackerman says, living the full width of your life, not just its length.
It gives you the strength to pursue your dreams knowing that, whether or not things work out the way you imagine them, you are still successful for daring to try; knowing that you can’t win big if you don’t buy a ticket.
And it gives you a quiet knowledge that even if you must face unhappy circumstances, you carry a deeper reserve of something beyond even happiness – like that feeling of contented exhaustion after a long, full, demanding day.
So, I see myself as a sort of bootcamp instructor for this inner strength training. Now, when people say “oh, that’s just where they need to be right now” I say “yes, and where I need to be is behind them kicking their ass” because usually the “right” choice is also the “hard” choice and we all need a little friendly reminder that it’s worth it.