Saturday, January 14, 2012


When I was a kid, I always had a problem taking naps or going to sleep. I remember distinctly being struck by the injustice of being sent to bed, while the rest of the world continued living without me. It seemed grossly unfair that everybody else on the planet was up doing cool stuff and having fun while I slept. Even though most of the world's activities were continuing regards of whether or not I was awake, or even aware of what was going on. I couldn't help but feel that I was missing out on life for every minute that I spent in bed. Clearly, the only logical and just solution was for the world to be paused until I awoke again. 

My perspective on sleep has sadly changed, as I have become shamefully less upset at not being included in this whole thing. Thinking about it now, it seems totally wasteful that I would generally prefer a half an hour's unconsciousness to the glories and treasures of waking life. But I have to confess that I'm now an old man in that way. 

There was something that little kid Greg knew that present tense Greg forgot. After I had gotten a little older, I began to look forward to birthdays as benchmarks on my way to real life as a big kid. When I became a junior higher, I eagerly awaited high school in hopes that my awkward and laughable circumstances would change. In high school, I wanted to be in college and start doing things that I "really" wanted to do. For most of college, I was desperate to graduate and start my "real" life. As I started creeping up on graduation, I began to realize how sweet I had it. But I could have just as easily continued the trend and entered grad school, eager to graduate so I could start a career of being eager for retirement. Only to retire and figure out some life lesson or another that some old people seem to know. 

To make a long story short, I wasted a lot of time wanting the future before I realized that I was buying a lie. A lie that has been hard to unlearn. For the longest time I believed that the present moment would prove to be less important or less enjoyable than some future moment. Terms like "the real world" and "when I start my life" made me a slave to a future I really had no stake in. Focusing my energies and attentions on the belief that the future will be better than the present resulted in not a few bad habits:

1. First, by focusing on how the future would be better, or more meaningful, or more "real" (whatever that means) I was implicitly acknowledging that I was unhappy with my current circumstances. Living in the future made me incapable of appreciating what I actually had in the present. If I had been able to pull my head out of the sand and realize how good my actual day to day life was, if I was able to practice real gratitude, I wouldn't have needed to spend so much time trying to live in the future. Instead, my ingratitude kept me chained to some fantasy world that was never more real than the present moment I was avoiding. 

2. Instead of looking my circumstances in the eye, recognizing my ingratitude, my problems, and my opportunities like a man, I set my eyes on some shadowy distant idealized future in which everything would be better for some reason (Although I must confess, I am still subject to this temptation - frequently). The problem was that this view prevented me from changing the things about my life that I didn't like. If I had faced my problems instead of imagining a future without them, not only would I have been happier in the present, I also would have had a better shot at building the future that I wanted for myself. I didn't like my high school experience, (Even though I had great friends, a great family, and a whole host of other reasons to be happy) but instead of changing the things I didn't like and had control over (there were many) I choose to sulk and daydream about going to x prestigious college in y pretentious city and studying z pretentious major where I could become a pretentious leader in my pretentious field - despite the fact that I spent  zero time developing the drive, skills, and intelligence necessary to bring about that ridiculous future that seemed so certain to me in my day dreams. 

3. The lie made me unhappy. Like rubbing salt in a wound, my certain belief that the future would be better than the present only highlighted and inflamed the frustrating parts of my actual life. Like so many grievances, if I had only diverted my attention from them, they would have gone away. I was picking at a cut and only making it worse. I was licking chapped lips. Wallowing in my fantasy future gave me temporary comfort from my problems, but only made them worse in the long run by failing to face them or let them go. 

In his book, "Stumbling on Happiness" psychologist Daniel Gilbert writes about how terribly poor humans are at predicting what will make them happy latter on in life. "Most of us spend our lives steering ourselves toward the best of all possible futures, only to find that tomorrow rarely turns out as we had presumed. Why? ... when people try to imagine what the future will hold, they make some basic and consistent mistakes. Just as memory plays tricks on us when we try to look backward in time, so does imagination play tricks when we try to look forward." I find myself so often at the end of an endeavor, or goal, or project, and look back to find that I feel completely different about it than what I had predicted at the beginning. And yet I spend so much time living inside an unreasonable future.

It's so easy to get stuck in our heads with a whole pile of silly plans. We think, "How will I be happy? Well, I'll go to this school and get this degree, and then that will let me get this masters degree, which will let me enter this profession, which will let me get this pension, oh and along the way I'll get a wife, so I can have some kids to support me when I'm old, and I'll work till I'm sixty five. And then I'll cash my pension and retire to Florida, and buy a boat and wear a hat that says "#1 Grandpa" and THEN, I'll be happy." But if we live a life that only yields happiness at the end, what the hell were we doing the rest of the time? 

Happiness isn't about proper planning; it's about gratitude, which happens in the present.

As I write this I realize how much I still need to learn this lesson. I've got a long way to go. In general, I consider myself a man of half baked plans, and I have a hard time keeping my head out of the clouds. But in the end, I have no interest in leading a "carrot on a string" life.  I have no interest in chasing after some future dream that will supposedly yield a humble, wise, happy man - despite the fact that I put no effort into developing the character I wanted when I had the chance. I am interested in making decisions about my life. Here, now, on the ground. 

Gratitude means recognizing that each moment is as significant as the one preceding it, and the one following it. When you wake up, while you bathe, while you eat, while you sleep, while you do paperwork, when you're with your loved ones, when you are with people you dislike, when you're traveling, when you're on the train, when you're working, when you're playing, when you're arguing, flirting, joking, reading, crying, fighting, being bitter, being happy, being bored, being old, being young, Being, your life is happening. Seamlessly, inexorably, breath after breath. Gratitude means taking each moment, no matter how mundane, and arresting it, recognizing it, seeing it for the gift it is, and submitting to being in it. As it happens. One by one. 

1 comment:

  1. STOP IT. You are too wise for your own good & these words of wisdom are making me uncomfortable. Now I feel compelled to DO something about all this gratitude nonsense. Way to keep bursting my bubble on a semi-weekly basis, Greg. Geez.


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