“The secret of life, though, is to fall seven times and to get up eight times.” ~Paulo Coelho
We're bombarded by images of people living apparently perfect lives. They suffer no bereavements or breakups or losses or failures. They look perfect, make perfect choices, and act perfect.
Everyone seems to love them as they sail from success to success, with zero misfortunes, mistakes, or regrets.
So, it's easy to believe that we, too, need to be perfect.
I had a simple definition of success when I was younger. It was whatever made others admire, or at least accept me.
So, I aimed for better jobs. This was defined in terms of salary.
As a young doctor, I started out in a poorly paid job. I made it through a PhD, then an MBA. The research was impactful, but what excited me as much was that doors opened to me.
Instead of me chasing jobs, they started chasing me. I sought to double my salary. When that happened, I sought to double it again.
This game kept going, and to the world I was a success. My mother took pride in telling people what I did.
My life at home told a different story.
I had to travel a lot at a time when our children were young. Even though I tried to confine that to a week at a time, I was becoming a stranger to them.
A simple incident proved to be a turning point.
I was in our sitting room going through some notes before setting out for work. Our young son was playing. He became noisier and noisier.
My mind was on my notes, and his was on his play.
Then he started running up and down the sitting room. It was going well for him until I reacted.
He was probably imitating some noisy vehicle or airplane. At least that’s what it sounded like to me, as I tried to concentrate on my notes.
As he ran past me, I put my arm out to stop him.
Unfortunately, my adult arm was like a wall to him. Our little boy hit my arm and fell to the floor.
This remains one of the incidents I’m deeply ashamed of.
He burst into tears, and my partner rushed to pick him up and comfort him.
My job continued to be center stage, but the scales were starting to fall from my eyes.
I tried to make it up to him, visiting a motor show together. He loved the shiny cars, including the one Michael Schumacher had driven in the Formula One championship.
As he held my hand throughout our motor show visit, I began to experience more deeply the meaning of the saying “Love makes the world go round.”
The piles of responsibilities in my job began to weigh on me more heavily. I was walking a tightrope of stress, irritability, and worry.
A routine medical exam confirmed what I had suspected: I was an unfit, overweight wreck, in need of medication to keep my heart and circulation in working order. Our family life was far from the ideal picture that our beautiful home must have presented to the world. I was a well-paid but emotionally exhausted wreck.
We talked it over and my partner was very clear. Our family life too was beginning to resemble a wreck. The money was simply not worth it.
We should uproot ourselves and make a new life, whatever that brought.
Since then, I’ve been through many years of life experiences.
I went from being an absentee parent to making time to play with our children nearly every day. That remains one of the greatest sources of satisfaction to me.
I went from measuring success in purely financial terms to a wider definition of success. The spark that had gone out of our marriage was rekindled and the embers grew steadily into a new romance.
My passion for music making had been put on the back burner for years, but I’ve since nurtured it. I try to make some time each day to create music, and have had the good fortune to perform and record with some great musicians.
I started converting all my medical and scientific knowledge into practical actions. I lost inches from my waist and no longer needed any medication.
However, the biggest changes occurred in my inner life.
Stress, irritability, and worry used to bother me. I don’t mean just in terms of experiencing them. I mean being annoyed and angry with myself for not feeling good at all times.
Aren’t we all meant to try and feel good all the time? Isn’t that what makes a good life? Isn’t constant happiness our highest ideal?
We look online or in glossy magazines and see celebrities smiling and laughing on the red carpet. We see sages and gurus glowing. We see so many apparently perfect people living perfect lives.
Why can’t we feel good all the time?
I’ve come to understand that there’s something beyond happiness, something more substantial than a passing emotion.
It’s the joy of doing what you consider to be important and good. It involves recognizing what really matters to you. It involves gladly losing what is less important.
It’s living in better alignment with what you value, deep in your heart.
Does this bring good feelings all the time? No.
Sometimes it brings stress, as when you have to speak out for what you believe is right even when that’s against the tide. Or when you have to keep going when you’d rather give up. Or when you have to give up when you’d rather keep going.
Sometimes it brings low moods, as when everything seems to be going wrong. The stock market crashes, you lose a valued assignment, your friend has a misunderstanding with you, you have a raging argument with your partner, your treasured outcomes simply don’t happen, people don’t keep their word to you, or are spiteful to you, and so on.
Sometimes it brings fear, as when you have to try something you’re not entirely comfortable with or take risks that seem too big. Even the prospect of failure can bring fear.
Sometimes it brings guilt and shame, as when you do something you deeply regret or fail to keep your word.
Sometimes it brings self-doubt, as when everyone else is going left and you’re going right in life.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that the more you struggle to avoid difficult feelings, the worse life can get.
Imagine a great runner. On the track, the runner is invincible. They want to be invincible everywhere.
Put that same runner in quicksand and they're in trouble.
The more they try to run their way out of the quicksand, the deeper they sink.
The way to cope with quicksand is to stop struggling and lie back. Eventually you'll be rescued.
It can be the same with difficult feelings. After a point, they become like quicksand. Struggling with them beyond that point just sucks you in deeper.
It's good to reach for pleasant feelings when they're within easy reach.
However, when you start beating yourself up for feeling bad, then it's time to remember quicksand.
Sometimes it's better to lie back and float than to try and swim. This means allowing yourself to feel the full range of human emotions.
This doesn’t mean wallowing in your feelings. It means just letting them be. Not struggling with them.
You can still do what you consider to be good and important, within your capabilities. That helps take the sting out of difficult feelings.
That helps bring a profound joy that is beyond fleeting emotions.
It's a kinder, gentler, and more fulfilling way of living. It's great for your wellbeing, especially when life gets difficult.
Recently our grown-up children joined us for a short family break. We were on a deserted beach. Our son picked up a flat pebble and made it skim the water.
Soon, we were all competing to see who could get the most bounces.
I stood back for a moment, watching the scene, and thought to myself: life doesn’t get much better than this.
I wish I’d known as an unfit and emotionally exhausted forty-year-old what I know as a fit and joyful sixty-year-old. But they say sixty is the new forty. So it’s never too late, or too early, to start living better.