How to get more out of your life
"Is this all there is?"
Introduction ..... Why am I going nowhere? ..... Where do I start?
Will it make a difference? ..... Who do I want to be? ..... The way ahead
Not that long ago I noticed that my life was beginning to fly by, and with very little achieved in it. In fact I've noticed that a lot of people are beginning to wonder what they are doing with their lives. It's now 15-20 years since my generation left college. We all went out into the world, and now find ourselves wondering just what we achieved. I think most of us have noticed how fast the time went!
To avoid doing nothing with my life, I've learnt that I at least need to go back to basics from time to time and work out what I am attempting to do with my life. This page consists of good advice to myself. If you can profit from it, you're welcome.
So where am I now? Well, I know that most of us didn't do too badly, did we? But to what end? Say you get married, you buy a house, work 9-5.30 every day, and where does it get you? Children come along, and you just end each day too tired to do anything worthwhile. Life seems an unending cycle of chores and responsibilities. Whatever happened to fun? Whatever happened to those student ambitions? All you find yourself doing is waiting to retire. Whatever happened to those ideals we had as a student? How often we cling to them, as the only thing that defines us as a person any more. Were they the best years of your life? Is this all there is to life?
I suppose this is what people call the mid-life crisis. The former Labour party cabinet minister John Stonehouse captured the feelings of us all by leaving his clothes on a beach, and running off to Rio with a secretary. There must be a good many of us who have wondered whether that option is for them. (Personally I've never been able to locate a secretary willing to go with me, so that option was of course ruled out for me!).
With all this tends to go a fair amount of cynicism and disillusionment. We've all tried quick-fix solutions, and they don't work. So what can we do?
This page contains some ideas to mull over. I don't suggest that they are particularly original. I'm afraid I don't believe much in quick-fix books and self-help manuals. They may work for some people - I don't know - but not for me. I don't really believe in panaceas. If you have reached the "Stonehouse Point", you probably don't either. So if what I have below helps, use it - if not, ignore me. I shan't mind!
And remember, you are responsible for your life, not me. Think it all through. What works for me, may not work for you. Even if what I say is objectively true, it will need some rephrasing to apply exactly to your life, rather than mine! This is not panacea-time - this is real life!
"At this moment you
are the only man in the army
who knows what he is doing" (sign in a barracks lavatory)
If you feel you are going nowhere, perhaps it is because you've never tried to go anywhere in particular. If you've just done what everyone else does, you'll end up where everyone else does - dead bored, or maybe just dead! You need to have a dream - an idea of where you want to go to.
"If you don't have a dream, how are you going to have a dream come true?" they sang in South Pacific. The Bible says "Without a vision, the people perish" (Proverbs 29.18 KJV). Remember that no-one ever said on their deathbed, "I wish I'd spent more time in the office"! The graveyards are full of people who thought they were irreplaceable.
Without a life goal of some sort, however modest, all of us end up like ants - working all day so we can create the next generation of ants who will do the same. It's no life for an intelligent being. Why have a brain, if we are no better than the beasts? Some modern people think it's clever to say that man is an animal, or only an animal. Aristotle said that some men are fit only to be slaves. If you have got this far, I hope that you are in neither category. That means we have to have a reason.
A caution at this point; let's not get overambitious! Otherwise we just get depressed. A goal for a single day is enough, to start with - something minor. Also, let's not make work for ourselves. Many of us are overworked. I don't want anyone to add another chore to their burden! Keep it light, keep it small, keep it manageable. We don't have to solve world hunger, or make contact with beings from another planet, not today anyway.
What sort of person (in personal qualities) do you wish you were? What would you do if you were like that?
What personal abilities and limitations do you have? After all, if you hate bugs there is no point in dreaming about becoming a jungle explorer!
What do you admire in other people?
What ideals do you admire?
What do you use your brain for? Is there anything else you would enjoy doing with your mind, which you don't do any more?
Browse the magazines in a well-stocked newsagent. Are there subjects you wouldn't normally buy? Or try a reference library one morning. Most have a range of magazines from all sorts of professions and interests. Are there any you wouldn't normally look at, which appeal?
Anything worthwhile in life takes a bit of effort. Usually a plan is needed to get you there. Most of us use our planning abilities only in the office, or to manage our chores. It's very hard to break out of that mindset, and start to apply them to other things.
Plan to do small steps. There is an old adage, "How do you eat an elephant? - a little at a time". If you are too ambitious, or commit more to a plan than you are ready for, it becomes frightening and stressful, rather than liberating. Work within your limits.
Don't rush. Life is short, but serious life-change is simply too threatening for most of us. It took me two years to make up my mind to leave my permanent job and go freelance, because I didn't know if I could handle it. In that time, I thought through all of my concerns, and tried to get answers on how I would manage them. I've known too many people for whom the gap between their dreams and their lives was too big for them. I've talked to people who could double their salaries, and improve their lives, easily, who are simply too frightened. The reason is always that the risk is too much. Do it in small steps, and know how you are going to get back.
One barrier to getting going is that I find myself wondering if everybody just ends up very much like this.
This is a quite intelligent realisation. There is no point in travelling the stars to escape your problems, if you take them with you because your personality is the problem. Notoriously the famous and successful say that, when you get to the top, you find there's nothing there. Rich kids who have everything are famous for their inability to handle it. It's empty. Often these people then turn to religion, to find some meaning to life. Unfortunately at this stage most of them get taken in by whatever fashionable guru or fakir happens to be in circulation, get ripped off, and abandon the whole idea in favour of a life of quiet self-indulgence.
The problem isn't just you and me, it seems. It's a feature of the whole human race. All of us are made to be dissatisfied, even if we have everything we could want. We need more. In fact people suggest that we need a cause, outside of ourselves, something of not just temporary worth or value.
But what? I get edgy when people try to sell me a cause! I'm not going to try to sell you one. Find your own!
That's most of the points I want to make on this page. The rest is for people who wonder how I took this forward myself. I haven't got all the answers - but I have worked out a set of values I think I'm going to stick with, while I look for Shangri La. Feel free to ignore it, if you feel you have something better!
This question isn't too easy to answer, except superficially. Most people just pick up ideas like litter, and never worry if they don't make sense, or fit together. If you've followed me this far, you want more - something that actually has depth, and makes sense, something worth living for. This means, along the way, adopting and living by a set of principles. And this means avoiding the stuff that THEY want to shove at us. How do we assess the stuff?
So what should we live for? What 'values' (call them what you like) should govern our lives, as rational people? It would seem that this issue has bugged people down the ages. I don't have a smart answer to this; but I tend to apply a couple of quick tests to anyone offering me an answer:
Any answer to this question is not going to be a cheap popular philosophy which is here today and gone tomorrow. Every age has these. But as soon as the climate of the times changes, they disappear. Edwardian society had 'ethical churches', which were religious in a vague but socially respectable way. They vanished after that society, which prized vague religiosity, vanished in the horror of the First World War. To those who had seen hell, vague pieties had nothing to offer. New Age religion may well be the modern equivalent for the ex-hippy, but we'll only know for sure when this age is gone. Any system that is new, is most probably one of these.
Every society encourages conformity to the group. Ours is just the same. People feel very safe just doing what everyone else they associate with finds acceptable. But these sets of values change, perhaps every 50 years or so. How out of date films of the hippies in the 60's are starting to look - yet it was hugely popular! Let's face it, every society thinks that it is the crown of evolution. The Victorians certainly did. But can we? If our society has the answer, it must be a very silly question! The values of our society were not reached by rational processes, but by political pressures. So I think we must reject the values which are popular, simply because they are contemporary, and will cease to be believed in, just as soon as they cease to be popular.
Any group claiming to have an answer to this must actually think about things. "Don't think, only feel", sometimes known as "California crap", is merely self-indulgence. Nothing worthwhile in life is actually obtained in such a way. I wonder if they fill in their tax returns in accordance with this 'religion'. Somehow I doubt it!
That sweeps a lot of rubbish out of the way. Of course much more could, and should be said - I'm summarising my thoughts on this, because I can only type so much! No-one is paying me, after all, to type this. Mind you, I'm open to offers...
So what are we left with? Well, it leaves us with the long established philosophical and religious groups, and indeed not with all of those. I don't believe that Stoicism is really a live issue. And since I'm not a Jew, I doubt that Judaism has anything to say to me. It really leaves us with Islam and Christianity - and again not all flavours of those. I admit I cannot believe that Islam today, whatever it might be in theory, is really an intellectual movement, rather than a sign of Arab race-consciousness. It seems that all ideals tend to become the badges of political, social or cultural groups, and the criterion for membership then ceases to be whether or not you are one of those who think or live like this, and more a case of "Is he one of us".
I've been left with Christianity. I'm well aware that this is not a socially acceptable option. I'm painfully aware of the unattractive side of religion. But it's been around a long time, and periods when Christianity is rubbished, in our history, coincide with periods of decline and misery. Is it really an improvement, for all of us, that employers can now demand we work on Sundays? I doubt it! The erosion of standards has been real in our day, but I don't notice that I've benefitted. So who has?
But I find most people don't know what I mean by Christianity. It gets mixed up with all sorts of questionable garbage, which I personally do not believe in or live by. This is what Christianity (not 'Anglicanism', not the Vicar, not the Church, not the state, not 'BBC Religion') tells me:
There is a reason why things tend to be pointless. Human beings are all messed up. The book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible tells us how life is pointless - at length. And do we really need to be told that all of us are imperfect? Well, apparently we do! I'm not the person I would want to be, and probably you wish you were a better person than you are - more capable, more socially competent, whatever. As the Bible says, "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God".
Human beings cannot overcome all their failings by themselves - they need help. The growth in counselling services alone would tell us this. But how many successes do they have? How many wealthy people spend years in therapy? It's hard to say, objectively. Probably some good is achieved. However there are people who have come to Jesus as alcoholics, drug-users, and found radical change was possible, because of him. Not all, by any means. In fact I think for most people, the main change is that with the purpose to life that He gives us, the difficulties of life do not disappear, but instead get used to build character. Maybe it is just that those of us who are professionals have more to lose! But everyone is an individual, including Jesus, and the relationship between one of us and Him is always unique, so it would be wrong to generalise. Christianity is not about 'doing the right thing' (although the Victorians tried very hard to make it so), but about meeting Someone who is worth the following, and isn't out to exploit us.
But this is turning into a sermon, which isn't the intention at all. There are plenty of Christians who will be happy to tell you what they know. Make sure you find out how much is lived, rather than just talk! Not everyone who calls themselves a Christian is one - but the real ones have decided to obey Christ whatever it costs, even if they haven't got very far down the road, whereas the fakes are usually out for themselves.
The Bible tells us that the Lord can restore the 'years the locusts have eaten' (Joel 2.25). I think we all know how it feels to look back on years and wonder where they went - the years the locusts have eaten. What it means is that these apparently empty years will prove to have been for some purpose, if they go to turn you into the person you should have been, but for the general messed-upness of the world. I hope so.
Does being a Christian end your problems? No, of course not! For one thing, you still get tax returns to fill in! So why do it? Not because it makes you feel good - drink will do that, in the short term, much quicker. Christ gives his people a purpose, but what that is and how it works, is another subject.
If this page has been of help to you, feel free to email me, Roger Pearse.
(I know there are some very quarrelsome people on the 'net, so if you merely want to tell me I'm wrong, or send me little diatribes phrased as 'questions', please be aware I will bin your email. The reason is that what I have written above comes from personal experience, and as such is a good deal more real to me than anything in an email. Sorry to have to say this, but this too is a personal experience. Best wishes)
Last updated 23rd January 1999.
This page has been accessed by people since 11th December 1999.
Return to Roger Pearse's Pages