The overreaching theme of this blog is inner joy and fulfillment, with its many aspects and subtopics. Unlike many self-improvement blogs, I do not focus much on specific external circumstances that may or may not lead to a joyful life. While I believe we all need a higher purpose and relationship of some sort (whether it be with fellow humans, with God, with animals, with works of art, or simply with nature), most of the specific variables can vary widely.
Beware of distractions
While idle distractions can silence our questions and lead to temporary “fun,” a life filled with constant distractions could hardly be considered satisfying in a deep and lasting sense (in fact, I would submit that satisfaction is never lasting, but requires steady work, vigilance, practice, and awareness). In this context, I consider anything that keeps us from pursuing our highest form of contentment as a distraction.
Distractions can come in many forms. Wasting one’s life away in front of a TV screen seems like an obvious case. In a similar category (in my mind) are video games, emotional overeating, numbing one’s mind with alcohol or drugs, or sleeping excessively to avoid having to face reality.
A different category of distractions may involve activities like compulsive shopping, grooming, or cleaning. At least these pursuits create an outward image of “worthiness” and require a somewhat more active stance in life. But the sense of satisfaction we may gain from those activities will not last, and if we are honest with ourselves, we will one day have to admit that we wasted a significant time of our life and missed unretrievable opportunities for more meaningful activities.
Even apparently noble and valuable pursuits can serve as distractions. For myself, work can be such a distraction. While I’m working, I’m engaged in purposeful activities with clear structure and usually feel quite content. Yet, in the long run, when I work excessively, signs of burnout begin to creep in, and my attitude at work and overall satisfaction with myself and with life suffer.
As another example, I came to realize that academic pursuits can degenerate into distractions. At a time in my life, when, after a decade of struggles, I had reached many of my goals, I started feeling a strange sense of discontent. Being ambitious and at times prideful about my academic abilities, one of the first solutions I considered was that I might need a new academic goal, such as a doctoral degree. Surely, that would have kept me busy for a few more years and may have silenced the nagging sense of emptiness a little longer. Most people no doubt would have considered it a positive and worthy endeavor. Yet, I came to understand that in my case another degree would have had little benefit to justify the sacrifices involved, and I’m now convinced that it would not have increased my contentment, but would only have distracted me from more important and fulfilling pursuits.
Aligned with our highest purpose – God
Instead of mere distractions, then, I believe true fulfillment is the result of a deliberate life with mindful choices, conscious values and priorities that are aligned with our highest purpose – also known as God. In addition, to brace us against life’s ultimate unpredictability, fulfillment requires a certain inner steadfastness and a good measure of completeness within ourselves.
If we rely too much on external circumstances for our joy in life, we are building upon a precarious and fragile foundation. Family members can and will die, our health may and will fail us one day, partners can leave and disappoint us, our livelihood may be lost due to tragedy overnight, natural disaster may literally leave us with nothing but the clothes we are wearing; we may even get wrongly sentenced for a crime and spend decades in prison due to no fault of our own. If we forever run after a new external goal upon which to base our sense of self and happiness, we set ourselves up for failure and ultimate despair.
Once the feeling of emptiness crept into my life after many reached goals, I went through a period of trying to make different adjustments in my life: if pursuing another degree was not the solution, then maybe a new hobby would help (it did, but it did not fill the emptiness); or maybe volunteering (it also did, but the void remained); maybe cutting back on my work schedule (again, it did help, but was not sufficient). I became more involved in church. My faith was sincere yet fragile, since I still had many doubts and much skepticism in my heart. When, in the course of this searching process, I started questioning some of my fundamental choices in life, I was thrown into a state of utter confusion and anguish that humbled me more than ever before and raised the intensity of my seeking to a new level.
After about two weeks of confused struggle, indecision, tears, apathy, guilt, and grief over the anticipated loss and damage of my self-concept and worldview, I reached a new point of clarity and resolution. I realized that my past choices, while at times unique and for many people hard to understand, were not the problem, and that making fundamental external changes at this point in my life would do nothing to increase my happiness, but only add more pain (I’m not saying fundamental changes cannot be necessary or beneficial, but it was not what I needed at that point in my life). Instead, the problem lay in me having begun to take my many blessings for granted, and having tried to find satisfaction in external goals. I then was able to re-align my priorities accordingly and instead start focusing on becoming more emotionally complete.
What is emotional completeness?
What do I mean by emotional completeness? A sense of satisfaction with ourselves and our life that is mostly based on the kind of person we are. It includes leading an intellectually coherent life, and choosing what is morally right over what is convenient or might bring some sort of fleeting enjoyment. Living life in such a way shields us maybe not from sadness and disappointment, but from utter devastation and despair. It comes from becoming the sort of person we want to be.
If our satisfaction is based on the kind of person we are – a person of integrity with consistent values – we may not always follow the latest trends and our choices may at times be unpopular. We may even make choices that cause other people to shake their heads. But at the end of the day, our moral and intellectual honesty will lead to a deeper contentment with ourselves. Not all people may understand such a life, although I do believe most respect it and many even tend to be inspired by it. We human beings in general are remarkably good at justifying our actions and desires, whether or not they would hold up to moral scrutiny. Yet, we are quick to notice and point out any seeming inconsistencies in others.
We seem to have an intrinsic sense of being justified, a denial of our highly imperfect state and our need for salvation. Our own desires and pains, even if we do not comprehend them on a deep level, still make intuitive sense to us. We understand our motivations and actions, even our selfish, hurtful, and cruel ones. We often do not feel like we are bad people when we act in a way that we would quickly recognize in others as negative and inconsiderate. (I believe that generally most people want to be good, but are very skillful at justifying their shortcomings, based on professor Dan Ariely’s research on moral reminders, which I plan to discuss more in the future.)
When another person confronts us and holds us to stricter moral standards, we easily feel offended, hurt, and misunderstood. It can be difficult, yet uniquely satisfying to consciously choose not to fall into these patterns. It requires a lot of vigilance and self-reflection, self-awareness, reminders, humility, and a good deal of courage. There is a special joy in learning to trust our own judgment, and leading a life that is primarily consistent with our values rather than with social acceptability. Emotional completeness also involves being self-motivated and self-directed instead of overly relying on the praise and criticism of others.
Needless to say, this concept I call emotional completeness is a broad subject and one that no doubt will show up repeatedly from different angles in future blog posts.