I will admit that I have been having a mild middle life crisis for the past 6 months. I can’t really point to what brought it on but thoughts of my purpose and path forward have been weighing on my mind more than usual. I tried to shake it off as a “first world problem” but that rationalization ignores the very real impact that these thoughts have on my emotional wellbeing.
It’s funny how several external sources can converge over a short period of time to help make sense of the world when you need it most. These are not the typical sources of guidance and inspiration but they have really helped me and I would like to share what they are and how they have helped.
I may have mentioned this before but I have always had a soft spot for the underdog story. I love stories and ideas where people overcome adversity to find meaning, happiness, and success. I was having a quiet moment on a Sunday afternoon with my wife when we watched an episode of Street Food on Netflix. If you have not seen this, it creates a beautiful picture of the street food of a particular Asian city through the use of sharp cinematography, great story telling, and interviews often highlighting one individual “street vendor”. The first episode we watched was in Bangkok and featured Jay Fai, who became a street vendor out of necessity to feed her family but progressed to a point where she was recognized with a Michelin star. Restaurants much loftier strive to achieve this rating but very few do. However, Jay Fai did not achieve this by setting it as a goal. She achieved it because she focused on making excellent food one dish at a time. Her goal was not external validation but to be better than she was the day before and to achieve perfection in every dish. It is in the process of creation and the sense of satisfaction she received from the people who ate her food that she found meaning.
It is interesting that much of the other episodes follow the same formula and while I do not think the intention of the series was to identify an archetype of a successful street food vendor, I do believe that is what it achieved. Forward progress was driven by necessity but long term satisfaction was derived from finding meaning in what was being made and the community that they built around their business.
My second source of perspective is more conventional. A few months ago, I was listening to NPR and they were interviewing Thomas Friedman on his new book, The Road to Character. I’m still grappling with whether I agree with the fundamental premise of this book but the argument he makes is that we have transitioned from a “Little Me” to a “Big Me” culture. Our current society emphasizes that we are the master of our own destiny, to trust our instincts, and that if we strive and work hard enough we can achieve the happiness and success that we were meant to have. Our previous culture emphasized that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, that our instincts should be treated with caution to avoid falling prey to our inner demons, and that ultimate “success” was not necessarily happiness but finding meaning within ourselves and the context of our community.
On the one hand, his arguments really appeal to me. Most people, I believe, come to realize that chasing success, fame, fortune, and external validation do not lead to happiness. It is an appetite that can never fully be satiated. It is shallow and ephemeral. Instead, finding meaning within oneself and understanding yourself in the context of something bigger whether it is G-d, your community, an organization or a cause you really believe in leads to long term meaning that withstands the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. Where I struggle with Friedman’s argument is the idea that to achieve this one has to give themselves over completely and shed the modern persona of achievement. Our street vendors could not give themselves completely to their craft if they could not survive doing so. If no one would eat the food they made, they would have to find another occupation to subsist. While they might find true meaning in making food, it is only through their connection with the community that this meaning is realized.
In addition, his argument takes a particular religious angle that does not align with my world view. Many of the examples in his book cast off their worldly endeavors to serve a Christian ideal of G-d and “the golden rule”. But someone could equally find meaning by giving their heart over to Satan or a cult leader. I worry that this inner search to find meaning leads many to the right place but some to a very bad place. For others, this acceptance of a greater meaning is used to absolve individuals of their sins when some mistakes can’t be easily washed away.
My religious world view is that my upbringing has provided me a sense of right and wrong. As I try to teach my children, the rules are simple- work hard at what you are doing, be truthful, honor commitments, and treat others with the kindness and respect you would hope for yourself. Hence, there is a general sense of right and wrong that represent universal truths in the world that come from our heritage/culture/religion and it is up to us, as individuals with free will to choose to live by these rules. Thus it is impossible to find meaning in life without accountability to our own selves first and those around us. This is where I think Friedman’s argument falters.
Together, these two sources have taught me two things despite their flaws. First, true meaning in life is understanding our flaws whether they are failings of character or action and trying to improve everyday. I’ve never told this story but the event that continues to be my greatest source of regret and flaw that I continue to work on to this day occurred when I was 16 years old. My mom was being treated for breast cancer and I was supposed to pick her up after her treatment and I forgot. I forgot my own mom. What kind of son does that? This was in an era of no cell phones. When I did get home I found 6 messages on the answering machine and when I finally drove to pick up my mom over 3 hours after I was supposed to, I found her waiting up front with the nurse with the rest of the lights off in the building.
She got into the car without saying a word. She didn’t need to. It’s funny because I doubt my mom even remembers this but despite this happening over 30 years ago, it is something that pops up in my mind quite often and has defined a major part of my moral framework. Since that time I have always tried to honor my commitments, be honest in my interactions, and sometimes unrealistically, demand the same from others. It has sometimes lead me to view the world in very black and white terms which has created some rigidity in my relationships.
I continue to work on being true to my word and honoring my commitments. Every failure hurts my inner being and makes me yearn to be better. Of course the second lesson learned is that individual meaning cannot be achieved on our own. Sure, individual efforts can lead to individual success- more wealth, fancier titles, easier life. But individual meaning comes from being part of a community. That does not mean that we are subservient to the group or that our efforts must be for the benefit of the greater good. It means that our search for meaning in life is placed in a greater context. Serial killers have not achieve true meaning in their life because their actions are contrary to community moral compass. Our individual search for meaning depends on us being part of something greater than ourselves.
I don’t want to come off as a moral ogre but I have come to appreciate that happiness is not the goal and striving for more titles or money or whatever will not provide me happiness. Happiness is not bad but it is fleeting, a mere moment of time, and a life of meaning is not built on moments. My last source of inspiration drives this home. In the HBO documentary Chernobyl what struck me most was not the great tragedy that unfolded. Sure it was awful beyond imagination. The two points that struck me was a leadership culture of blame and denial where leaders protected their self interest by throwing others under the bus or ignoring vital information from inferiors. The most striking point, however, was the sacrifice of the thousands and thousands of people who helped mitigate the crisis despite knowing that they were sentenced to death from radiation exposure. The leader of the miners characterized it best. His group was brought to tunnel underneath the reactor to place a cooling unit. Their work avoided radiation contamination for 40 million people by preventing water contamination. When asked if the state would take care of the miners, the leaders offered no commitments and despite this, they continued their work. They did the work they knew in service to each other and the broader society not for reward or glory but out of necessity.
My journey is not over but I feel that focusing on meaning over success will help me find peace with myself. Maybe our world would be a better place if we spent less time on transient happiness that on long term meaning. Thanks.