Choose balance over resolution
The stoics advocated tranquility as a worthwhile goal of life. Tranquility is striking because it isn’t bound up with the peak experiences and consequent valleys we associate with many other common life aspirations — achievement, love, or financial security.
Tranquility, balance, and equilibrium invite all of life’s wrong turns, dead ends, and disappointments. They allow us to set limits on our anxieties and regrets.
We can recognize our pain, taking possible steps to alleviate it, while accepting that it’s okay for things to hurt sometimes. If we don’t accept this fact, we become susceptible to mindsets that disempower us. We perpetuate our downward spirals and modes of desperation.
If you want peace and satisfaction, get suspicious when any of the following perspectives creep into your mind.
“I will deal with [some problem] in the future, when I know better.”
When a problem feels burdensome and complex, it’s relieving to toss it to someone else. This is never ideal, but when that person is your future self, you are inviting a subtle but low-hanging dread.
Throughout life, our priorities reshuffle, our expectations expand, our skin and hair recycle themselves. We become different people. If today you have a problem and avoid addressing it, question the assumption that Future You will know better.
Although it is true that circumstances and knowledge can coalesce to help us meet new challenges as time passes, you can soothe that dull hum of foreboding by doing what’s in your power to improve your life TODAY. Otherwise, your future self may see contemporary you as a reckless, ill-informed pinhead.
“If people question my choices, I must have done something wrong.”
Considering differences in personality structure, some of us are prone to making choices based on logical criteria (is this sensible given all the metrics at play?), while some are more influenced by emotional processes (when something just strikes us as true and we can’t get under it).
Depending our preferred mode of evaluation, a choice that would torture you may be exactly what someone else needs. And vice versa.
In my case, after finishing an undergrad degree I felt a grueling urge to get an MFA. The feeling persisted despite the cost, the five-hour move on my own, and lack of guaranteed benefit. Many people urged against it; I too had strong reservations. Yet I also felt equal pressure in the opposite direction. If I didn’t go, I was threatened by an equal risk: a life of regret and untapped opportunity.
“At 30, who isn’t a melancholy anti-hero haunting French literature?”
The intuition that it was the right decision, given my temperament, interests, and the tug of momentum, ended up being more powerful.
I went to grad school, felt like an idiot, became a better writer, moved to a city I love, and lost regular touch with almost everyone from my past. However, the decision made me wonder about the status of mistakes — do they exist if there is an infinite number of ways to frame every situation?
I still question my choices, even though my life is better now than it ever has been. The decision resulted in both pain and joy. Progress and gloom. Our future manifests itself in what interests us. Given how the future unfolded, could I have really expected myself to back away from such a pull?
The decision to get a graduate creative writing degree is laughable to some people, but it’s nevertheless an appropriate stage of development for another.
When we let other people’s opinions sway our beliefs about ourselves and our choices, we’re forgetting that different temperaments require different modes of operation to function optimally.
Our decisions, no matter their scope, are personal. It’s dysfunctional to run our lives on the programming of other people.
A great option is to trust that our inclinations are leading us toward the future that is intended for us alone.
“I should have known better, and it’s [important figure]’s fault that I didn’t.”
If we make a decision that results in pain, shifting blame can be a momentary relief. It alleviates a fear similar to the one curated by the existentialists. If we’re really condemned to be free, then at any moment we could be responsible for some future misfortune if we don’t get it together and figure out EXACTLY what we must do. The pressure is on.
Such a mindset creates a dynamic that is urged against in the Tao Te Ching, which cites non-interference, trusting the process, and letting things go their own way as the ingredients for a tranquil life. Blaming people comes out of the forcing and pushing mindset. A state of being not so different from a pressure cooker.
“Personalities predicated on self-tyranny are doomed to fail.”
Blame shifting is born of a fundamental urge to turn against oneself. The alternative is to trust the unfolding of your life. Your inclinations are messages. If you’re suffering, take it as valuable information about how to proceed in the future. Your discomfort signals that something isn’t yet calibrated correctly. The important word here is “yet.”
If you squander energy on blame, you’re missing the opportunity to use sadness, hurt, or anger to improve your situation. Forcing or blaming yourself or other people is just like throwing a band-aid over a gaping wound and expecting it to heal. When you’re in pain, making systemic changes in your life is a better solution that shuttling blame between yourself and others.
“I must have [person/object/situation] to be happy.”
This might sound like an obvious one, but its manifestations can be subtle. For instance, can you tell the difference between something you want because it produces joy, and something you want because it helps you ward of fear, pain, or inadequacy?
For example, until I get all the instruments I want, I feel like an insufficient musician. This mindset just drags me down — I’ve got two excellent guitars, and there is plenty to explore on these instruments alone. Instead of embracing the pleasure of making music, I get caught in what not having a bass, piano, or recording equipment does for my lifelong sense that I have to be talented to be valuable.
As I’m sure you’ve noticed, the pleasure that comes from collecting objects of any kind, even those that truly improve the quality of our lives, excite us initially, but we become acclimated to them and the search continues.
In this way, we collect objects, and in so doing, we collect more problems. Someone just scratched your new car. You’re agitated for the rest of the day. Your TV volume just isn’t loud enough. Your new apron has a tomato sauce stain, and now you can’t think straight.
Similarly, when we think we need a relationship to feel content, we compound our problems. We become people with problems, axes to grind, and this makes us even less pleasant to be around, for ourselves and for others.
Then we pursue money and accomplishments and eventually realize that the search never ends. Once we’re wealthy, our expenses expand with us, and then we’re back in the same position (unless we avoid lifestyle inflation). As we become more productive, our standards expand along with us, and we can easily fall into the same trap of never feeling like we’ve made enough traction.
“We systematically over-predict the degree to which good and bad experiences will affect us.”
Feel your legs touching the surface of your seat. Note the sensations associated with exhaling. Watch the itch on your forehead. Welcome your impatience.
Endless pursuit won’t solve your problems. The goal is now.
Instead of seeing your life as a series of problems to solve, consider that you already know what it’s like for everything to be truly okay. Whether it happens when you’re asleep, engrossed in a book, a conversation, or project, immersion in something meaningful allows us to get off the striving treadmill more often than we might think.
If there is some obstacle in your life, you might pivot away from finding the perfect solution, or obliterating the problem all together. Instead, figure out how you can feel equilibrium in the midst of struggle.
As the late spiritual teacher and mystic Ram Dass said: “Get free because of your suffering, not in spite of it.”