The Life That Could Have Been – Part II

In last week’s blog I asked why, for so many people, there is a gap between the life they dream of and aspire to, and the life they end up living. One of the reasons I gave was, we are always looking for shortcuts, which are never very effective.

A second reason we do not achieve the life we dream of is because many of us are not on a quest for truth, growth and wisdom, but rather on a search for pleasure, fun and happiness. We are often guided by our feelings and emotions instead of by wise judgment. In other words, our quest for pleasure, fun and happiness in the now takes priority over sound decision-making that will positively impact our lives in the future.

As one keen observer has noted, people of this world are like children in their approach to life. If you were to offer a child a piece of cake or a $10,000 Treasury bond, he will almost always choose the cake. Children invariably choose immediate gratification without giving consideration to future consequences. They do not understand the value and significance of delayed gratification, yet so many adults seem to be no different. They almost always choose temporary feel-good pleasures over that which has lasting value.

I have concluded that most people do not fully understand the complexity of the human heart and its desires. Have you ever noticed how contradictory your desires can be? For instance, a young man may choose to stay out late partying with his friends, but at the same time he wants to excel in his career by getting to work early. Notice there is an obvious conflict in this young man’s desires.

Our wants, while endless, are often not in harmony with each other. Modern people seem to gravitate toward those desires that bring pleasure and happiness — like the young man who wants to stay out late with his friends but also wants to excel in his job. Wisdom, however, recognizes the importance of discovering which desires are liberating and which are destructive. Which of my desires are in harmony with who I really am and with what I really desire to do with my life?

One of the most gifted writers ever to live was the English author and poet Oscar Wilde. He was educated in some of Great Britain’s finest schools and excelled in the Greek language. His writing earned him great wealth and he was the toast of London. One literary critic described him as “our most quotable writer” after Shakespeare.

Sadly, however, Wilde squandered all that he had and died penniless. Before he died, he reflected on his life and penned these words:

I must say to myself that I ruined myself, and that nobody great or small can be ruined except by his own hand. … Terrible as what the world did to me, what I did to myself was far more terrible still.

The gods had given me almost everything. But I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease. I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and the meaner minds. I became the spendthrift of my own genius, and to waste an eternal youth gave me a curious joy. Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in search for new sensation. What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion. Desire, at the end, was a malady, or a madness, or both. I grew careless of the lives of others. I took pleasure where it pleased me, and passed on. I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has some day to cry aloud on the housetop. I ceased to be lord over myself. I was no longer the captain of my soul, and did not know it.

Wilde desired to live a long life and produce great literary work, but he also loved pleasure. In the end, as he put it himself, “I allowed pleasure to dominate me. I ended in horrible disgrace.” Wilde died a broken man at the age of forty-six.

One of our family’s mottoes comes from the book Do Hard Things. As I tell my children, the path that leads to excellence is in fact often the most difficult, but if we persist in our efforts while going down difficult paths, over time they will become easier. This is not because the nature of the task has changed but because our ability to do it has grown.

My wife provides a good example of this. Though she exercises regularly, she decided several years ago as a personal challenge to take up swimming. The problem is that she did not grow up swimming. The first time she swam laps in the pool, she swallowed a good bit of water. There was nothing enjoyable about the experience; however, she persisted, and over time her swimming improved and the difficult workouts became easier. She has now reached the point where she no longer dreads the pool, but enjoys it, particularly the benefits that come from swimming.

Writer John Piper was correct when he said, “All training is painful and frustrating as you seek to develop certain skills. However, over time, as these skills become second nature, they lead to greater joy.”

It is crucial to understand that if we invest time each day in important activities and skill development, we will eventually become very capable. Repetition is the key to enhancing our skills. This is how we build certain habits and disciplines into our lives.

The question we should consider is this: Am I now on a truth, growth and wisdom quest? Is my life in harmony with what is true, regardless of how difficult that truth may be?

Finally, our great pursuit of pleasure, fun and happiness explains why we struggle to establish good habits yet at the same time have difficulty breaking our bad habits.

Dr. Tom Morris shares some helpful insights into this quandary. Good habits usually result from thoughtful, rational decision making plus personal discipline and repetition. When establishing a new habit, getting started is generally the hardest part. For example, we might start a new exercise and diet routine because we observe our bodies slowly deteriorating or we know of people our age who’ve suffered heart attacks. We calculate a shortfall in our retirement needs and tighten our budgets so we can direct more financial resources to our retirement accounts. As we implement these necessary changes over time, they become permanent habits in our lives, and ultimately will lead to our future well-being.

Bad habits, on the other hand, are usually not the result of logical thought or careful deliberation. Frequently, they are a result of pleasurable sensations that make us feel good. And if it results in making us feel better, then we are prone to doing it again and again. Repetition sets in and behold — a new habit has formed.

In this day and time, good feelings often have far greater power over our ability to reason. Once established, these bad habits are much more difficult to break because they are rooted in the strength of personal feelings and pleasurable sensations. It’s essential to always be careful to avoid bad habits whenever possible.

It is vital that each of us is honest and asks him- or herself: Am I on a truth, growth and wisdom quest or on a pleasure, fun and feel-good quest? These two pursuits will almost always lead us in opposite directions.


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