Ever see life as a movie you started watching in the middle? No idea how it began, but it doesn’t matter, because you feel the plot and need to see what happens next.
Life really is this way. We (allegedly) start as infants, but most likely remember none of that. Crying was our one tool. Sometime later came toddlerhood… we mysteriously began doing all of this stuff without “thinking” about any of it. Crawling. Walking. Listening. Learning. Mimicking. Speaking.
When is the EXACT moment you realized you were a living person? There must have been a day you woke up, and fully remembered the previous day, and the day before that? Most of us have no idea – or the recollection is extremely vague. All we know is one day, we became aware, had thoughts, and people around us had thoughts, and we began our relationship with the world… doing what it asks and slowly learning how to push back.
Time rolls on. Adolescence. Teenage years. We get better and better and observing the world, learning its tricks, learning the absurd contradiction and cacophony of human behaviors, emotions, goals, dreams, stories. Somehow, we find our place within this madness. We find our own story, our own path. Or at least it feels that way for brief moments – like we are on the right track.
Often our story is frustrating. Hard work, punctuated with moments of laughter, thrill, bliss, disappointment, and boredom. No matter how much we feel each of these notes, the following seems clear: we must carpe diem. Wake up each day and get after it, even if the “it” isn’t totally clear. Even if the “it” doesn’t feel 100% right. Chances are the “it” changes again and again… people, relationships, accomplishments, adventures, dreams, challenges, places to live, and on and on and on.
All along, death quietly rides shotgun. In the earliest phases of life, death seems comically distant… it’s just not worth thinking about. As the birthdays stack up, however, you experience things. A friend passes unexpectedly. A part of your body is injured, temporarily or permanently. An elder loses their memory. A beloved pet is mercifully put down. An older coworker retires and indifferently eats their celebratory cake.
All of this begs a question: when is the moment of life we finally turn a corner and feel – wow – we made it? We finally have what we’ve been working towards. Death teaches us, life is obviously finite. The runway does eventually end. Will our plane ever get off the ground?
This only begs more questions: what does it mean for the plane of life to fly? What is the point? Is there a point? Religions, parents, philosophers, atheists, friends, poets, mythologists… are all happy to speculate about the answer to this question – and each of us are placed in the absurd position of having to choose one or none of these ideas to hold as our own.
As death becomes increasingly evident, the anxiety about not really knowing the answer to this question sets in. What IS my personal destiny? What will my life mean when I reach the end?
Hold on. Something dawns on you. Maybe it was a hint, or maybe you spontaneously wondered about it. For whatever reason, you notice what gives this anxiety its incredible power. Your own imagination. Can it be?
It seems that for your entire life, you’ve been dimly believing in some kind of personal utopia. Maybe you remember vividly designing this utopia – or maybe it’s simply an amalgamation of various dreams you’ve adopted throughout your life. Whatever it is, it’s always felt just around the corner, but never seems to arrive. This by itself is an interesting thing to be curious about – but that’s not even the killer part.
As death becomes more and more obvious, you also imagine what it will feel like to never reach that utopia. A wasted life. Somehow, you squandered the chance to truly do what you were meant to do, to live your best life, when so many other people seemed to get theirs. A series of terrible decisions, or indecisions, ruined everything. This idea causes a particularly cruel form of nausea, sympathy, and regret not only for the past but for the future. A resentment toward self, that you’ve made an irrevocably catastrophic series of mistakes.
But again, hang on. Freeze the movie.
This is all quite silly, isn’t it?
Where is Utopia?
“Utopia is coming”. Ha! Do you spot the paradox in believing life will be so much better tomorrow? Look around – billions of humans working hard to reach to the goal, and yet, the goal keeps morphing, in our own minds. Always out of reach. The goal never permanently arrives, and it drives us absolutely wild. Never mind what the goal actually is – simply the fact that goals shapeshift into new goals, meaning there is no such thing as grabbing the prize. No such thing as permanently holding a deep feeling of satisfaction through obtaining something. Any such feeling is fleeting, and dies just as certainly as everything else. Wild.
Where is utopia, then?
You know all those simple moments in life, where everything felt OK? Reading a book. Enjoying a coffee. A walk outside. Sharing ideas with friends. Learning. Growing. Experiencing. Bringing someone joy. Giving what you have away to other people. Creating. Expressing.
This is it. The greatest treasure. This is utopia. Congratulations – you are here and it’s happening all the time, only now – never tomorrow. If we can manage to stop imagining how tomorrow is so necessary, we can fully embrace the treasure constantly on offer, all around us.
To imagine is to be human. Imagination can be beautiful but it can also be a tyrant, urging us toward a mirage of greater satisfaction. None of this is to say that humans ought not have goals and strive. Merely that, the best life is already here. Any outcomes of goals and striving is bonus. We can die peacefully someday, with the confidence that we DID, in fact, experience the greatest treasure – throughout our entire lives. Anything we missed, however sensational, would have faded in a flash.
A Second Waking Up
As kids, we randomly wake up in the middle of the movie that is our life. We immediately grab the plot line and ride through all subsequent twists and turns.
It seems a second waking up happens, when, rather than being immersed in the plot, you become curious about your own obsession with it, and discover that no matter where the plot goes, you’re fine. Not just fine but content. At ease.
All the stories, dreams, and urges, that have wound up in your mind over the years of being alive, are more or less just passing sensations, coming and going. It’s a wild ride of ever changing experience, and this recognition provides relief – simply watching the flow of it all. Less concerned about the plot, but instead how the entire movie theater works… and how there is a persistent ease in observing, regardless of outcome. The deep wishes that the story deliver something grandiose and specific begin to relax and fall away, because you appreciate what it has been delivering, all along.
This goes deeper, toward compassion, as you empathize with anyone who is terrified with their plotline. You know exactly what this feels like. Of course, running to console them with metaphors of plot lines and movie theaters won’t help. But you can still support them. Listen. Be kind and sincere.
(Still) Finding Zero
How simple and minimal can life be? It is my wish to find out. (At the same time, everything is already good, and it doesn’t matter where this leads. Even so, I’ll enjoy finding out what I can, and sharing it here).