What if you never sort your life out?

In one of his talks or interviews – I've never been able to trace where I first heard it (UPDATE: it was a talk inside his Waking Up app) the author and podcaster Sam Harris recalls being in the middle of a long session of moaning to a friend, about all the crap he was dealing with at the time, when she interrupted him. "Hold on," she said, or words to this effect. "Are you still under the illusion that you'll one day reach a point in your life where you no longer have any problems?"

 

It's a question most of us could do with asking ourselves. I think virtually everyone, except perhaps the very Zen or very old, goes through life haunted to some degree by the feeling that this isn't quite the real thing, not just yet – that soon enough, we'll get everything in working order, get organised, get our personal issues resolved, but that till then we're living what the great Swiss psychologist Marie-Louise von Franz called the "provisional life." ("There is a strange feeling that one is not yet in real life. For the time being, one is doing this or that… [but] there is always the fantasy that sometime in the future the real thing will come about.") 

 

Most of our attempts to become better people, fitter and healthier, more moral/productive/organised, and so forth, make this problem worse – because it's basically impossible to pursue any program of personal change without the thought, somewhere in the back of your mind, that successfully completing the change will catapult you into a new and somehow realer kind of existence. In recent years, for example, there's been an explosion of books on habit change, most of which take a splendidly down-to-earth approach, focusing on the importance of taking tiny, incremental steps. Yet they rarely escape the trap of implying that once a habit's been implemented, it'll become totally automatic – and life's suffering, at least in that domain, will have ended for good.

 

This error of thought might be fine if it didn't detract from the quality of the life you're experiencing right now. But it does. The person locked in such a mindset, as John Maynard Keynes put it, "does not love his cat, but only his cat's kittens; nor in truth the kittens, but only the kittens' kittens, and so on forward forever to the end of cat-dom." Actually loving a cat is something he never seems to get around to. 

 

One antidote is to allow yourself to imagine what it might feel like to know you'd never fully get on top of your work, never become a really disciplined exerciser or healthy eater, never resolve the personal issue you feel defines your life's troubles. What if I'll always feel behind with my email? What if listening attentively to other people will always take the weird amount of effort it seems to take now? What if that annoying thing my partner does annoys me to the end of my days?

 

Meditation provides a useful model here, because most meditation teachers acknowledge explicitly that "stopping thinking" isn't really the goal; instead, falling off the wagon (by getting distracted) then getting back on (by returning to your breath) is the whole game. One might reframe other things this way, too. Your goal as a runner needn't be to get to a place where it's effortless to set off at 630am, day after day. It could just be to get better and better, every time you skip a morning and stay in bed, at starting again the next day.

 

When I let myself be permeated by this thought – that I might be stuck with certain inner disturbances forever – I definitely feel a bit of peevishness in response: "Wait, I'm never going to get to the problem-free phase? That's not what I signed up for!" But then comes the sense of a heavy burden having been lifted. The pressure's off. I get to unclench, relax, and fall back into the life I'm living. Far from this being dispiriting, I find myself much more motivated to get stuck in. It turns out my really big problem was thinking I might one day get rid of all my problems, when the truth is that there's no escaping the mucky, malodorous compost-heap of this reality. Which is OK, actually. Compost is the stuff that helps things grow. 

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