Updated: Oct 24, 2021
I was listening to a debate recently. I won’t bore you with the details, suffice to say the interlocutors were making conjectures and coming to conclusions about the best way a society, and by extension an individual, might pursue happiness. By the end of their debate it seemed that they agreed on one basic principle; Put your house in order and happiness will arise spontaneously.
Put one way it seemed reasonable, but somehow I was left feeling underwhelmed by the whole experience. Part of my disappointment came from not getting the knock down drag out fight I was expecting from these notorious personalities. The other part of my general malaise was harder to identify. Here were two well respected men of philosophy and social science on opposite sides of the political spectrum agreeing on something. Who am I to disagree?
Then I hit upon it! That was exactly why I had a hard time hearing them talk so flippantly about happiness coming to you. If you were to set aside their political ideologies these two weren’t different at all. They were both older white men with tenure at well respected universities. They were speaking from a place of absolute security. It’s as if they made it up the mountain and were giving a lecture on how to enjoy the view from the top. Of course it would seem simple to them.
I am still down in the bush. Making my way through the foothills of life is, and has been, hard. Despite that I have picked up some useful tools along the way. My advice can’t be distilled down to a concise ideology but I hope this can be a useful field guide to those of us who are looking to set up a permanent residence in the valley of hope. I don’t think we have to wait till we’ve reached the top of the mountain in order to enjoy the view. For the next few paragraphs enjoy the heat of my campfire. I hope you hit the trail on the right foot.
The Past: Not carrying around unnecessary weight.
When I’m hiking a long way I’m bound to get tired. My old shoes aren’t as comfortable anymore and I have found a few to many auditions to my rock collection. My eyes are on the trail right in front of my feet. I’m sweating and not enjoying myself as much as I expected. I’m certainly not enjoying the view.
Life has been similar. After a while things that used to be useful stuck around and didn’t work for me any more. I picked up things that seemed pretty at the time but started to weigh me down. One thing led to another and it became hard to look up from the trail. I realized it was time to evaluate my gear and unburden my pack.
It is going to look a bit different for everyone but what I was experiencing might look familiar in your own life. Those old shoes for me was an old car. I kept on fixing it and it kept letting me down. I’d leave it unfixed for a while and come back to it harder to fix than ever. It was time to figure out how to leave it behind. Those shiny rocks weighing me down was a credit card and an alcohol habit. Putting the money I was spending on beer toward the credit card was a decision I had to make every week. When I was going through a rough patch it was a decision I made everyday. The day I finally paid of that card was like coming out on flat land after a long uphill stretch. While it was tempting to celebrate with a drink I knew my pack was lighter without that particular rock weighing me down. Besides, I still have my student loans.
This is not meant to shame anyone. Shame is another stone and it never helped me enjoy the view. What I am saying is that I had these things that I was ashamed of and coping mechanisms to match. The goal is not to cope with the hurts in life. The goal is to find the things that are holding you back and let the lightening of your pack be its own reward. It felt great paying off that debt. It feels great having the time I used to spend drunk enjoying all the other things the forest of life has to offer.
The Present: Taking the path less taken.
On every hike there is a trailhead and a destination. What I’ve learned is that I only spend a moment at each. 99% of my hike is spent hiking. If I didn’t enjoy the actual hiking part I would have stopped hiking as soon as I discovered this. Why do I enjoy the journey? Or better yet; How do I enjoy the journey?
I stop frequently! I look up from the act of walking and I see what is around me. I let my eyes wander down all the paths my feet dare not tread. I look closely at the little plants on the ground and I look out through the trees. When I hear something I try to identify where it came from. I talk to the people I pass on the trail. I savor the refreshing water I brought along. I do this on my hike. I do this every day.
Just like I have hiked up a lot of steep hills I have worked a lot of crappy jobs. It’s hard to enjoy life when you’re trudging through the thick of it. When I find myself in the middle I stop. I look up and I find something to appreciate. A job well done is a good place to start. I found that chasing paychecks doesn’t work very well for daily satisfaction, but when one does come around, take the time to appreciate the refreshing taste of it. Take time to get to know your fellow hikers. Exploring your surroundings is free and being grateful for what you do have can keep you from languishing over what you lack.
All this is to say that goals and ambition is all well and good but don’t miss the joy that comes to you everyday. Let your eyes wander and appreciate the world around you. In finding small things to appreciate everyday I’m filling my life with little joys.
The Future: Turning my mountain tops into horizons.
This is where I admit I have beat this metaphor to a fine pulp. Life is not a day hike. If I were to treat it like o
ne I would be comparing my progress to some imagined destination. Some days I feel this way. If only I had taken that turn. Why haven’t I made more progress? Look at those people enjoying themselves at the top while I’m down here wallowing along the path. It’s on those days that I need to remind myself that there is no such thing as a destination in life.
Life is a constant journey. There is always something ahead. When I remind myself that all my goals are steps along a path I can feel better about my progress. I can look back and be proud of the progress I have made. I can look up and enjoy where I am. I can look forward to a tomorrow full of little joys, small victories, and big adventures.