Cruising around YouTube I came across a very well known motivational, self help speaker. I began watching, because just like everyone else, I am always looking for an edge in life. Ten minutes in, I was struck by something that I had often thought of previous times when watching these kinds of talks. Everyone is glowing, excited, energised, and in the moment — but I am left wondering what do they look like on Monday, after the ecstasy of the happy chemical cocktail that raced through their body on the weekend had subsided?
I am reminded here by Jack Kornfield’s book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. Taking this as a metaphor for the realities of the world we really live in, once the ecstasy is over, life is still there, and like it or not, it will throw a right hook at you if are looking or not. When I watch these proposed life transforming events by self help Guru’s, what I am most interested in, is actual tools that you can apply in the real world. Watching this particular motivational talk on YouTube, I was struck once again, how, while you may feel inspired for the moment, you are still left the next day wondering, “And now?”, “And how?”
Feeling Good For a Moment Doesn’t Last a Lifetime
I think to often, we confuse feeling good for a moment, as transferable for a lifetime. Maybe I am just a grumpy old fart, but I would rather have a pragmatic, less romantic, raw, gritty speech hold my attention, than been told how we all have unlimited potential and power within us, and we just haven’t unlocked it yet.
Maybe its just how I was brought up, and my experiences as a child, but I learned early on growing up in government housing on the South Side of Johannesburg (similar to the Projects in the USA), that to survive those mean streets you needed to be tough. Living in that environment isn’t all sunshine and roses. No amount of ‘fake it till you make it kind of thinking’ is going to make a difference when the neighbourhood bullies see you turn that corner and decide to chase you down the block. I learned early on that as Seneca notes,
“Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.”
There is something really liberating when you acknowledge exactly where you are. You can wish all you like that things were different, but growing up, I was well aware of my reality. This didn’t make me pessimistic. Rather, being grounded in reality, allowed me to work from where I was to achieve success, rather than trying to succeed from where I wasn’t.
Rather than thinking that I had unlimited potential, I realised I had unlimited resolve. I think resolve, a combination of finding a solution, deciding firmly on a course of action, and the determination to get it done is a far more important life skill to develop than Pollyanna style thinking. In fact, research now conclusively shows that positive thinking can often be a bad thing. Taken to the extreme, it unhinges you from reality. Ah, yes, reality, you know that thing called life, that throws those right hooks.
Success Isn’t Easy, But We Will Take The Easy Road If Offered
Like it or not, most of these self help talks floating around everywhere are centred on being positive seemingly all of the time. The Cult of Optimism now seems to pervade everywhere. These Pollyanna ‘You Have Unlimited Potential’ style seminars and talks sell too, because the human brain, is programmed really to seek out two important factors in its environment, fight or flight.
Said another way, the human brain is a survival seeking machine. “Oh all I have to do is think positive thoughts, and life will be more rosy?” Oh, the human brain loves that, because if we can survive easy we will take that first. In other words, we want to survive the easiest way possible, with as little work as possible. The human being loves to conserve its energy.
It’s not our fault really, these are all left overs from our caveman days. A time when staving off hunger was hard work, and energy was only to be expended on an almost guaranteed hunt. That’s why, even to this day, we love anything sugary. Back in those primitive times, knowing where a bunch of fruit trees were, or a Bee hive — made staying alive a whole lot easier.
Given the opportunity then, we will always take the easy way out, and no where is this more evident than in the self-help movement. But as Epictetus reminds us,
“To accuse others for one’s own misfortunes is a sign of want of education. To accuse oneself shows that one’s education has begun. To accuse neither oneself nor others shows that one’s education is complete.”
My realisation early on, is that you have to take full responsibility for who you are, and where you find yourself right now. Don’t lie about it, don’t try to make it out to be something it’s not. If you in a quagmire of your own making, then acknowledge it. Accepting exactly where you are, and then working to change it moment by moment is what is needed more in this world, and in our lives.
As Epictetus further notes,
“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”
Back to resolve. At the heart of will, is resolve. Resolve is something we all have power over. I am yet to encounter any situation that cannot be worked on and changed into a direction that favours more fortune. Why we often don’t see this, has a lot to do with or Ego, and just as much to do with not accepting where we are. Resolve is taking full unbridled ownership for your own life. It’s not about thinking positive, its about being pragmatic.
As Saadi, a Persian poet notes,
“However much you study, you cannot know without action. A donkey laden with books is neither an intellectual nor a wise man. Empty of essence, what learning has he whether upon him is firewood or book?”
My advice: In other words, nothing replaces action. As simple as that sounds, stop worrying about getting that Happy Cocktail of chemicals right in your body, be realistic about where you are, and find the one single thing you can do right at this moment to change things how you want it to be. Start there, and contentment will take care of itself.
As Salman Rushdie, in The Ground Beneath Her Feet, reminds us:
“Things aren’t like this,” he kept repeating. “It shouldn’t be this way.” As if he had access to some other plane of existence, some parallel, “right” universe, and had sensed that our time had somehow been put out of joint. Such was his vehemence that I found myself believing him, believing, for example, in the possibility of that other life in which Vina had never left and we were making our lives together, all three of us, ascending together to the stars. Then he shook his head, and the spell broke. He opened his eyes, grinning ruefully. As if he knew his thoughts had infected mine. As if he knew his power. “Better get on with it,” he said. “Make do with what there is.”