“Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.” –Mark Twain
“A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one’s neighbor–such is my idea of happiness.” –Leo Tolstoy
I have gotten myself into an emotional pickle since the start of the year. As last year came to an end, I began to think the usual New Year-type of thoughts: changes, goals, habits, resolutions, and the like. I started with my usual question: How do I want to FEEL this year? Even though I had figured out a couple of years ago that “BRAVE!” is always a fantastic answer, for me, to that question, I was feeling something else that had been growing inside me recently. I wanted to feel at Peace and connected to my soul, deeply rooted in contentment, like what I was doing was exactly right for me, playing all of the right chords of my heartstrings. I wanted to be in a state of active bliss, but not so driven by something down the road, some goal or milestone. I wanted to be happy and content in the present. At Peace.
But there was a catch to it, and that catch is what has me in this state of emotional flux: my personal pickle.
I am such a striver. I tend to exist in a near-constant state of assessment: Am I doing enough? Is my life making a difference? How could my gifts be of better use? Am I making the most of my time? What will my next letter to you be about? Is it time to write another book? Is this a good example for my kids? When I am not assessing, I am prodding and urging myself on, proclaiming and declaring my intentions and willing them into existence. There are lots of “I must…” and “I will…” statements in my journals. “I must be more efficient.” “I will have this letter ready by Sunday morning.” “I will get this book published by November.” My mind, left to its own devices, is a hard charger (sometimes a tyrant).
By now you are probably seeing the source of this year’s tension. In making feelings of Peace, ease, and soul connection my hope and my focus from the outset, I was basically disregarding all of my history and my habits.
As I mentioned, my New Year’s intention basically said that I wanted to shirk my ambition and shun the hard deadlines and goals in favor of walks in the sunshine, refreshing swims, music appreciation sessions, and lakeside meditations. I wanted to take my kids on more and longer adventures, into the forests and mountains that make me feel at home and whole. More than wanting that, I wanted to feel free to chase those things with abandon and bask in them without guilt. I wanted to be let off the hook that I seem to have been born upon.
That last part is probably the crux of the matter: to seek out avenues for Peace and Contentment without the strings of Guilt attached, without feeling like it was a decadent waste of time and that I had certainly shortchanged my dreams and my legacy in the process.
Because that’s the thing: I always have these dreams and goals, these aspirations and ambitions driving me. They don’t just stop. I want to do big things, make a difference in the world, be the best father ever, and leave a lasting impression with my writing. In order to fulfill those dreams, I have to produce. I have to be at the computer typing words and then getting them into the world by the self-appointed deadlines. That thought nags at me constantly, alternately inspiring me as I work and tormenting me when I take a break. I seem to be able to hide from it only rarely and in short spurts, and only then if I am doing other things that I deem to be enriching.
Given this almost crippling propensity to STRIVE, is this new resolution to consistently seek out Peace, present Joy, and soul connection even possible? Just laying it out in plain terms like this makes it seem quite illogical, but I feel the question keep scratching at my soul, gnawing at my heart, demanding a deeper hearing. It seems to want me to find a way, to make it make sense. It will scratch and gnaw until it gets what it wants. From 46 years of experience, I recognize that as my intuition talking, and I better engage.
So, could I make it my ambition to act as though I am without ambition? Or, perhaps all along the question needed to be about whether I could convince (con?) myself into believing the pursuit of Calm and Contentment is a worthwhile endeavor, perhaps even a meritorious use of my precious time. More pointedly, could I believe that, simply by living in Peace and Happiness, I could make a positive enough impact on the world to justify my actions (and my inaction toward more “normal,” measurable goals)? Could just BEING Peace emanate enough goodness from me to affect the lives of the people in my sphere of influence? Given my natural inclination to strive, answering affirmatively to that would seem quite a stretch.
I get a bit (sometimes a lot) jealous of people I see on social media who have decided that they are done with needing to run a marathon or work toward a promotion or improve their diet and exercise as part of a weight-loss goal in order to feel alive and happy. They have determined that those ambitions and challenges have come to feel more like weights to carry rather than inspirations, and that life is better without them. They are done striving. They are instead choosing to seek satisfaction in simple, “irresponsible” pleasures: good company, binge-watching their favorite TV shows, a glass of wine or delicious dessert, a walk with their dog. Things that make them feel good.
On first blush, that sounds absolutely wonderful to me. Freedom! A complete unburdening. A release of all that feels like a responsibility to produce, improve, and excel. It has all the allure of the Sirens’ song.
But like the sailors who were drawn to the Sirens’ island by the enchanting songs only to crash upon the rocks, I can tell by the poisonous feeling in my gut as I write about my pleasure-seeking Facebook friends that their lifestyle–specifically, the lack of “something bigger” to strive for–would almost certainly shipwreck my life. I just couldn’t go for long without my soul–my purpose–shouting that it needs work. It would need to grow and contribute and be challenged. It would need to feel like its gifts were being used for their intended purposes. It would need to feel not just massaged by the feel-good stuff I hope to add this year but also stretched and tested by new and difficult pursuits.
As I come to this realization about myself, I feel no criticism arise for those who are able to pull off the contented, unambitious life. I can see real value in “just being happy” and the benefits that that kind of energy puts out into the Universe. And I can tell that we don’t all have the same level of natural urge to create or learn or engage our environment. Not everyone is wired like me (probably a very good thing!). I am happy for people who find Happiness in any way that isn’t harmful to others. I just know that for me, I can’t pull off the unambitious way on anything but a very sporadic basis. To force it upon myself for any great length of time would, despite the enjoyment I would take from catching up on movies and music and such, feel a little too much like I was abandoning my soul’s call, letting go of the rope. In an effort to “just be happy,” I would inevitably become very frustrated and unhappy.
Maybe, in the end, the goal will be just to do the unambitious thing for longer periods, to make the ebbs larger between the waves of striving and “difference-making.” Maybe I will settle for being theoretically in favor of “just chill and be content” and cheer on the people who can pull it off, knowing full well that it works better for them than it does for me. Maybe I can somehow get my brain to re-define the terms in a way that I can ambitiously pursue less Ambition and more Contentment. Maybe I will learn to accept that for me, perhaps “engaged” and “content” are actually the same thing. Maybe one day I will even learn that I don’t always have to push the river, that it flows alright on its own. Maybe….
How about you? What is the right combination of striving vs. contentment for your personal happiness? Open up your journal and examine the ebbs and flows of your ambition. Right now, on the spectrum that runs from, on the one end, hard charging at goals, to the other end of just trying to chill and enjoy life, where are you? How long have you been in this mode? Has that been pretty consistent throughout your life, or have you gone through extreme periods on both ends of the spectrum? When your level of engagement wanes, what do you think causes it? How does your soul feel in those periods of calm and contentment? Do you get restless? How long do those periods last? How about in the periods when you are more ambitious and goal-oriented? How often are you fully engaged in that way? What causes those periods? Do you tend to return to the same types of goals over and over (you’re your health or career), or does your ambition bounce around? How often do your goals and dreams feel like yokes around your neck, the responsibility to fulfill them weighing you down and keeping you from ever being fully happy? Do you think you could ever decide to completely ditch your dreams and ambitions and “just be happy?” Does that even make sense? Is pursuing our soul’s calling–our deepest, truest ambition–the only thing that can lead us to real Happiness anyway? Can we be truly happy by disengaging completely from growth and improvement, or are those who are trying to merely fooling themselves? How much psychological tension does this question cause you along your ever-changing journey through Life? Back to our spectrum: where do the people with whom you most like to spend time fall on the scale? Where do you think your parents and siblings fall? Your significant other? How about your heroes? Who are you most like? Does that feel good to you? What would be your ideal balance? Leave me a reply and let me know: Is Happiness something you pursue with goals and effort, or is it something you ease into by letting go of ambitions?
Embrace your way,
P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it. Let’s all find Happiness together!
P.P.S. If this way of challenging your thinking and investigating your soul feels important to you, check out my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers.