Thursday, June 11, 2009

If you don’t live for joy, then there’s no point in living

Thoughts on finding spiritual balance
via Daniel Cameron
, for LifeLube

I just gave someone advice I find hard to take. Earlier tonight, I had been engrossed with attempting to negotiate a very difficult email involving a conflict in a personal relationship. I’d been working for some time, and eventually the sound of my own words and arguments seemed hopelessly trite and more convoluted than I could possibly edit my way out of. Just then I was interrupted by the sound of a text message from a friend asking for help because he was feeling badly about the way things had gone in another personal relationship episode 700 miles away in Washington D.C.

My friend’s issue was complex. I didn’t really know what to tell him, even though I had background information on his situation. I felt as lost as he did at that moment, still gyrating through my own personal crisis in my mind even as I tried to offer help to him. But I wanted to help, so I tried to listen and give advice anyway. I stayed safe and superficial at first. At some point I could tell that I wasn’t helping much, so I decided to let my guard down. He seemed to be beating up on himself. I told him that when it comes to feeling better about myself or in general, the only thing that’s really worked for me is making a conscious effort to turn away from the negative beliefs that are holding me back, as though they never existed.

When I find myself caught in a web of my own and others’ anxieties and insecurities, with accusations and projections zinging toward me from every direction, the only real defense I’ve found is to recognize all those conjectures for what they really are: lies. At their core, they are each false and untrue. The beliefs I develop, whether positive or negative, are never truly valid statements, no matter how many times they are reworded in relentless investigations of the ever-elusive ‘truth.’ Once I peel away and perceive the layers of falseness that make up these negative stories I tell myself about myself and others, I am able to see the way things really are, and make a reasonable decision as to a course of action.

He paused when I had finished and said of all the advice I had given him, he thought that was the best, and was something he would plan to take to heart. We moved on to discuss more practical matters, and our conversation meandered to a close. Miraculously, when I hung up with him, I knew exactly how to finish my email.

My advice to my friend brushes the core of one of philosophy’s most difficult quandaries: the ever-present conflict between the negative and the positive. The duality of life.

You’d never believe it, but I used to be a pretty negative person. Destructive external influences and damaging internalizations had gotten the best of me. Sometimes it got so bad I began to feel like a ghost, like there was nothing good left of me. I would look around myself, at all the life and motion swirling around me, and feel motionless and terrified, like I was gone from this world already. Or I would look at dead places and feel like that was where I belonged. It took so much effort to interact with people in those frames of mind. I felt so alone there. Many tried to care for me and bring me out of the void, but they only acted as band-aids because the real was I felt so negative about myself. Without their presence I reverted to my previous state, dejected and destitute.

Many years later, I’m a very different person. I’ve learned to take on a different attitude, and I strive to be positive always. Things are unimaginably better, and I count myself lucky to be surrounded by laughter and friends. But even as things have improved, I’m finding that always staying positive can breed new issues.

Having successfully crafted a new personality that would work against my previous addiction to negativity, I always strive to be fun, kind, funny, generous, non-judgmental, intelligent, and knowledgeable. But these days I find myself the target of accusations that I’ve become emotionally unavailable. As I’ve built walls to protect myself from my own and others’ negativity, have I too built walls around the chance of truly connecting to others? Maybe if I let my guard down just a little and just let myself be who I am I would feel more alive, and have less people comment on my "flat affect" and “aloof personality.”

It may be that I’m still wandering, slowly finding my way to a place of balance. I don’t always recognize when it’s appropriate to be positive versus being able to choose the right times to be negative, such as when someone is being mistreated or may be in danger. The truth becomes cloudy quickly, and it’s often hardest to see when one’s own actions are the ones in question. But I am certain of one thing: experiencing reality is vastly different and feels far freer now that I have learned to seek balance. Before I began to understand balance, I think I considered myself to be living in some sort of quasi-utopian hell, where everything was supposed to be perfect, was almost perfect, yet nothing ever was. My radar was set to seek out the negative, so I could correct it and come closer to finally achieving perfection. But I never came close, so I was always unhappy.

After altering my perception gradually, I now consider myself to be living more in what I might dub a “purgatory opportunity,” where heaven or hell exists and arises only as I imagine it. My world is a beautiful dystopia where nothing is perfect, everything flawed. And somewhere in that mix of beauty and imperfection is a fleeting chance for happiness, the world unfolding always as it should. What a layered and complex lens with which to view the world, so much more so than the stiff mantra of always expecting perfection.

Using what I’ve learned, I try every day to be nicer to the people around me, more positive about my world and less judgmental of others. I try to find ways to focus on the bright side of life without blinding myself in the sunshine. Having begun the journey toward a “just right” balance of perceiving the positive and negative aspects of life, I am able and more importantly willing to smile at every situation with the warmth and knowing I have seen in some others. It's a precious state of being, and by no means easy to achieve.

Still, I remain determined to find balance, because a well-lived life demands both states. If you fail to take the negative into account, joy becomes meaningless. And if you don’t live for joy, then there’s no point in living.

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