I have lost my youthful optimism.
Optimism, by definition, is a feeling or belief that good things will happen in the future. It is a way of framing life in a positive light and is generally a quality that most people would consider positive.
Well, not me. I have come to realize that I am better off without it.
It happened quite suddenly, about three years ago now. Actually, it might not have been the process of losing it that happened suddenly, but rather the realization one day that it was just gone. It hit me out of the blue like a sobering smack to the head. It’s not something that I ever intended to happen, but it was suddenly clear to me that I had changed.
“Youthful optimism” was a lens that I used to view life through. Regardless of where I was or what I was doing at any given stage in my life, regardless of how I judged myself or the circumstances I faced, I believed that I would always have a future to look forward to. I was hopeful that even if I wasn’t happy now, someday I would be. When things were “just right” - When I was finally finished school, when I had at last reached my career goals, when I found my one and only true love, when I started a family and began having children, when I moved into my dream home, when my health was better……always in the future and never right now.
I believed that I still had my whole life ahead of me, that I had all of the time and potential in the world and that I always had something to look forward to. There would always be something to make me happy. Something. This was the thought that kept me in constant motion; It was the thought that kept my bubble intact when the world around me was going mad.
Well, I'm seeing things differently these days.
I can say for certain that two things have changed: A propensity for always looking forward to "something”, and the belief in that "something" as my saviour; as the thing that would finally bring this elusive "happiness" to me.
Stating the obvious here, philosophically, the future doesn't exist because as soon as it arrives it becomes the present. But there is more. Most humans are compulsive doers and heavy consumers because we are constantly chasing after our perceived lacks. We believe that we never have enough, do enough and that we, ourselves, are fundamentally not enough. These thoughts are compulsive and our consumption has become addictive as a result. This is how us humans have ended up in the state we are in and this, and this alone, is the reason why our world is in trouble.
I’ll state it again: We have been fed the idea from day one that we need things, events and other people to make us happy; that we cannot feel whole without them. We are not enough.
When is the last time you saw an advertisement that attempted to sell you nothing? It's the antithesis of advertising, isn't it? How often do parents, teachers, colleagues and friends tell you, "you already have everything you need" or "you don't have to do anything" or "everything is perfect just as it is" or "you are perfect as you are"? If you have people like that in your life, cherish them with all of your heart and consider yourself truly blessed. They tell you the truth.
Over the past few years I have realized that everything I was being sold about my future - everything we are being sold - can't bring us genuine happiness. Sure, we have our moments, but they are fleeting because as soon as we touch happiness our minds immediately go to all of the things that are still lacking in our lives. It seems that the promise of "the future" which we have all bought into personally and collectively, and with all of it's hopes and dreams, will never actually arrive. I may have finally experienced enough “happiness milestones” to understand this. There is much more to happiness than we are being told and sold.
I stopped believing in this false promise of “the future” because, quite frankly, at last I saw it for the illusion it is. We all break through the illusion from from time to time, but most prefer not to stay in that place for very long because it is frightening and unfamiliar. An example of this is when we lose somebody before "their time". We are so affected by the deaths of young people because events like this shatter the ideas of a future we've bought into. Whether we choose to recognize it or not, we know in our hearts that we are not immune, either. We see that life is fleeting and the future in which we hold our hopes and dreams of finally being "happy", might never arrive. If within these situations we could allow ourselves to sink a little deeper into our despair, and have the courage to be a little more honest with ourselves, we might see that in addition to the fear and sadness we feel there is also a gift; a profound truth staring back at us:
All we ever have is this moment.
Regardless of what is going on with us or what is happening in the larger macrocosm of this world, if we can't find peace and contentedness in our lives as they are, right now, we never will.
How does the truth sound? Do we have ears to hear it or have we become too comfortable with the lies?
Seeing this truth and resolving to live by it makes for hard work. Changing perspective and relearning how to be genuinely happy (read: at peace) with our lives regardless of external circumstances takes a huge amount of courage, honesty, humility, forgiveness, compassion, diligence, and overall awareness. Being conscious makes us responsible for ourselves because we no longer have any other place to put the blame. That is why, I believe, that although on some level we all know these things we still refuse to step up and take responsibility as a whole. For many it's still just too scary.
It is hard work to always recognize our melancholy, anger, jealousy, and any other perceived "negative" emotions for what they are and be open to the truth that we are somehow responsible for their creation; that our thoughts, both personally and collectively, create the reality we live in. There is much about this life that we cannot control, but our perspective need not be one of those things. Perspective is power.
It is sometimes difficult to accept that this journey is an arduous one and that our work might never be done. Thoughts will always creep in (that is the nature of the mind) and our emotions will ebb and flow as a result, but perhaps we can learn to navigate life more gracefully. Perhaps, if we learn to surrender to our discomfort we will begin to feel our way around in the dark more easily. It is possible to make peace with darkness, but how often we attempt to escape it through our consumption - through the shopping sprees and binges, through our vacations and entertainment……and even through our optimism, itself. We hold hope that all of these things will give us relief from the difficult aspects of our lives and really, although these things can also be quite benign, all things become addictive when practicing avoidance. We might temporarily be granted the lift we crave, but a current of discontent still flows beneath our distractions. In truth, the novelty of things always wears off eventually and we are left searching for more. If only we knew what we were really in search of.
We will never understand what we continue to avoid. And how can we possibly feel whole when it is part of us, ourselves, that we are avoiding? We can't be honest about who we truly are, because we only know half of the story. In truth, we are terrified of what we might see in those dark places within ourselves. We might come to see that we are lonely, weak and uncertain. We might be humbled by our own ignorance and powerlessness. Ironically, it is through the acceptance of these “weaknesses” that we begin to uncover our greatest strengths. As long as we continue to pacify ourselves with our many “quick fixes”, though, we also continue to rob ourselves of the opportunity for self discovery. As a result, we may never realize our most genuine power and with it, true and lasting happiness.
This new happiness is different than the kind we're used to. It feels a lot more like peace than the heady "buzz" we’ve known in the past………it's weightier and more grounded. It's robust. It doesn't propel us into the clouds or send electric currents running through our veins. It doesn't colonize as fluttering butterflies in our bellies. What it does do is fill us up from head to toe. It extends outwards into our lives and infuses our every action and our every deed. It has a way of touching everybody we come into contact with, from the people we share our lives with most intimately, to the cashier at the checkout counter of the local store. It is contagious. It's the kind of peace and contentedness that is unshakeable in the face of tragedy, but also unshakeable in what once would have been our most ecstatic moments, too. The things that once would have sent us flying into space no longer have the ability to do so. Some days we catch ourselves mourning the loss of the high "highs" we used to experience, but we also realize that these experiences only knocked us off our feet because we weren't well rooted into the ground to begin with. Now the windstorms of life cannot uproot us. We will bend and sway and surrender to the conditions of life, but are deeply rooted within a ground that supplies a constant source of nourishment for our growth. And this is just the beginning......we see infinite possibilities in this new kind of happiness.
This is where we all are headed, one by one, I believe.
Ironically, this may come off as sounding optimistic, but I assure it is not. Optimism was getting in my way and keeping me from really living my life and embracing the gorgeousness of the present moment. Optimism was an obstacle. But this new outlook? It is an anchor into the here and now, much different than the "youthful optimism” I once knew. This is optimism evolved; it is faith.