In the last couple of weeks, I have spoken with many friends about the concept of happiness as it pertains to life’s pursuits, which has forced me to give thought to my past experiences and the reasons why happiness eluded me for so long in my life. The following is the sum of my thoughts.
Life is not about destinations. Or perhaps I should argue that a happy or satisfying life cannot be about destinations, because destinations are temporary at best and completely illusory in truth.
We have been taught that it is important to set goals, to aim for a destination, and to a limited extent, I agree. Where I struggle, however, is in the assumption, the programming that suggests the goal will bring happiness, that at your destination, you can rest.
For most of us, this sets up a couple of problems.
If we do not succeed in achieving our goal or reaching our destination, then not only have we failed, but more insidiously, we see ourselves as failures.
But even in those situations where we achieve our goal, arrive at our destination, we are faced with the daunting and disheartening revelation of “Now what?”
For despite the momentary glow of success, we cannot rest. We must seek the next goal, identify the next destination. And the cycle repeats, ensuring that for all but the rarest of us, we will fail, we are failures.
Part of the challenge is that for many people, the idea of a goal or destination presupposes that we are not sufficient in the now, that our lives are incomplete and would somehow be better over there.
We don’t make enough money. We are alone. We have not achieved the heights for which we are destined. We—as we are today—are not good enough.
It is good to push boundaries. It is good to strive.
And while those two statements may sound contradictory to the questions I raise above, to what I have decried, I don’t think they are.
Pushing. Striving. These are actions, not endpoints. And that makes all the difference in the world.
A goal or a destination, a predetermined endpoint, is fine, but only in so far as it gets you moving in a direction. After that, it is meaningless.
Life is in the movement. It is in the process. It is in the journey, regardless of where that journey takes you.
Destinations and goals give us opportunities to shift the direction of that journey, but they are not the point of or the reason for the journey.
We are like photons in the universe of our lives. Without movement, a photon has no mass. When we cease to move, we cease to exist.
It is our movement that gives us life, and our interactions during that journey that gives that life meaning.
Feel free to set a direction, but be prepared for and welcome the changes that come along the way, for it is in that journey that we will truly live and ultimately find happiness.
An example from my life:
Early in my writing career, I worked for a magazine in Washington, DC. Every year, my boss and I would set goals for the next 12 months; e.g., 3 features, 10 department articles, 20 short pieces. And being a little Type A, I would accomplish my benchmark within 3 months. At the end of the 12 months, I might have tripled or quadrupled the expected output.
I would demand a promotion, and I would be told no…there were apparently other factors not included in my annual goals before I could be promoted. This pissed me off.
But surprisingly, even when I received the promotion, it was not enough. I needed the next one. I set the goals and again, felt held back despite achieving the goals.
And very quickly, the job I loved, the job I practically ran toward every morning in anticipation, became a leaden weight. I ceased to write for the love of writing. I was miserable.
In hindsight, I can see now how much I learned on that job—not the least of which was “office politics”—but at the time, all I could see was failure. It was the journey that helped shaped the man I am today, not the endpoints. I might have been happier had I realized that then.
The following video is a rather clever summation of my thoughts. Thanks to my friend Agah for pointing me to it!
As the alcohol sets in and the year ends, I thought I’d take a moment to consider the 2013 Randys, the seminal moments and/or people of the past year.
Every year is special but this was truly a year for the books (or Kindles/Kobos if you’re one of those people).
Most engaging conversation: Weekly meetings with friend, Agah Bahari
Most raucous laughter: Monthly bonfires organized by Janine Short
Most head-spinning period: Austin Film Festival, both the sessions and attendees
Most humbing moment: Little Joe’s Heart campaign and response
Friend of the year (tie): Leela Holliman, Nic Lemon, Marsha Mason
Greatest moment of the year: Photo with cast of PuppetUp!
Before we left for Costa Rica, my brother warned me about hiking on jungle trails.
“Be careful what you grab when you climb a hill because that may just look like a branch.”
“If you have to step over a fallen log, step with a walking stick first to make sure the only thing under the log is dead leaves.”
“Tap out your shoes before you put them on in the morning to make sure only your toes reach the end.”
Okay! I get it! The creepy crawlies aren’t just beautiful. Can we go now? You first!
Luckily (I guess), the only significant nasties I managed to see on our trip were housed in a serpentarium near Volcan Arenal. And as I suspected, they were quite beautiful.
Perhaps one of my favourite moments on my recent trip to Costa Rica was an evening spent conversing with a howler monkey.
From the balcony of our room in Manuel Antonio, a lone male somewhere in the pitch black of night was letting the universe know he was there. Not to be outdone conversationally, I wanted him to know I was around as well, and so I joined in.
I am confident that some of our hotel mates thought the neighbour a little mad, but the invisible howler seemed to be quite animated about the company. Animated enough that the fearless one in our family, my brother with whom I was travelling, finally asked me to cool it, lest we have someone else sharing our room.
Despite our best efforts to stage life with garden ponds, nature has a way of making them her own in very short order.
I find myself enraptured by the epic stories told in such confined spaces, losing hours of my life in these mythic displays.
(These photos were taken in Montreal; Volcan Arenal, Costa Rica; Kona Kailua, Hawaii)
I love to swim. It is one of my favourite activities and one of the only forms of exercise I don’t begrudge, perhaps because I can’t tell if I’m perspiring. I am by no means athletic or proficient with it, but I enjoy doing it and have decent stamina.
Several years ago, a friend of mine decided she wanted to learn to swim. As an adult, however, she was embarrassed that she didn’t already know how, so she asked if I could help her learn the basics. Being a good friend—and not just a little bit infatuated with her—I said sure, happy to help.
A few days later, we got to the pool and I tried to break things down for her. Unfortunately, unlike many other exercises, with swimming you are in water and therefore much of the mechanics are difficult to view directly. Thus, I had to show her the mechanics above water, as though swimming to the ceiling. And that’s when everything started to fall apart.
No sooner did I begin teasing out the various movements in swimming than I realized that I was rapidly losing the ability to swim. Eventually, I just had to thrash about for a bit to remind myself how to do it.
It was unnerving.
I had been swimming (swum? swam?) for so many years that it was just something I did. It was never something I analyzed. You get in the water. You swim. It was muscle memory.
In teaching my friend to swim, I had separated the technique from the art, and for a brief few minutes, lost the art in the process.
The same can happen with writing.
In the earliest phases of our development as writers, it is important to develop a basic understanding of the mechanics of writing and story, to have someone walk us through the process. But at some point, we have to step forward and simply practice our art.
If writing is purely a mechanical exercise, then it is very dry and boring. It lacks the spirit that it needs to live. It is the difference between an animatronic deer and a biological deer. They may look very similar, but one is alive and the other is inert.
As a more seasoned writer, I have found that there will be times where I try to focus on the more mechanical, structural aspects of the stories I am writing. I want to make sure all the right elements are in the right place. But when I read the material over later, it always sounds forced, wooden, bereft of life.
In my effort to teach someone how to write properly—in this case, teach me—I have, however briefly, lost the ability to write. I have sacrificed the art for the technique.
Technique and process are vital, but they are not art. Art comes as you build the spiritual, intellectual, psychological muscle memory to allow yourself to immerse yourself unthinking into your writing and simply allow the story to flow.
As I’ve said before, story before structure. Art over technique.
Reflections on things we cannot control
(Respectively, photos taken in Toronto; Hope, BC; New York City; China Beach, BC; Chilliwack, BC; Volcan Arenal, Costa Rica; and Montezuma, Costa Rica)
I hear dead people.
I also hear living people, imaginary people and people who aren’t even people.
I am a writer, and I am highly confused.
Since quitting my day job to commit full-time to writing, I have found the voices that run rampant through my head have amplified, in volume and seemingly in number.
Before I quit, the anxieties and activities of daily living dampened the voices, shoved them to the periphery, surely as a functioning if not coping mechanism.
Now, without those distractions, the voices push outward, stretching their muscles after years of confinement, exploring their new world with the glee of a four-year-old on a steady diet of Coco Puffs. And here I sit, trying to control or harness them, sticking my pinky in a fire hose opened to maximum flood.
I have so many stories to tell, to record, to witness. But as soon as I sit down to transcribe one, a dozen others poke their heads out of the ground; conceptual prairie dogs wondering if the coast is clear.
I’ve always believed that creativity breeds creativity. I am experiencing that in spades, these days.
I will admit that after so many years of holding it back, part of me wants to let the voices flow unchecked. I want to stand at the foot of the waterfall and let the deluge wash over me, cleansing the grime of repressed enthusiasm from my soul.
But at some point, in some way, I still have to function in this universe. I want to recount these stories to someone, and for them to be intelligible, I have to direct my journey through the eddies that buffet me.
I hear voices. And I struggle with how to deal with them all.