Seeing Through the Fire

If you are anything like me you like to ask questions that are beyond our comprehension such as What is the meaning of life? Or Why am I here and what is my purpose? There is no satisfaction in asking these questions because we can never find satisfactory answers. Our curious minds often get the better of us and we are left with a feeling of confusion, doubt, and most damaging a feeling of failure. Because we cannot answer these questions that are beyond us anyhow we feel a sense of defeat or a lack of intelligence, both preposterous presumptions but both very real feelings.

In my experience, the very act of asking and further investigating these questions prohibits me from getting any real work done. It becomes an exercise in futility; daydreaming about these questions and hoping that somehow, as if by magic, an answer will drop down through my bedroom ceiling, settle on top of my head, and begin working its way to my brain whereby I will finally have the answer. But this never happens, the answer never comes and I am left to toil in my bedroom feeling as though I cannot go on without asking these all too important questions.

The truth is, however, these questions are not important at all. They lack importance because we are limited and cannot answer them or even begin chipping away at them. It is not as if we are on a slow journey to these answers and we decide to throw in the towel instead of doing the work — Our work isn’t leading anywhere — only to more suffering, mental anguish, and feelings of defeat, failure, and mental fatigue. It is this fatigue that keeps us from accomplishing the very things that ultimately give meaning to our lives. And for me, by relinquishing my desire to ask these questions I have found a freedom that has allowed me to find personal value and given me a glimpse into how one finds meaning in life.

I am a work in progress. If I were to say this in casual conversation or begin a job application with these three words, work in progress, many may assume that I have just been released from prison after 25 years and I am learning how to cross the street without being hit by a car. “He’s a work in progress, but at least he’s out there trying,” Something to this effect may be whispered by others, applauding my efforts but feeling as though I am playing catch up to them; for they are no longer works in progress, they are done with progress and thus they must have found the answer to fulfillment and happiness! This is most definitely 90% derived from my own insecurities; But for good measure, the idea that the pursuit of personal growth in such a deep and rigorous manner somehow puts one behind everyone else is lost on me.

Character flaws and shortcomings are within each of us and working to improve yourself and addressing your shortcomings by no means puts you behind the pack. I would venture to guess that many do not want to look at the very reasons they are stuck in unfortunate situations and often blame poor luck or other people for their own misfortune. For me the answer is never outside of myself; my problems, my misfortune, cannot be caused by anything or anyone else unless I give it power by ceding my power over myself. Sheer laziness will give others the power to determine the outcome of my day and I will not allow this to happen. By developing a relationship with ourselves we create a clearer idea of who we are and we can begin to find the reasons behind our negative behavior.

Over the course of a year, I have practiced intense self-analysis, mindfulness meditation, one-on-one therapy, and group therapy. Although all have been and continue to be an immense help in my personal growth, self-analysis seems to have the most profound and intellectually stimulating impact. The practice, if you are not familiar, can be intense and may not be the best endeavor for everyone. It is an in-depth look into one’s motives and character — it is necessary if one hopes to improve, to be honest in a way that perhaps one has never been honest before. You begin stripping away layers of yourself that have been built up over the years, finding pieces that you never knew were there.

We have a tendency to keep the things we are most afraid of hidden, often to the point that we no longer acknowledge they are even there. However it is these very things that we have kept hidden that manifest in other ways and ultimately show themselves as new, different character flaws. Without addressing the deep, core flaws within ourselves we find that we only scratch the surface of the very issues that are holding us back. In this confusion we wonder why we cannot move forward, we believe fully that we are making a genuine effort and we are being honest. What happens is we begin rearranging the surface, we redesign how we look to the outside world and for a while, this works. But in reality, we are only fooling ourselves and keeping more secrets. We have to go deep to the core of the issue to solve it, and this means we have to come to terms with our shortcomings and be prepared for difficult discoveries. This is not all bad news! It is in this process that I believe we begin to find true meaning.

So, with my insecurities on full display and my ego perhaps notched a little higher than usual what have I found?

My personal journey and subsequent self-discovery have given me an understanding of how I can best find meaning and personal value in my life. For me, meaning comes from confronting these very difficulties in life and getting through them alive with a new understanding and a new set of tools. Once I identify my character flaws I can begin working towards improving my character — in this discovery and progress, I find meaning. I set out to find the very issues that are holding me back — it begins with an admittance that can at times be embarrassing but is necessary for growth.

For instance, there was a time when I believed it useful to be completely open with people, maintaining maximum vulnerability so that they could know me as best as possible. I noticed, however, that this practice seemed to overwhelm people and even more embarrassing made people uncomfortable. I thought I was being completely selfless! “Take all of me! I’ll tell you whatever you want to know!” — Unfortunately for me, I am a person of extremes and this leads to me having to work very hard to find anything even resembling balance. My natural inclination is to give you everything I have or nothing at all. Upon learning that I made someone uncomfortable my reaction was to beat myself up, convince myself that I had nothing of value to share, and completely stop sharing anything at all. This was not the correct response!

Everything is a work in progress. Upon realizing that I was either totally open or completely withholding I began working to find balance. First, though, I had to come to terms with why I was sharing so much. There was ego involved to be sure, and what I mistook as selfless sharing was, in fact, more self-promotion. I felt that my best qualities were these very deep discoveries I had made and in order for someone to appreciate me, they had to see these deep qualities. Through small talk I felt like I couldn’t impress another person so I instead shared negative qualities about my past only to then share how I overcame them, painting a picture of someone who had made mistakes but overcame them and is better off for having made such mistakes. This was selfish and self-centered indeed, and that is the real issue; The idea being that I may not have a 9-5 job but I have a healthy sense of gratitude and humility. I was comparing and trying to force something — I wasn’t lying about anything, and in fact, I was being incredibly honest, but my motives were wrong and that is why I had to go to work finding out what I was compensating for and how I could find balance. I didn’t have a clear understanding of my value; I shortchanged myself in many areas and overloaded myself in others. Zero balance, all or nothing thinking is overwhelming to others and exhausting for myself. It isn’t healthy and so I had to figure out why my behavior was so extreme and how to change it.

I am not perfect and at times I go silent for fear that I am sharing too much. This is ok too — the point is that we find areas where we struggle and we work to improve these areas and no matter the speed of our progress we begin to see meaning from within our lives. We learn to be patient with ourselves and we begin to have a clearer picture of what we are and are not yet prepared for.

This process leads not only to meaning and value; it forces us to be honest about where we are in our lives. The important part is realizing that it does not matter where we find ourselves, only that we find ourselves and begin working towards improving ourselves. There is no point on the map that any one of us is supposed to be at; there is no finish line. Personally, I do not have the ubiquitous 5-year plan and I don’t place much importance on goals that require being somewhere or somebody at a certain point in time.

Do not confuse this with a lack of goals or ambition — I have very clear goals and there are certain things I think would be nice to have in my life; however, I do not force things in my life that don’t belong. I can think that being married sounds nice but if the right person isn’t in my life I would surely make a mistake by marrying someone just for the sake of getting married, right? The idea, for me at least, is that I improve myself each day. I do not set out each day to work towards being a great father for when/if that time comes; rather I set out to create the most character I can each day so that when/if I become a father I will be confident in my abilities to be a good one.

My purpose is to work on myself each day to become better then I was yesterday and to do this with a positive and patient disposition. When I do this I have nothing to fear — I will be prepared for whatever the world decides to confront me with. I find meaning in overcoming these difficulties in life — I find value in looking back and recognizing growth from one day to the next and within this value and meaning I find that I haven’t prepared myself for a specific status, city, or relationship. Instead I find myself prepared for life, however, it decides to present itself to me each day.