It’s a little hard to believe, but I’ll be turning 30 in just a few weeks. Many years ago a group of friends used to call me “old man” because I was in my early twenties and they were all still teenagers. It was a running gag, and though I knew I wasn’t that old, it seemed to make everyone smile, and they enjoyed teasing me. It doesn’t feel all that long ago, but it won’t be long before a decade has passed.
Why am I bringing all of this up? It just all came to mind when I considered writing this post. I once told one of those friends, “I’m going to figure this world out.” She laughed and told me, “Good luck with that.” Ever since that time, I’ve never stopped working at that goal. I’d like to take a little time tonight and talk about some of the things I’ve learned. There’s no particular order to any of this. I didn’t write out an outline, and I’m just going to say things as they come to me, like an informal conversation. Well, here I go with the lessons I’ve learned now that I’m 30.
We humans are weak, frail, and confused. Everything we think we know, even the things we believe in most deeply, are subject to error. We’re finite creatures surrounded by a world which is too complicated for our feeble minds to understand. But it’s important that we accept ourselves in our weakness, as it’s nobody’s fault things are this way. It’s alright. We do the best we can with what we have. And we have to realize how little we do have. You have to realize your own weakness or you’re unable to love those around you. It’s probably the most important step in developing empathy, which is the most important spiritual trait to develop. That’s not to say it’s a virtue to be stupid and weak. It’s just a fact of life.
You have to forgive the world and everything it does to you, not with a blind optimism which denies reality, but with a strong commitment and belief in yourself and those around you. Learn to forgive, learn to move on, and learn from your mistakes. Find what’s good and beautiful and try to make those things grow in your life. Plant seeds of love in people’s hearts and find ways to make them smile.
Everywhere I go, and near everyone I meet, all I see is people craving wealth, fame, and some sort of recognition. You’re better off learning to find peace and contentment from within, because if you can’t calm the storm within you, nothing “outside” is going to do it for you. The answer to your problem likely isn’t more money, better looks, or recognition from your peers. If you develop yourself spiritually, you should be like a well, where life comes from within you and molds the world around you, not the other way around.
The other day I went with my parents to Maramec Springs.
If you ever have a chance to visit there, you’ll find crystal clear water, so clean you can take a glass down to the bank, scoop it out and drink it, crisp and ice cold. It flows twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, the source of an entire river. Everything around it is green, even when it’s bone dry in the middle of the summer and all the grass everywhere else is withered and brown. That’s a real picture of the spring by the way.
There’s no one single way to learn these sorts of lessons. There’s no one “way”. You don’t need sages or wise men, though they can help you. I’ll try to give you a sort of spiritual gauge. What sort of things are we measuring? Empathy, patience, love, confidence, joy, gentleness, contentment, humility, the ability to work well with others, and many more, but that list will get us going.
It’s not how well you handle yourself with wealth, but it’s moreso how you conduct yourself when things don’t go your way. We have billions of people on this Earth, all wanting different things, and we can’t all have our way. How do you react when you don’t get everything you want?
I have family members who just can’t find contentment where they are. Here in America, we are incredibly wealthy. If you were to travel back to the 1700s, we live better than kings did. We have better food, air conditioning, heating, iron chariots (cars), computers, video games, movies, and the list goes on. But we want more! Give it to me now! Don’t you think people living back then thought to themselves, “If only I had life as good as the king, then I’d be happy.” Well here we are, living better than the king, yet we’re still unhappy.
Why is that? It’s puzzling isn’t it? People can’t seem to remember their history. It’s hard to be thankful when you don’t understand the source of your wealth and prosperity. When you don’t understand how things work. When you don’t understand all the hard work that went into making the world into what it is. And actually, if you did understand those things, you’d be committing yourself to making a better future by expanding human knowledge, inventing new things, and helping those around you. But instead people focus solely on themselves, not understanding that the “self” is an illusion.
Stupidity and misunderstandings cause more misery than I can ever know. There’s a lot of stupidity, and stupid people calling others stupid. A lot of blaming others for why you’re not where you want to be, or blaming the world, or even blaming yourself. Blame and finger-pointing.
You know what? You were born stupid with everything against you. We’re all shot out of life’s cannon at a hundred miles per hour, airborn, trying to find a way to take control of our trajectory. Many things are absurd. Ridiculous even. But you have to be a source of hope.
I think we’re all artists in a way. Our past life is a sort of sculpture we leave behind in those who know us and remember us. We need to live our lives in a way which gives meaning to the universe, inspiring those around us. Somehow directing their gazes upward to the stars, telling them that there’s more.
These spiritual lessons aren’t something spoken but are more often ways in which we conduct ourselves. This isn’t something you fake. People can see it and they know it when they’re around it. It’s not about eloquent words. People are full of words. I’ve spent far too much time reading books, and I often get tired of words.
You may have an Ivy degree in child psychology, a leader in your field in proper parenting techniques, and that’s all fine and good, but most kids just need someone to spend time with them, encourage them, and point them in the right direction. You’ll be amazed, but as faulty and frail as you are, I’m sure you’re more than capable of helping those around you.
We need less gurus and more people willing to work the fields. Making time for people. Nobody wants to feel like they’re in the way. Like they’re a nuisance. Like they don’t belong. That they’re not wanted. That they have nothing to contribute. Life is always going to be demanding more things than you have time for. You have to remember what’s most important to you. To most of us, it’s about our family, friends, and community. Examine your actions and how you spend your time, and see if those things are at the center.
Good friends and a loving, supporting environment where you belong is much more important than wealth, fame, or recognition. Actually, if you don’t have that supportive environment where you belong, you’ll try to find it elsewhere. There’s nothing wrong with bettering yourself, but if you learn these lessons, you’ll find you already have all you need, right now, to make where you are a much better place. When you change, the world around you changes. But if you don’t change what’s within you, no matter where you go, you’ll find misery follows you everywhere you go because you’re dragging it with you.
Despite every romantic movie we see, no man or woman is going to complete you. Peace and contentment comes from within. The best relationships and friendships are about giving and sharing with one another. Experiencing life together as a sort of tag team.
Considering we’re all frail and weak, especially our minds, we need to work together. Our success in this world depends on how well we work together, but there are a million forces trying to break the bonds between us. If you can help bring people together, even those that are difficult to deal with, you’re a huge force for good in this world. To get people to compromise, to accept one another. It’s no easy task, but it’s noble.
Nobody is going to give you purpose in this life. Not God, not others, not anyone. It’s up to you. You have to give your life meaning. I personally find meaning in a sense of wonder. I’m on a journey to the edge of human knowledge and beyond. How does the brain create consciousness? What is matter, and how do these mathematical equations of quantum physics describe the world around me? How did this universe come into existence, and where is it all going?
I can’t answer those questions very well, but that’s alright. It’s a journey, and anything worth doing takes time. You do great things one step at a time. The race doesn’t go to the swift, it almost always goes to the faithful.
Don’t let people tear you down. Don’t let test scores make you feel stupid. Don’t let failure dictate your future. If you want something bad enough, keep at it. But be realistic. If you can’t sing, don’t have hopes you’re going to be the next Beyonce. But there’s something for you to do on this Earth. Do it and do it well.
Before I leave the topic of purpose and meaning in life, I’ll say that it’s easy to give your life to something, but it’s much harder to know whether or not what you stand for is worthwhile. Blind faith isn’t a virtue. Think carefully about the things you say, what you’re asking others to believe, and examine different perspectives. Don’t be closed minded. Never be 100% confident about anything, not even your most trusted beliefs. Always be willing to change your mind and rethink things. You can’t grow if you’re unwilling to change.
Respect others, even if you don’t like them, and don’t become too cynical. (I’m talking to myself now). Don’t always speak your mind, but try to tell the truth. Pascal once noted that if everyone knew what we said about them behind closed doors, there’d be no friendship in the world. Keep that in mind.
The mind has a way of simplifying the world, often to such a degree that it just barely resembles the real world at all. Our brains are lazy and not up to the task of deeply understanding the world. Our reasoning processes are faulty, and if you don’t understand how your mind works, it’ll drag you around all over the place. Confusion breeds conflict. If you don’t understand yourself it’s not just you who suffers. The mind has to be trained to think clearly and carefully. It takes a lot of time to understand yourself and why you do what you do. Think about what you are, why you do the things you do, and why you’re attracted to the things you’re attracted to. Carefully observe others. Observe the world. Just spend some time and think about it. Read books. Learn. Study. Expand your mind.
How you view yourself, how you view the world, that’s where the deepest forms of strength come from. When you see great men stand in front of a tank, refusing to move, standing up to tyranny, you have to ask yourself where that strength comes from. Some people develop themselves so far spiritually that they value others lives more than their own. They think of future generations, or all of the people who that tank is driving off to kill, and they stand there, refusing to move. There are truly are some things worth dying for, though nobody should quickly throw their life away.
We all need to spend a lot of time thinking and developing our minds. Understanding comes after years and years of careful research, using careful reasoning. Intuition isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Be slow to speak and quick to listen.
Things that come easily often leave in the same fashion. Good things in life take time. You plant the seed, tend to it, water it, fertilize it, and it slowly grows. Depending on what you plant, you’ll reap the harvest. But if you invest in good relationships, friendships, and a good education, you’ll reap the rewards. And as they say, don’t cast your pearls before swine. People who ask you to give up everything often themselves don’t have anything to give. It’s easy to give away things you didn’t have to work for, but when you’ve put a lot into something, prudence seems to come on its own.
Things don’t always go well, so make preparations for a rainy day, but at the same time, don’t be obsessed with disaster. There’s a balance there.
The grass isn’t greener at the other side. Life by its very nature is unfulfilling. There will be many boring days. It helps to see beyond the present, to understand deeply what it is you’re looking at. Mundane things aren’t really very mundane if you think about them deeply. The deepest secrets of the universe are embedded in everyday life, but you have to learn to ask the right questions. The world is revealed by what questions you ask.
Imagination is important too. It’s important to see things which aren’t there. To see beyond what’s in front of you and build a better tomorrow. In a world where anything is possible, nothing is fantasy, it’s just that some worlds are farther apart than others. But changing the world is a complicated thing because it is unpredictable in its very foundations. It’s filled with surprises. When you plan for the future, keep that in mind. Things often don’t go as planned. Be willing to improvise and change. If you dream about the future, also make steps in that direction. Don’t dream idly, make them a reality.
At the heart of it all is death, the most perplexing issue of all. If you live long enough, you’ll see your friends and family die. Naturally you’re going to miss them, and sadness will fill your heart. This is the problem of loving anything in a transitory and ephemeral world where everything is always changing. There’s always a risk of losing the things you hold dear. It’s inevitable. You don’t know what’s going to happen when you die, and you don’t know what happened to your loved ones either. A lot of religious folks claim to know these mysteries, but I personally am skeptical. Alan Watts offers the best perspective on death that I know of. You can find it in the video below.
It’s getting late, but those are some of the lessons I’ve learned so far. There are many more, but I don’t want this post to be too long.