As we grow up, we each have a responsibility to make the most of our growing freedom. In the West, we champion financial and career achievement as a symbol of our success and progress toward the “American Dream.” But on the pathway towards that golden dream, if you are privileged enough to walk on that well-worn pathway, a series of small decisions are to be made.
Decisions pile up, all fairly insignificant, until your life and persona become only a shadow of who you used to be. How to dress, how many hours to spend being “on”, how to respond to social and political work situations. How much to trust and talk with colleagues. How uniform and agreeable or cutthroat will you be as you make a growing series of compromises? These compromises seem to pay off, do they not? Haven’t you managed to earn professional certifications and make quite a living for yourself?
Any time we achieve a goal that we set out for, it can result in feelings of pride and celebration but also some emptiness. Some of these achievements we have worked for end up leaving us wanting more. I myself long for the days I spend tending my imaginary goat-farm petting zoo coffee shop wedding venue, abandoning this corporate nonsense for good.
Viktor Frankl, who spent three years in multiple labor camps during the Holocaust, surviving but losing his entire family, had quite a few words of wisdom.
“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
He repeatedly mentioned that not only is the search for meaning (the basis for Logotherapy, which he invented) the main driver of existence, but that doing this must be externally focused rather than internally-driven, and can only be exhibited by meeting life’s responsibilities head-on by meeting life’s challenges each day.
Not only is suffering an unavoidable human condition, finding personal meaning behind our struggles, even if the struggle itself is what gives you meaning, can mean the literal difference between life and death.
While it is important to experience and value the now, each moment of being, he also points out that we can gain immense perspective by considering if this moment were the past and we were looking back upon it.
“So live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!” It seems to me that there is nothing which would stimulate a man’s sense of responsibleness more than this maxim, which invites him to imagine first that the present is past and, second, that the past may yet be changed and amended. Such a precept confronts him with life’s finiteness as well as the finality of what he makes out of both his life and himself.Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
I like this way of thinking. We cannot go back and change our poor decisions of the past, but we can in each subsequent moment make the correct decisions for ourselves and our personal meaning.
If I look at the present as the past, I can see that each moment in my life is a potential critical turning point. I declare that I am going through not a mid-life crisis but a mid-life crux. I have spent 40 years, on-and-off, trying to understand and accept myself. While that battle continues, the next focus will be on how to put myself to best use.