This week I lost my drive. Returning from a wedding in my childhood hometown of Perth I felt depleted. Sure, I get it. We all get the post-holiday blues. Only this was different. I felt more stumped than usual. I think it was coming to terms with the futility of achievement. You see it was a wedding of doctors – high achievers. I must have spoken to half a dozen of them at length and they all had the same thing to say: I’m unhappy, I’m confused, I’m unfulfilled, and I’m in too deep to change.
It seems this is the story of our lives. We want out but we are afraid of jumping ship because we fear starting over. Speaking to one friend, she expressed she was afraid of quitting her job. I could tell she had built up the idea in her head that quitting was beginning again. I shared my view that when you quit you don’t fall to the ground. You step to the side. All the skills you have accumulated don’t belong to the institution. They are yours. They are transferable. They are what make you valuable and unique.
Still, the words stuck with me. On one side is the fear of letting go of the ladder. On the other is the pain of sticking around. And so we chain ourselves to a life of painful grasping.
For the doctors I spoke to they couldn’t let go. The ladder had become their everything. Competition spurred them on and busyness calmed their screaming mind. I talked to many about the difference between fulfilment and achievement. How we destroy ourselves when we compare ourselves to others. How we want not just what we have but also what others have. And how all this grasping leads to sadness and disappointment.
I could see they were so hurt and so lonely. Like all of us, they just wanted to be heard. So I listened and listened and listened. They say if you listen long enough a person will tell you everything. If you’ve ever watched a film by Werner Herzog or Louis Theroux you would have seen this idea in play. At first it feels awkward because the people on screen are left standing awkwardly in silence. Eventually they are compelled to fill the void. And then, the honesty pours out.
So I listened. Even when they fell silent, I refused to talk. And one layer at a time they expressed all of their fears. Fears of wasted time. Fears of not being enough. Fears of change. Fears of themselves. And then it was gone and through light tears they smiled relieved to have finally been heard. I walked away from each conversation feeling elated. I didn’t do anything except listen but this was enough to lift their burden. Well, at least for today.
On that same weekend one friend returned from a morning surf and said, “I saw the surfers out there with enormous smiles on their faces. Do you think that’s it – the simple life?” I could see he was questioning his busy life in Melbourne.
I had another friend who told me he’s finished with books. He said he’s done with knowledge. He’s full. I know he was being over the top but it did make a prudent point. It seems we’re all so obsessed with terms like, self-development, life-design, systemise, optimise. We talk about productivity and minimum effective dosing and hacking. And in a lot of ways it is all bullshit. For him it was clear. He has the knowledge he needs to get what he wants. So he sees no point in topping up with endless tips and tricks that he’s not interested in putting in play. He would prefer to top up on entertainment and enjoy life.
Since then I have returned to Melbourne and felt atrocious. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why I feel so bad but I think it’s a mixture of things. A three-day bender, the withdrawal of close confinement with old friends, quitting marijuana, but mostly the realisations I had through these conversations. They all had the same message. There is no point to achievement. There is no point to anything except love and community.
This sounds like one of those stories where you say, wow, how liberating. I know, I should be happy with such findings. I should celebrate the peace of mind that comes from discovering that love is the essence of life. I should feel free. Only I don’t.
Now I’ve hit a new obstacle. I have no drive. Since returning I’ve struggled to drag myself out of bed. I’ve struggled to get to gym. My writing has taken a backseat (this post is many days overdue). And even the thought of doing my freelance work is excruciatingly painful. It all feels so pointless. Without ambition life feels like a death march.
It scares me because I’ve always loved my drive. And I know it comes and it goes but usually it only drops its head when I’m burned out. Usually, I still see the point of getting on with it, I’m just exhausted. But this time it’s different. I don’t see the point on getting on with it. Aside from the money I need to support a family for a lifetime I don’t see the point in doing anything. This isn’t what I want. So I’ve decided to dig in and rediscover a new point of being.
So this is what I’ve been doing over the last few days. Digging around to find a new meaning. What I’ve found is that I’m tired of me. For a long time I’ve been burrowing deep into myself to try and discover who I am. Now I’m beginning to feel that I have reached the bottom of myself. Not in a ‘I know who I am’ kind of way. More in a ‘there are no more answers down here’ kind of way. I realise that I need to give myself to something bigger than me. Parents have their children. Religious folk have their gods. Philanthropists have their charities. What did I have?
I don’t want to simplify the answer because I’m sure it’s different for everyone but after reading the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying this week I believe the problem lies with the fact that I’m still listening to my ego. I thought I had begun to move away from this selfish yammering voice but I don’t think I have. This passage hit the idea home:
“Without our familiar props (our partners, family, home, job, friends, credit cards), we are faced with just ourselves, a person we do not know, an unnerving stranger with whom we have been living all the time but we never really wanted to meet. Isn’t that why we have tried to fill every moment of time with noise and activity, however boring or trivial, to ensure that we are never left in silence with this stranger on our own?”
When I first read this I thought, great, achievement is bullshit so go find yourself. And that’s what I have been doing. Only digging into the book further I have realised just how fine of a line there is between self-discovery and ego. It took another passage from the book to show me that.
“Two people have been living in you all your life. One is the ego, garrulous, demanding, hysterical, calculating; the other is the hidden spiritual being, whose still voice of wisdom you have only rarely heard or attended to.”
This might be garbage to a lot of readers. Not every text is for everyone. But I think we all agree that there is one part of us that is self-centred and another part that is self-sacrificing. It was this realisation that brought my drive back. Not in one swing of the pendulum but through many days of contemplation.
You see I realise I have begun to scrape the bottom of myself. No, I still don’t know myself. And, no, I still haven’t found perfect peace or calm. But I feel I have dug deep enough to see there is only so much chatter you can have with myself. I have been grasping when what I really needed to do was to let go. I needed to accept that my drive was temporarily incapacitated. That’s hard for me because there is a voice in my head that says, if you don’t have drive, how do you expect to make a living from your writing? How do you expect to work for yourself?
Still, I know I need to let go. I feel the best way to do this is to give myself to the service of others. That sounds very self-indulgent when I write it down but I guess that is my ego. All I know is that I feel so detached from the feelings of others and that scares me. I’ve devoted so much time to my own development that I’m now starting to see that the true reward is making others feel the gloriousness that I seek.
After all, this is the thing that refuels me. It had happened at the wedding. I had barely done anything. I had simply refused to talk and in that space others felt room to move and they teared up and smiled and I saw the weight temporarily lift from them. And in that action the weight had temporarily lifted from me. I see the simplicity of that now.
Still, I understand that it is a balance between external devotion to others and internal discovery. Without both, unhappiness prevails. After all, these doctors had devoted their lives to the service of others, and yet many were unhappy because they had abandoned themselves. The balance I believe is compassion. Compassion not just for others, but for ourselves.
I feel like I’ve been exploring this idea for a while now but it is as though I’ve been running up and down the fence next door. If you’ve been reading this blog for some time you would have heard me yammering on about emotional intelligence. Don’t get me wrong, this is extremely important, but I feel the term often wraps itself in a cloak of self-preservation. It’s like: control your emotions, so you can be compassionate, so people like you, so you get what you want. Maybe not everyone sees it like that, but that’s how I’ve been reading it.
Now I’m beginning to see compassion, not intelligence, is the bridge between both. Through compassion we discover ourselves and relieve suffering in others. I struggled to separate these ideas before. Emotional intelligence and compassion that is. I looked at a doctor and I thought, why aren’t they happy if they are relieving suffering? And then I read a line by author Steven Levine and it all made sense to me, “When your fear touches someone’s pain it becomes pity; when your love touches someone’s pain, it becomes compassion.”
To me this means I can’t be truly compassionate if I haven’t made peace with myself. Hence the need to find yourself so you can forgive yourself. I want to make it clear that this is what compassion means to me. I believe it can mean something different for everyone. I also want to make it clear that this concept is new to me. I’m only just getting my head around what compassion is and how I can improve mine. All I know is that I want to be compassionate to others because I’ve never felt more relief than watching the burden lift from another. And from my understanding, before I can be compassionate to others, I need to be compassionate to myself. So that is step one.
Most likely I’ll get to work on this and realise it is all one and the same – when I forgive myself, everything else will fall into place. It would make sense. After all, we are one and the same. As Einstein put it:
“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
So that’s where I’m at today. I’ve decided to be okay with having no drive because I’m only human. It was this forgiveness that rekindled my fire.