There is wisdom in knowing nothing at all, a wisdom inherent in our biology. Watching someone in the first few years of their life is proof of this – joy comes easily, they are not encumbered by the opinions of others, and learning is done by making mistake after mistake and never giving up.
There are some pieces they have yet to develop, of course, that prevent these tiny humans from operating successfully in the grown-up world. Tantrums come easily, they are oblivious to social consequence, and some lessons are fatal and don’t allow the “try and try again” approach.
Sticking metal objects into an electrical outlet, for example, is not an ideal learning opportunity.
As our years go by we gain an ever expanding set of experience that allows us to operate in a more sophisticated fashion. We learn to perform and even master simple tasks like using a spoon, which leads to learning more complex tasks like keeping our room clean. We learn to grow social relationships; other people we meet in passing become significant to us and we get to cultivate connections with people outside of our family.
All this growth comes at a price. Everything we do that adds lasting value to our lives takes some hard work, and to earn this value we must work our way through unforeseen problems which bring with them new kinds of suffering. The suffering that comes with betraying an old friend to make a new one, for example. This is a lesson that is painful but very valuable to learn.
As we navigate all of this suffering there are mechanisms inherent in us that keep us from taking on any unnecessary pain. Often times these pains are manageable and the results of bearing down and powering through them can be obvious. Everybody knows the saying “no pain, no gain,” and it’s most commonly attributed to physical activity. Building muscle means tearing muscle. It hurts!
Another example that is easily understood is the suffering of work. To hold a job you must go through the process of searching for and landing the job. This is an anxiety provoking process and it can be an immense relief to get through it all and join the working world. Then once that job is your routine you’ll face challenges like difficult coworkers, differences of opinion, and doing tasks that you have absolutely no desire to do. It hurts as well, but in a different way.
When there is a general lack of optimism to one’s approach in life it’s all too easy to see this road ahead of you as chores; nothing more than things that you do because you have to. You have to go to work otherwise you can’t afford to eat. You have to go to your friend’s baby shower otherwise the girls will snub you. You have to go to bed because you need enough sleep to be in a decent mood tomorrow.
But this way of doing things because “it’s what you have to do” centers life around chasing relief:
You have to go to work because if you don’t get paid you can’t live. So when you’re running low on funds and the paycheque drops into your account you’re relieved that you’ve earned enough for another few weeks.
You have to go to your friend’s shower so that you can take the pressure off of yourself socially. They still bug you about the time you stayed home from the last one and it’s a relief not to get picked apart this time around.
You have to go to bed because it’s stressful and exhausting to be in a bad mood the next day and it’s a relief to have one less anchor on your day.
Even the social habit of joking about your burdens is a form of relief. It’s such a common thing for people in almost any workplace to chatter about how much Monday sucks while counting down the days until Friday. What a relief when you can enjoy a few days away from work!
And when Friday comes… whew! Let’s get together for drinks! Take the edge off. You’ve earned it!
There’s a line in a movie about drinking that stuck with me: “don’t drink to feel better, only drink to feel even better.” That really rang in my ears since it’s so easy to find people using drinking as a mechanism to leap away from the stress of their jobs.
But when approached from this perspective, all of this is relief. It’s like putting on a pair of shoes that’s two sizes too small just so you can enjoy the feeling of taking them off.
I’m not saying that you can just ditch all of these things you don’t like. I mean, you can. Try not going in to work for a while and see what happens. You’ll be proven quite right: you will soon lose the ability to afford things like food and a home. Then again, simply not going in to a job any more isn’t an example of a joyous choice, just yet another short-lived relief by avoiding something undesirable.
For so many of us this existence of continual suffering is too much to allow the natural joy of our early years to flow freely. There has been a staggeringly large number of people I’ve met in passing or even known closely that believe that life is only suffering and therefore can’t be joyous… merely tolerated.
We get that early joy for free. Like I said, it comes with the package of being alive. However, in the same way that our experience doesn’t come for free, neither does our continuing connection with joy. It’s always there, but the suffering does present to us a relentless set of challenges and the path to joy must be continually cultivated.
The problems we amass are unavoidable but it’s our choice to hang on to them. To build our understanding of the world with the bricks and mortar of problems and coping mechanisms. Because we are such resilient beings we can carry a very heavy load of bricks and manage to get by with reasonably good lives.
Finding the joy in our everyday is a practice. As these challenges come at us we can choose to see them as opportunities to grow our understanding of how to make peace with them. To keep them from ruling our thought processes and allow us to get a glimpse of the joy that is always present beneath.
You get to go to work because you are healthy and competent enough to handle that responsibility. It brings you the means to live and allows you the freedom to explore other options. And there are always more options. When you think you’ve run out of possibilities, it’s more likely that you’ve simply stopped searching for them.
You get to choose whether or not to go to your friend’s baby shower. It’s a blessing that your friend is having a baby and that you’ve been included. Even if it feels like something you’d rather avoid, one of the alternatives – and I promise you this is less desirable – is for your friend to hold the shower, send out invites, and you end up not getting one.
You get to go to bed. You’ve successfully made it through the day without getting hit by a car. Or worse, what if your sibling was in a car accident and you were up all night in the waiting room of a hospital hoping to get the news that they’re stable? These things strike without warning and they’re a terrible way to lend perspective to your own problems.
When you choose to accept your lot in life and assume that’s just the hand you were dealt, you close off all kinds of opportunity around you. There is a finality in the perspective that I see from people that call themselves “realists.” In my experience, self-proclaimed realists are pessimists that think life is some form of shit sandwich that you might as well accept.
Understanding that these problems are all a part of our lives and will never stop coming at you is a good beginning. From there we can ask ourselves “what else is there?” What other sides of your everyday story can you see?
I implore you to check if you’ve settled for relief and challenge yourself to find the joy. It’s not easy. It’s simple, but not easy. So what do you see? Do you see a Friday just around the corner that will relieve your weekly burden of your routine? Or is there maybe, just maybe, a little spark of something beautiful underneath?