Drowning in the Future
Most of our lives are spent holding our breath. We are submerged underwater, swimming for the surface. We grasp and pull towards the sunlight but never seem to get any closer. Recycled oxygen cycles through our bloodstream while our lungs burn with the desire for fresh air. Just fifteen more feet, we tell ourselves, and we’ll break through the waves to fill our lungs with the cool morning breeze.
We are immersed in an ocean of striving. Our ambitions seem to shimmer in the surf above us. But no matter how hard we swim, the surface is just beyond our grasp. We go to school, go to more school, get a job, get a promotion, start a family, send the kids to college, etc., etc. We believe contentment exists in a future tomorrow, somewhere beyond our current grind.
Today’s efforts are experienced as necessary hardships. Any pleasure inherent in our endeavors is hidden by the brilliant reflection of our future ambitions. However, no sooner do we grasp our current goal than it is transformed into a new, loftier ambition and we are dragged back beneath the waves.
How long is a young child content with a new toy? Unless it is an extra-special toy, the child likely will move on to other toys within a week. Adults are no different. As Rumi said: “A child is still a child even after it’s learned the alphabet.” Even though the toys of adulthood are larger we still grow weary of them, seeking novelty like the overgrown children we are.
Should we ever achieve any of our goals, their specialness begins to decline immediately. And within a few weeks or months of our dreamt-of promotion we have set our sights on the next advancement.
I have much personal experience with the process described above. I was tormented by the seemingly mindless struggle of pre-medical college requirements and the Everest-like demands of medical school. I saw it all as the necessary hurdles of getting a doctorate. It took me nearly three years of medical school to wake to the fact that no matter how far I came there was always another hurdle.
I used to say that I’d be content when I was accepted into medical school. When I was accepted, I told myself I’d be happy if I received good grades. When I received good grades, I believed I’d be happy when I left the classroom to work in the hospital. And when I worked in the hospital, I told myself I’d be content when I graduated. And now I am applying to residency programs, repeating the entire cycle over again.
It took many years of losing sight of the present moment behind the goals of tomorrow before I have realized the truth in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words: “Life is a journey, not a destination.”
I see now that there is oxygen in the ocean of striving and that I can breathe below the surface. There is no need to wait for achievement to start living a contented life.
I realize with profound certainty that if I cannot be happy today I can be guaranteed not to be happy tomorrow.
In the grand scheme of life there is no end, only a means. Satisfaction exists in the process of achievement. Goals are only necessary to fuel the process; beyond this they have little value.
After all, we learn by doing, not achieving.
“Looking-forward-to is a diversion that takes us out of the presence. Stay in the joy of now.”