Waiting to Die

My whole life feels like one big waiting game. I could not wait to get done with High School. I could not wait to get married. I could not wait to buy a house. I could not wait to eat my dessert. I am always waiting for something in life and it is not good. We all tend to do this to some degree because we are uniquely gifted with the understanding of the “future” tense. No other animal is consciously waiting for some future event – they are always responding to stimulus in a programmed manner. The ultimate example of the waiting game is that guaranteed end point – death. I am scared that I will eventually run out of exciting things to wait for and ultimately begin to wait for my last breath. It sounds macabre but isn’t that what a lot of elderly people are doing at this very moment. There are nursing homes around the world full of people that have one last future plan. I don’t want to rush through life anymore and try to speed up what is already a fast-tracked existence.

On any given day, I am waiting for a myriad of future events. In the middle of the night I wake up waiting for my alarm. In the morning I wait for lunch time. In the afternoon I wait for the end of the work day to get done. In the evening I wait to eat dinner. While lying in bed I wait for my favorite TV show. While I close my eyes to sleep I wait for my dreams. When I’m waiting for the aforementioned events, I am waiting for even more things in the distant future: blog posts to write, books to read, plans to be made, sex to be had, money to be saved, and chores to be completed. During my waking hours, I probably spend 75% of the time thinking about things in the future or things that are unrelated to the present. Even when I am doing something fun, I catch myself waiting for it to be over so I can move onto the next activity.

When I was in college, I was in a huge rush to get done and start my life. I could not wait to never have to write a stupid paper or turn in an assignment again (ironic now that I blog). I did everything I could to graduate early and now I look back with deep regrets. I missed out on seeing my friends whom I rarely ever see now. There was nothing for me at the end of the process – all I had was that habit of waiting for the next step. Are we all destined to wait out our lives until we’re dead in the ground? I am realistic and know waiting will always play a role in my life. How could I ever plan for the future without daydreams? How could I ever better myself without future goals? I will never stop looking forward but I need to find a way to balance my gaze more towards the present. What is the best way to be mindful? The number one way to get out of the waiting game is to notice the details. Your brain is almost always on autopilot and can function pretty well with minimal concentration. Whenever you take your brain out of its autopilot you begin to concentrate and focus on the here and now. My top two ways of doing this is by focusing on my breath and focusing on specific details. For example, my mind was wandering while writing this blog so I focused on my breath for a couple of inhales. Almost immediately, I began concentrating on the task at hand and was completely present. If you find yourself in the waiting game focus on something extremely particular. I love looking at the sunrise or the stars when I let Max out to take a crap. Focus on one thing and just analyze it for a couple of seconds. You will be present and your thoughts will stay in that state for quite some time thereafter.

I know this is all stuff that people have heard before but I personally always need reminding. Practice being present and stop waiting for the next step. Life is a river that you float down; every bend is unique, some bends are bad, some bends are good, but you can only stay at each for a certain time – once you pass one it is gone forever.

Guaranteed Happiness

Do you want to be happy for the rest of your life? Do you want to live each day as if you were a overly-positive camp counselor? Do you want to wake up Monday morning feeling like you could wrestle a bear or win an argument against a jerkhead? I do! Who wouldn’t want to best a pachyderm or better yet crap glorious poops on a regular basis? To get closer to my goals of blissful happiness, I read Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. Most of you know who Daniel Gilbert is because he is the slightly older gentleman on all those Prudential retirement commercials; “How much is in your pocket, go put it on that board so you can see how big it will get in 5000 years when you can finally stop working.” Gilbert is a frick after my own heart and I really like his style of writing. This book was not an easy read and honestly it could be a semester long course with how many research studies it cites. However, because of Gilbert’s explanations of how we think, I now understand happiness much better than before.

To truly understand what makes us happy we must first understand how we perceive the world around us. We have flawed thinking about the past, present, and future.

  1. We look into the past and only remember high points and low points which doesn’t give us an accurate history of events. For example, we remember the highlights of the vacation but forget the mundane parts like sitting in the car or eating ham sandwiches.
  2.  In the present, we naturally compare our emotional state with others seeing only the things that reaffirm our beliefs. For example, we want a new car so we note to ourselves every time we see someone who appears happy with a new car-while disregarding all the unhappy people.
  3. We imagine the future without exact detail, which fools us into thinking that our emotions will be stronger then they actually will be. For example, we imagine that our sadness would be extremely high the day after our team loses the big game but in reality we are not that sad because we didn’t include in our imagination all the other things we would do in that day like have sex or eat a big cheeseburger.

In addition to our lack of accurate past, present, and future perceptions, we have an excellent knack to defend against negativity. We have an emotional immune system which helps us rationalize negative stimuli. For example, you find your best friend in bed with your woman. You will be mad but eventually your emotional immune system will rationalize the event in your head: “She was a whore, I’m so glad I figured this out sooner then later…she wasn’t good enough for me anyways…she did always have a weird cat smell.” We also surround ourselves with people who reaffirm our beliefs and this further helps the emotional immune system do its job of keeping us positive.

So what the frick does all this crazy psychology have to do with happiness? To put simply, our perception of the world is influenced by our own world view and we will seek to reaffirm this view at all costs. Since our views of past and future are fuzzy at best we really can only reference the present for accurate indicators of happiness levels. How the heck do you reference the present if you are trying to figure out your future happiness? The best way is to look at people who are experiencing your imagined future in the present. For example, you are wondering whether having children will make you happy, or whether having a new car will make you happy, or whether getting that weird hipster haircut will make you happy. You need to find someone who currently is in that state and glean information from them regarding their state of happiness. Daniel Gilbert calls this “Reporting Live from Tomorrow.” I told you this book was a difficult read and hence a difficult subject to sum up. In addition to these tips on happiness, I want to add my own small opinion on the subject. Guaranteed happiness can only come when you appreciate your blessings that have already come to be while having the mentality that no blessing in the future is guaranteed-making every new experience an awesome surprise gift. Life-long happiness is not expecting much from life but relishing whenever you do crap glorious poops on a Monday morning.

The Two Income Trap

What happened to the idea that a wife would stay home and care after the house while the husband would be the bread winner? Well, feminism extricated women from their historic-domestic role and starting in the 1970’s women began to flood the workforce with fervor. I am all for women getting equal rights and being allowed to strap on the business suit and sit in a cubicle all day. My nagging question is why the reverse scenario wasn’t afforded to men? Sure, men can technically stay home and let their wife be the bread winner but I find it not nearly as socially acceptable. In the US at least, I find that woman are supported if they desire a career or a domestic title. A woman in the workforce can still be feminine and is viewed as strong, ambitious, intelligent, etc. A woman who stays at home, to take care for her family, can still be feminine and is viewed as strong, caring, nurturing, etc. How is a man viewed who stays at home to take care of domestic manners? I would say that he may be looked at as less masculine, lazy, lacking ambition, and weak. Sure there are exceptions to what people believe but I am talking about the general societal views that are brought up behind closed doors. The reason I bring these points up are two fold: firstly, I think it is important to identify that we do not need two income households, and secondly, we need to rethink what true masculinity represents.

You are probably thinking, “Jon what the frick, we need all the money we can get and are scrapping by with two incomes!” You probably are scrapping by, but that is because of spending habits and the life you created more than the actual amount of money you need. The two income trap is that you end up spending most of the money you make and hence build a lifestyle that corresponds to your dual income level. Think about if you had your pay cut in half. You would change your spending habits and adjust your lifestyle. I challenge both women and men to think about how they can cut the amount of time they spend working and readjust their lives to do the things they truly love to do. Men, I am reaching out to you and asking to rethink what masculinity truly means. Masculinity is not defined by the amount of money you make or the amount of respect you receive from a title. True masculinity is being secure in your own faculties so you can be the best lover, friend, mentor, son, and father. To anyone interested in the concept of the why two incomes is not beneficial I would recommend reading The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents are Going Broke by Elizabeth Warren. I know I had two points in this post but they are really related. Women and especially men need to let go of perceived societal norms, support lives that tout relationships over greed, and realize that life can be so much more fulfilling then the rat-race. I end with the question, “What would you do if you won the lottery?” 95% of people I have asked this said they would quit their job’s immediately.

You’re Going to Die in 1 Year

Unfortunately, this title was a reality for Morrie Swartz in the book Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom. Morrie was a sociology professor who received the life changing diagnosis of ALS which slowly takes away the ability of the muscles to function and has no cure. Morrie, being the introspective person he was, did not become morose over his predicament but rather analyzed death and was extremely optimistic throughout his dwindling state. He tried to answer the hard questions of life and was a metaphorical bridge between the living and the dead.

One of the most profound points Morrie made was that you must first embrace death before you can really start living. This seems like a contradictory statement but it is a paradox with profound implications. Most people, including me, think death is a far off event that should receive little thought. We are all born and we will all die. We celebrate the birth part and avoid the death part. This creates a problem because death frames our life journey; accepting that at any point you may die frames how you live each and every day. If I die tonight will I be happy with my life up until this point? I asked this question to myself and I didn’t have a very satisfying answer. I currently am in a state of constant work which takes away my ability to maintain relationships, read, meditate, love, learn, and create. I still want to see the world, kiss my future children, and learn new skills. Why do I put off these life activities in the current-even though death may come at any time? Well the reason is that I have not accepted death yet and therefore I cannot truly start living. At current, I have accepted the desire of accumulating money to provide myself security which will keep me far away from death. Unfortunately, no matter how much financial security I have there is no escaping the unknown time of death. I am using money as a pseudo-god that graces me with a mentality that “tomorrow is a guarantee.”

Of course we need a certain amount of money to pay the bills but I bet if people accepted that death would come at any time they would change their spending habits. That big house may be a small house, that boat may not be so important, that new car may be unnecessary, that 5-star hotel just wouldn’t make much sense. What would become important would be a meal with your Dad, a camping trip to see the majestic Smokey Mountains, and maybe a homemade dinner with your beautiful spouse. My goal is to rid myself of the false security of money and find the bare-minimum amount that I need to truly live my life. I challenge you to think about this balance so that your full-time job becomes a part-time job or maybe you can even quit your job. Ask yourself, did you wake up this Monday excited to live your last day or did you wake up just to grudgingly trudge off to work as if you are going to live forever?