At times, many of us experience the sinking sensation that we have nothing, or not enough, to “show for” what we’ve done thus far in our lives. Maybe it’s the feeling that, at our age, we should have more money, credentials or possessions than we do. Or perhaps it’s the sense that, “by now,” we should have a long-term intimate relationship or children. Still further, we sometimes feel we should have accumulated more skills and knowledge, such as languages and hobbies. And so on.
The assumption beneath worries like these is that, to improve our life circumstances, we must acquire things and accomplishments in the outside world—that, to feel better or more whole, we must obtain more money, degrees, cars, or something else. This mindset, however, neglects a critical dimension of our lives—the way we experience the world. By our experience of the world, I mean the way we think and feel about the facts of our lives—our happiness, wisdom, love for ourselves and others, and so forth. The notion that we must have something to “show for” everything we do treats our experience as irrelevant.
Ironically, however, our experience of the world is ultimately the only thing that really matters to us. We don’t seek out money, degrees, intimate relationships and other things for their own sake. We pursue them for the feelings we believe they will bring us. Some people, for instance, focus on making lots of money because they believe money will cause them to feel secure, happy and valued. Others seek out intimate relationships because they think getting involved with someone will make them feel loved, protected and nurtured. And so on.
Interestingly enough, we can change the way we perceive and feel about the world without changing the facts of our lives. We can have more happiness, security, love and so forth without acquiring more relationships and things. Doing or accomplishing more in the outside world is only one way to improve our experience of reality. And often, it’s not even a particularly successful way. As many of us have discovered, acquiring more money, credentials and relationships—while it can create a temporary high—tends to leave us just as unfulfilled as we were before.
Until I recognized the central importance of my experience of the world, I used to constantly fret over what I had to “show for” my life. For instance, when I was in college and graduate school, I would come home for the holidays each December. Every time I came home, I clearly recall either thinking—or complaining to my mother—that I hadn’t yet accomplished enough in my life. Perhaps I anguished over not taking enough leadership roles, not having a fulfilling intimate relationship, not being emperor of the universe, or something else. Whatever the specifics of my gripes were, the theme was the same—I should have done more in the world by this point in my life.
A few years later, when I was out of school, I flew from California to New York to see my family. To me, it seemed like just another routine visit. My Mom, however, noticed something refreshingly different about me—a conspicuous lack of bellyaching about my achievements in life. To her surprise, not once during that visit did I complain that I wasn’t enough.
The funny thing, I realized, was that the facts of my life hadn’t changed that much since my school days. I was out in the working world, but I lived in the same place, had many of the same friends, pursued the same hobbies and interests, and so forth. What’s more, my job at the time put more pressure on me than academic environments did. But somehow, my sense that I wasn’t “okay” or “enough” as I was, and that I needed to have more to “show for” myself, had faded away. My experience of the world had transformed, although my circumstances really hadn’t.
How did this change occur? I can’t say for sure, but I think it had something to do with the practices I took up a little while after I finished school. The most critical practice I started was meditation. Every day, I took some time to simply sit in silence and breathe. I had nothing material to “show for” these meditation sessions—they didn’t bring more money, relationships, or any other person or possession into my life. But the peace and composure they brought me was extraordinary. Just sitting there and being, without any activity or distraction, helped connect me with the part of myself that was content to simply exist, without self-doubt or apology.
If you’re plagued by worries that you don’t have enough to “show for” your life thus far, I’ll suggest a few exercises to help improve your experience of the world, and to help you recognize the positive transformations you’ve already created in the ways you think and feel.
First, understand that the notion that you need something to “show for” your life implies that there is someone to whom you must show it. With this in mind, ask yourself: Who are you supposed to show something to? Is it your parents, your friends, your coworkers, society, God, or someone else? Who gets to evaluate how well you’ve done in your life? What do you need to do to satisfy them?
I’ve found that simply asking people these questions tends to affect their experience of the world. Many of us simply assume we must have something to show for our lives without consciously contemplating what it is and to whom we have to show it. When we become conscious of what we feel we need to do, and whom we need to satisfy, we often start to doubt our belief that having something to “show” is necessary. Just bringing awareness to the reasons you’re convinced that you “haven’t done enough” can begin the process of dissolving that conviction.
Second, see if you can remember a fear, doubt or hangup you had in the past that no longer troubles you today. Perhaps, for instance, you feel less anxious in social situations. Or maybe you’ve developed the courage to pursue the career you really want, rather than what you believe others think you should do. Or maybe you no longer worry so much about the possibility of losing your intimate partner. Whatever fear you’ve overcome, this is a sign that you’ve already made substantial positive changes in your experience of the world—and that further progress is possible.
Third, explore some of the practices I’ve discussed here in the past that are intended to positively affect your experience of reality. Among others, these include meditation, as I discussed; connecting with your inner body, or inner energy field, by bringing your awareness to the sensations you experience in your body; learning to accept, and not push away, thoughts and memories you haven’t wanted to experience in the past; and simply giving yourself permission to be happy and fulfilled in life.
The ultimate goal of all these activities is to bring you to two realizations: first, that you can transform your experience of the world without changing any of your life circumstances; and second, that you don’t need anything to “show for” the way you’ve lived. Having this knowledge has done more than anything I’ve accomplished out in the world to improve my quality of life.
(This article appeared in the Carnival of Positive Thinking, located at http://www.widowsquest.com/carnival-of-positive-thinking-59/.)