Happiness is watching Fight Club, reading Nietzsche and thinking about Ecclesiastes
In case you didn’t know, I’m in between jobs.
Largely it was a personal choice. I was employed, but was moving in an imbalanced direction. I took corrective action, but found myself adrift. Personal health is so often contrarian to professional health, isn’t it?
I’ve had the chance to speak to a lot of people during this quieter period of quasi-busyness. We chat about their dreams, my dreams, their lives, my life. We chat about what we hope to be and what we are now. Through most of these conversations, there are themes.
One of them is a restlessness that comes from lives described by the movie “Fight Club” (if you’re not familiar…a source of tremendous insight into masculinity for all of its absurdity, sex and violence):
“I see all of this potential, and I see it squandered. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables—slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We are the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won’t. We’re slowing learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”
How people react to this disconnect—this dissonance between intended lives and someone’s current actionable circumstances, gets me thinking a lot about what it is to be happy.
What is happiness? Is it a chemical reaction in the mind, alterable with alcohol and prescribed medications? Is it sexual satisfaction? Is it nothingness…enlightenment? Is it professional achievement? Is it this ‘bucket list’ of stuff people build out?
Is it a job? Is it in having a job? Is it in having the right job? What’s the right job? Money? Relevance? Transcendent purpose?
One of my favorite books of the Hebrew Scriptures is Ecclesiastes. Christians especially get all weirded out by that. “Why Ecclesiastes? It’s so depressing.”
Sure it is—well, really, it is and it isn’t. With the right perspective, it’s tremendously enlightening. My Buddhist friends will completely understand the juxtaposition of futility, suffering and happiness. The rest of you might need a moment.
Have you read Ecclesiastes? It’s fantastic. It’s 12 chapters. You don’t have to read the whole thing, but go take a look at the first bit. And don’t just read the “seasons of life” part that everybody fixates on because of the song “Turn! Turn! Turn!” by The Byrds. Get to other parts. See if that stuff doesn’t hit you.
It’s the same stuff Nietzsche talked about thousands of years later (which is strangely apropos, given the parallel Ecclesiastical/Nietzschean idea of Eternal Recurrence).
The author of the book goes through these seasons in his life. He’s a king—thought to be Solomon, said to be one of the wisest persons to have lived. He builds, destroys, acquires, gives away, celebrates, mourns…goes through all of this wrestling with the meaning of life and circumstances, trying to find a meaning behind it.
And he does and doesn’t. He sees that, regardless of what you do with yourself, you’ll die. Regardless of how good of a person you are, you’ll be forgotten. Regardless of what you build and the legacy you leave, it will be squandered by people who come after you, who won’t even know it was you who gave them anything.
However, he’s able to distill down from his tremendous wealth and position a basic set of truths, accessible to all. These truths are independent of wealth or position. They can be gained by anyone. They’re a matter of attitude.
The central truth is this: “A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their toil.”
The theme is repeated, with other turns of phrase. Basically, it’s this idea that we have our lot in life…that we are largely powerless to single-handedly alter the course of organizations, nations and the state of the world…that when faced with the enormity of the ocean of life’s challenges—the circumstances of broken humanity at large—we should instead focus on our localized portion of reality, rather than project laments about unrealized idealized outcomes to out-of-reach situations.
Elsewhere Ecclesiastes admonishes that “there is nothing better for people than to be happy and do good while they live.”
So there is an overall purpose to life well lived. It shouldn’t be Hedonism. This is where I do depart from Nietzsche and assert that there is nobility to selflessness and edification of others and that we can induce lasting ripples into the the seeming futility of life. We can enact lasting change through being good people and ushering goodness into the lives of those around us.
But the words “finding satisfaction in their toil” are important—toil, especially.
The author of Ecclesiastes says happiness is found in our attitudes. Moreover, it is up to us to find satisfaction in our work. It is not up to us to necessarily find work that is satisfying.
That’s an important distinction.
When figuring out my next move…what job I should take…where I should live…who I should date…it’s important to recognize the significance of attitude over circumstance.
Better to be a happy janitor than a miserable CEO. Better to enrich and be enriched through the lives of a half-dozen real friends than to amass a shallow one-way relationship with a 1,000 people. I’d rather have someone who would help me move over a dozen fawning well-wishers.
Better to steady my mind and steel my resolve to find satisfaction in my work—my toiling.
Better to find happiness now, rather than wait for it to find me. Because that’s the lie—that we think the world owes us happiness. We wait for it to show up.
Turns out it’s all around.
There’s always never enough time
Ever notice that? Regardless of how much time you might have, there never seems to be enough?
You get off form work Friday—hooray weekend!—poof, it’s Sunday evening and you haven’t really done any of your to-do list items. You get to a period at work when a certain project is about to be complete. Now, things will settle down, you say. But they don’t. Things stay busy.
My married friends will roll their eyes and say, “Oh boy, just you wait until you have kids…think you don’t have any time now? Uh huh.”
And that’s my point. No matter how much time you might have, it is always fleeting and it always doesn’t seem to fit the amount of things we want to do at any given moment.
Nature abhors a vacuum, as we know, and this applies to our free time too. Perhaps our minds fill in any perceived gaps in productivity. Perhaps when we think we’ll have some quieter periods we allow ourselves to be distracted with all of the shiny things in our lives.
There’s the old zen saying that you should find 20 minutes per day to meditate and if you’re too busy for that, find an hour. It’s nothing new to say that our lives are full of more “stuff” and yet we often feel empty—this isn’t a post about that.
This post is about getting to work, in Steven Pressfield style. Get to it! Do the work!
Want to work on your masters? Want to write a book? Want to go to Fiji? Want to get it shape?
What’s stopping you? Are you too busy? Pffft. Look at me. I’m unemployed—no wife, no kids. And I run out of time every day if I let myself. I’m too busy. I have to say “no” to projects because my schedule is pretty full.
And if I am constantly running out of time, there’s no hope for anyone.
The point is, though, that it’s all a bunch of crap. There IS time, if we choose to MAKE time.
Yes, we have the mystical power to MAKE time. We can make something a priority, go without 20 minutes of something else and get it done.
Easier said than done? Sure it is! But I would assert wherever in life you are, it will never get any easier. Bills won’t be for less. Kids won’t get cheaper. Job won’t get less stressful (unless you lose it, whoops…but there’s more stress for ya’).
So, what are you waiting for? Waiting until you get married? Until you have a mortgage? Until your kids are in college? Until what? You’re 80?
I started working on my MBA while in Iraq. I’d take my textbooks on missions. At night or during a lull, I’d bust out my LED headlamp and read. When I’d be back on camp, I’d do my postings and assignments. Sometimes I couldn’t log in because our camp was on black-out comms where they’d shut down all communications. Sure I didn’t want to. Sure it would have been easy to justify not keeping up with it. It was a bit of a challenge.
I helped get a film company started before my time in the Army. We had no money, no real direction, no assurances that we were doing anything correctly, nothing. But we did it. And it rocked.
I was tired of being dumpy, so I started getting up way early and going to the gym. I started cutting out foods I absolutely loved. I dropped around 25 pounds since New Years. Sure it sucked. But when else was I going to do it? Getting up a couple of hours earlier
Now I’m writing a book. It might be terrible. It might be awesome. I’ve never written a book before. It’s hard.
I’m not trying to brag, but I’m just saying it’s not magic, it’s just a matter of starting to do it. People with often compliment me by saying that I’ve accomplished a lot of stuff, implying that they haven’t or that they couldn’t, because of some hangup.
I’ve been busy my whole life. I’ve never had enough time to do anything. Whether it was in high school, college, in the Army of afterward, my life has always been full of stuff. There never is enough time and there never will be.
At a certain point we have the choice to be one of billions who just never got around to being who we wanted to be…or one of thousands who did. And for the record, I’m not there yet either.
Murder as the antithesis of our created purpose
A couple of weeks ago I started a post on Facebook, asking people to give me some possible blog topics.
The responses ranged from unicorns to the national debt to murder. In fact, the friend of mine who suggested murder simply wrote it. Murder. There in the list of other serious and funny suggestions.
Don’t know why it stood out, but it did. So this will be a post about murder. Macabre, I know, but let’s see how it goes.
It’s not going to be a post about guns…or video games…or certain countries and their propensities for violence.
No, this post is going to try and speak to the core of ourselves, our purpose and why murder is so damned destructive.
As many of you know (or don’t), I’m a Christian guy. My thinking springs from this background and heritage, both the good and the bad, and the ongoing story of humanity as one of love and reconciliation between God and man. I believe in truth, justice and love.
As it is, I believe that a higher power that created us. I believe we are created beings…attach millions, hundred thousands, thousands of years to that overall process–let’s not get into that here. But there’s the persistent idea for me that we are created beings.
The Hebrew and Christian scriptures talk about how we were created in God’s image. This is a topic of great discussion and is the basis for much of the urgings for us to treat others with respect and kindness. As we are each cast in the image of the creator, we should strive to respect and defend the lives of others. But being an image of God is not just physical, it speaks to who we are and how we are made up.
We were born with the biological ability to create. We can make more. We can add to the world. In fact, we were asked to do this. We were asked to participate in the ongoing creation of Creation. We can fill the Earth with others like ourselves. We are created beings who can create.
This yearning to create doesn’t stop with procreation. What separates us from nearly all animals is our ability to create other things as well. We can make tools like some other animals, sure, but also sonnets, poetry, buildings, statues, canvases. We celebrate artists and musicians, architects and builders–men and women who create and carve and sculpt. We are created beings, made in the image of the creator, who want to create.
But the world has evil, which corrupts and detracts from the goodness that is there. We can see it in the earliest examples of family. The first brothers, Cain and Abel, killed each other. The first family was dysfunctional. The very first. Killing and violence has been with us from nearly the beginning.
Killing itself is deconstruction. It is the ending of life. It is the termination of the ongoing creative process of the cells, thoughts and experiences of an organism. Killing is a violent and disruptive act.
However, murder is worse. It is the insidious evil intent that drives a thought-filled being to willfully conduct violence to end another’s life.
It is the opposite reason we were made. It is more than an act. Murder is the willful rejection of every purpose set in our hearts by God. It is a fusing of our minds and souls with violent hate–the most “unnatural” of mindsets. Remember, we were made in love, our souls forged from the wellspring of Godly love. We were carried and birthed into the world with great pain and sacrifice by our mothers. In living out our purpose, we create.
No wonder war is so damaging to the psyche. No wonder it fractures and ravages the mind. Have you ever thought about it?
It is because in order to conduct war (unfortunately necessary as it might be), those who would throw themselves into the maw of violence must steel themselves and kill off portions of their heart. Those who serve in uniform must take the natural divinely inspired respectful regard for other humans and replace it with an non-human image of those people.
In examining battle reports after WWII, it was discovered that roughly half of soldiers involved in combat never fired their rifles. They trained by shooting at circle targets, but when faced with the image of another human, they froze. They couldn’t bring themselves to kill. As a response, human-shaped silhouettes were later used, desensitizing soldiers to the idea of shooting someone in their (and God’s) image.
We talk about “them” in hateful terms. We stir anger and hatred in our hearts, cultivate it, nurture it, spread it. After a while, we are less uncomfortable with killing others.
In the end you have those “rough men who stand ready to do violence on their behalf” as George Orwell said. And we celebrate those men and women for their sacrifice to safeguard us all. But it sheds some light as to why so many are haunted by what they’ve experienced. Coping with this season of violence and death is, at its core, the antithesis for how we were created to live. It is why these men and women need our support even as they leave those chapters of their lives behind.
However, this process of becoming more comfortable with the destruction of others is not just something that happens in war or by deranged lunatics in our midst. This process of degrading someone’s humanity can happen within us every day.
From pangs of hate cultivated through our conversations come racism, oppression…anything that allows us to greet our brothers and sisters not with compassion and respect, but with disdain.
“They” are good for nothing. “They” take our jobs. “They” don’t believe what I believe. “They” do things that I don’t like.
Never mind God loves “them.” Every one of them. Never mind that, right?
We can choose to either build others up or, through malicious talk, work toward the end goal of reducing another person to a non-human. People often say “you shouldn’t use bad words…it’s in the Bible.” Sort of. The admonition against saying words in anger to curse (and thus make worthless) other humans is in the Bible. Those curses and angry words usually involve profane words. However the spirit behind this command is not to keep us from saying naughty words. It is the urging for us to not tear each other down in what we say–to not degrade the humanity of others by de-valuing them.
In small ways every day, we move away from the ideals of compassion and toward murderous intent. We may not think we’re cultivating murderous intent, but the movements are subtle.
Instead of rushing to the aid of those hurting, we grow complacent to let them suffer. Eventually we say we’d be better off without them. And if someone shipped them off…or shot them, that’d be fine too for all we’re concerned.
I think we can choose to see people as people. Bums, immigrants, people of other faiths, of other orientations. They are people. They are created in the image of God to create. They are loved.
Truth should not be compromised. And neither should love.
Don’t cultivate murderous intent, no matter how small.