Improve or Accept? A Discussion for Life

Exercise has been a staple throughout my life. It began as play time in motion: climbing trees and running around like a monkey. Then it became dedicated, as I practised martial arts and weightlifting, which I still do to this day. My body has adapted to these years of movement, so when I am sedentary, it is deeply uncomfortable. This is a helpful dependence, forcing me to stay fit and mobile all the time. So when I work out, it isn’t really a choice. In this sense, I am more a creature of habit than an autonomous being. My actions follow the pattern of my past and are not subject to rigorous decision-making; they are automatic. This principle holds for other, less desirable habits. When you have been comfort eating for ten years, it is hard to stop. Our brains crave regularity, and fight tooth and nail to prevent us changing ourselves. A shitty, but familiar situation is often preferred to an uncertain one, no matter how good it may be. Our brains trap us, and this leads to people living in a proverbial mud swamp, a lagoon of mediocrity from which they cannot pull their feet. Trudging through a life that is just okay, but not great. If things were unbearably bad, one would have to change, but subtle misery can be tolerated forever.

This reluctance to fulfil our potential stems from an unwarranted feeling that we will live forever, giving us ample time to change, and justifying procrastination. Even if we aren’t immortal, we’ll probably make it to eighty, right? Plenty of time to dawdle, waiting for motivation to carry us home. Wrong. Any length of time will pass, and subjectively, the older we get, the quicker time goes (1). Being creatures of habit, the more we procrastinate, the more we become procrastinators, and the likelihood we will ever break through the wall of complacency narrows. Ambition that is not acted upon will, like a woodfire that is not tended to, dwindle and die. We are not static entities, but ever-changing, with each decision we make affecting the next. When it comes to bettering ourselves, there are no days off (2).

A question worth asking is: why do you want to better yourself? The workaholics of our world are rewarded with large salaries and high status, but most are not happier than the average person. There is a certain admiration for those who become obsessed with something- and this usually leads to their success- but why the obsession? Is it a desperate, perpetual attempt to prove yourself? Is it a distraction from the discomfort of existing, the suffering the mind creates as a response to unresolved trauma? And finally, is it possible to become successful without an unhealthy obsession driving your hard work? 

Let’s assume you can derive motivation from a healthy source. One can work through their demons by getting to know themselves, via meditation, therapy or other means. A key focus in this approach is to fully accept everything, as it is. No longer modifying the external environment, hoping that once they get this, that, or the other, they will be happy. Finding happiness within yourself, in this moment only. There seems to arise a paradox at this point: if the present moment is perfect, why change at all? If we are all manifestations of the universe, in no way flawed, why get out of bed in the morning?

This is a question we all must answer ourselves, because I cannot tell you what your reason for living should be. It would be nice to wrap this up in a neat little bow, to put to rest once and for all the eternal questions of humanity, but I don’t have an answer. In fact, the pursuit of the question is more interesting. A good place to start, though, is to seek joy.

Joy is allowed to be fleeting, whereas we expect happiness to last forever. Joy is lounging in the sunshine with a book, kind of reading, but not really. Joy is playing with your dog, watching the glee on her face as she runs for the ball. Joy is being swept away by the beauty of nature, on a road trip with friends, music blasting. Joy is a lazy morning of coffee and pancakes. Joy is hugging a friend you haven’t seen in a year. Joy is the creative process, starting from nothing and somehow, through inexplicable magic, creating something beautiful.

Often it feels, however, that negative weighs more than positive. The balance between good and bad seems skewed, such that those fleeting moments of joy do not outweigh the intensity of depression. Happiness is a subtle icing on the cake, compared to the immersive tragedy that sadness can be. How can happiness compete?

Despite the challenges of life, there is an intrinsic brightness to living. After all, the universe exists, when it has every right not to. There ‘is’, rather than ‘isn’t’. This brightness is often concealed, but shows itself sooner or later. During a particularly dreary summer, smothered by a blanket of cloud, I turned pessimistic. But I realised that if I got up at dawn, every day it was clear, and glistening sunshine danced on the dewdrops. The inner brightness shone through. I feel it when meditating: no matter what pain or nervousness lies on the surface, beneath that there is a warm glow, a deep calm that does not go away. The universe is content, and we are all part of it.

“No one imagines that a symphony is supposed to improve as it goes along, or that the whole object of playing is to reach the finale. The point of music is discovered in every moment of playing and listening to it. It is the same, I feel, with the greater part of our lives, and if we are unduly absorbed in improving them we may forget altogether to live them.” – Alan Watts

1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zHL9GP_B30E&t=1664s – Illusions of Time, Vsauce- A fascinating watch

2: Atomic Habits, James Clear- An insightful, highly practical book that inspired the beginning of this post

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