Life is wonderful?

I’m going to be a bit more vulnerable in this post than I usually am.

I have gone through some quite monumental – and largely positive – changes over the past year. I tend to look back and feel stupid, and ashamed, for having tried to shoehorn myself into a life that so obviously (in retrospect) didn’t fit. And so it is that I have been busy blotting out the more conservative, emotionally-driven, idealistic person that I think I used to be; hiding all the incriminating evidence, flushing my ideals down the toilet as fast as I can before anyone sees them. 😆 It embarrasses me that I’ve been too weak of heart to look an uncaring universe in the eye.

And yet no-one really becomes a different person overnight. Yes, I was trying too hard to be something I was not – but something motivated me to do that; something I am now doing my best to deny. So even now I guess I am not accepting who I really am. I am idealising yet another way-of-being, and once again, falling short of it.

Because the truth is, I still sometimes long to see a convincing demonstration that the world is perfect – not for the sake of defending a supposed creator, but because I still find a world that isn’t “good” difficult to swallow. I listen to many inspiring songs about the world and life being wonderful… but how can I honestly share the sentiment when 1/5 of Pakistan is under water?

I have, in the past, been quite a negative person, feeling that life is a wild water ride and I am barely hanging on. This year I have been happier than anyone expected me to be under the circumstances; I would go as far as to say, I have been the happiest and most positive I have ever been! I have recognised that good has come out of my struggles, mistakes and disappointments in that they have forced me to discover how flexible, resilient and resourceful I can be. They have made me a kinder, more loving and less needy person. They have made me more adventurous, more “bring it on!”

I have felt good because I seem to be improving my technique on this wild water ride and that makes my life feel meaningful. But I still struggle with that sense of meaning. I understand that I could still be floored by factors totally out of my control. Not everyone is capable of keeping their head above the water, even if I am, which makes feeling positive about life seem selfish and a slap in the face to people who don’t have the luxury of it.

I cannot dare to say that life is wonderful unless I am convinced there is a way for every person to have a decent life; unless there is a happy ending I can believe in. Or at least, the possibility of a happy ending that I can do something to help bring about. This is what religious beliefs tend to offer, and maybe it is what made them attractive to me.

Maybe I will learn to stop asking these irrelevant philosophical questions, stop expecting to make sweeping statements about life or the world, and just appreciate what I can appreciate and feel sad about the sad things and generally not take it all so seriously. Perfectionism and idealism seem to be the root cause of most of my negativities and, also, of my flirtations with religion. I think these also contribute to a tendency for being a seer rather than a craftsperson, so… whatever, right?! It would be silly to become idealistic about being non-idealistic. 😉

The world doesn’t end just because I crave a final answer and I can’t find one. I guess I will just get comfortable with this state of affairs. 😀

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16 Responses to Life is wonderful?

  1. sanil says:

    I think it’s interesting how much the idea of “good” can vary. In the West, where we have a lot, we tend to want to bring everyone to our level and think that’s what makes something “good”. Buddha found the world so full of suffering that the way to have a good life was to stop wanting anything and just exist, and the best ending offered by that religion is non-existence. But even with such different definitions, I think it shows he also believed in good. Even if the best he could imagine was escape rather than reward, there was a belief and hope that there has to be something better than what we know.

    I don’t think the world is a good place and everyone has a good life, but that thirst for a good life can lead us to make a better one. There is a possibility of a better life, but it probably involves us working together to bring it, utilizing that drive we all have to make things good. It doesn’t just magically happen.

    • Sarah says:

      That’s true, and I’ve tried out a few of those different definitions. At one stage I was convinced that even suffering is good for us. It is completely subjective – different people will see this completely differently.

      Yes, just because there may not be any overall happy ending (and because we can’t even define what that would be) doesn’t mean we can’t find it meaningful to improve things. I just sometimes feel a bit overwhelmed.

    • Julian says:

      Hi Sanil,

      I don’t doubt that some Buddhists may think this way, but it is not an attitude I have come across in Buddhist scholars. Buddhism talks a lot about the extinction of craving (tanha), but not about the extinction of desire in its totality. After all, how could one extinguish greed, hatred and delusion without desiring to do so? Compassion is also at the heart of the Buddhist life and requires a great deal of desire; desire for the well-being of others. It is a practical impossibility to get rid of desire whilst still alive, and many Buddhists in the West today are not especially interested in speculation about post-mortem existence or non-existence. Indeed there are some teachers who suggest the pre-existing Brahmanic ideas of reincarnation and moksha could be ditched entirely, and still leave a distinctively Buddhist and yet secular approach to life. Although I do not identify as a Buddhist in any religious sense, the central Buddhist idea that has most appeal for me (and is most defining about the tradition) is that of pratitya samupada, variously translated as co-dependent origination, contingency, conditioned arising. It is direct realisation of this characteristic of phenomena that leads to a compassionate interaction with the world, and certainly not an absence of desire which could only lead to an apathetic, laissez-faire attitude to life.

  2. Ms M says:

    You continue to surprise me Sarah. You’re an incredibly deep thinker. You have been through many changes in a sense ‘in the public eye’ by sharing with your readers, but I’m sure you’ve gained much from that too.

    I thought Sanil’s comment was a thoughtful and warm response to your deep questioning. I personally think the whole life is wonderful thing is just true on a level isn’t it? It is wonderful sometimes and so we say keeps us buoyant during hardships to remind ourselves that life is wonderful. Perhaps ‘life is amazing’ might be more fitting?

    PS I think I might have missed something major during my time not reading and I might have to catch up 😉

    • Sarah says:

      Thanks 🙂

      Maybe a certain amount of denial is needed to keep us buoyant and get us through life. Fretting over the plight of others doesn’t do them any good! It’s really pretty self-indulgent.

      Or maybe there is a way of embracing the full catastrophe of life without getting depressed. I don’t know.

      I don’t think you’ve missed anything major that you don’t already know about. 😉

  3. unsettledsoul says:

    It does feel odd being in such a privileged position (food, shelter, education, material needs met, safe environment, etc) while 4 million people in Pakistan are suffering terribly. I think this is what attracts me to social work, because I will never believe life is wonderful. It’s just not, save for a lucky minority.

    • Sarah says:

      It is odd, isn’t it? I guess when you feel that you can do something positive, like social work, then maybe life feels more meaningful. It’s just all-or-nothing thinking again that is tripping me up, I think.

  4. Amber says:

    I don’t know where the (really wide spread, actually) idea that the world is perfect came from. The world has never been perfect – there has always been suffering and people being oppressed or natural disasters. Even on a smaller level, there’s always going to be someone being murdered, or robbed. The world is full of suffering – we just have to realize that, accept it (which is the hard part – you always feel like what you do is just a tiny drop in an enormous ocean, and it feels so overwhelming you just want to sit there and cry), and do what little we can to make it better. The world is never going to be perfect, we can just make it better than it was.

    • Sarah says:

      I think the idea probably comes from our natural need for “everything to be OK”. I only ever really came across the idea from rationalist Muslims including Jeffrey Lang, and for a while it did make sense to me. I think it is very subjective. For some people, the suffering in the world is their stumbling block with faith… while others see no problem with suffering and God. Most people probably don’t give it any thought. 🙂

    • Majeeda says:

      Maybe it’s just that subjectivity of life – whereby we see life from where we stand at first glance, coupled with a general sense of optimism. So then if you are for example born in the west or reasonably affluent then your outlook on life even with it’s ups and down because of it’s subjectivity and optimism might tend to be maybe not ‘life is perfect’ but perhaps ‘life is pretty darn good’. It clearly isn’t true if you look overall since as we are discussing here life is hard, it’s full of perils, it’s not as easy for some as for others and it’s constantly up and down anyway. But I am just talking about our mindset really – how we view it – which I think is more important than we think.

      Hope I managed to make sense there.

      • Sarah says:

        Yes, and I think the extreme capitalist mindset which says “everyone is responsible for their own success in life” basically denies that there are any insurmountable obstacles to success for anyone. And some people have faith in science and the inevitability of progress, and spend their lives trying to advance knowledge and technology because this is an optimistic picture for them. Like you say – it’s fairly subjective. 😉

  5. Julian says:

    “The world doesn’t end just because I crave a final answer and I can’t find one. I guess I will just get comfortable with this state of affairs”

    So much I could write in response to this conclusion Sarah, but I doubt if anything would say it better than Jim Dodge. Apologies for breaching copyright, but I offer it in the hope that anyone reading it may buy his book of poetry ‘Rain on the River’, Canongate Books Ltd. Edinburgh, 2002.

    A Firmer Grasp of the Obvious

    Evening, early June,
    sweetly tired from the day’s work,
    lazed out on the back porch with friends,
    just finished with dinner
    (asparagus and spinach, fresh from the garden;
    venison backstrap
    smoky and rare),

    watching the sunset
    luster the ocean,
    stiff winged swifts
    etching the air,
    a full moon rising like a fever of pearl
    huge above the redwoods,

    I’m seized by the realisation
    I’ll never understand
    the origin and destination of the universe,
    the meaning or purpose of life,
    none of the answers
    to the great questions of being,
    and probably not much else.

    And that knowledge, at last,
    making me happy.

    Perhaps it is not in the knowing that we find meaning in life, but in the quest itself. I love a story recounted by a Buddhist teacher, Gil Fronsdal, about a moment in the life of Zen master Shunryu Susuki. Zen is enigmatic; frustratingly so for many Westerners. At the end of one sitting, Susuki spoke, saying, “The most important thing is..,”and paused pensively. The gathered students were poised with anticipation on the edge of their cushions, awaiting at last an unambiguous statement of the goal of Zen from the master himself. He continued, “The most important thing, is searching for the most important thing.”

    • Sarah says:

      Thanks for sharing this poem! Maybe one day it will make me happy to realise the same thing. It is certainly a relief to stop trying to accept answers that don’t work and just accept that I don’t know. Somehow I keep asking myself the same old questions and I sense it isn’t really worthwhile. I seem to still think that there is a secret method out there guaranteed to produce a positive and meaningful life… a special way of seeing things, or a special technique… even though my conscious mind has moved on from such things and knows there isn’t. Maybe I need less of thinking up foolproof ways to preserve positivity, and more just trying to get on and be positive now, accepting the risk that I might fail… that my current answer might not be the final answer and might need to be revised or abandoned at some point.

  6. Venn says:

    Thank You so much!
    I can’t explain what it is but …thank you!
    It’s a real shame I don’t know you in person.
    Again,I wish you the best and please continue sharing your thoughts!
    They validate mine 🙂 and make me more confident in a way I can’t explain.
    Thank you 🙂

  7. Sarah says:

    I just listened to Beyond Belief: A secular meaning to life – an interesting radio discussion touching on these issues.

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