As far as I know, I haven’t died yet.
I can’t speak with authority about the afterlife.
And this post has nothing to do with whether you’ll end up in a golden palace, reincarnated into another life, or nowhere at all (or God forbid, a burning inferno). I’ll leave that for the philosophers, theologians or other experts.
No, this is about something more tangible…
It’s about your life — the one you’re living right now. Or perhaps, it’s about the life you’re not living right now.
Let me explain what I mean with a quick story…
A few months ago, I had one of those nights where you lie awake so long you’re afraid to glance at the clock. Know the time only makes you more anxious about how little sleep you’re getting. (Sometimes ignorance is better.)
But of course…
I looked at the clock.
2:30am. Yikes! Well, if I fall asleep soon (like right now), then I’ll sleep in and still get a passable amount of sleep.
I managed to drift off an hour later. I didn’t sleep in.
Needless to say, I was feeling pretty tired in the morning. OK, I thought to myself. I just need to survive till after breakfast. Then I can take nap and get a little more energy for the day.
So after downing a few scrambled eggs, I crashed back into bed.
No luck though. Despite my daughters going out to play with some friends and leaving me a quiet house… I couldn’t fall asleep.
Ugg! Alright, after lunch it’ll be nap-time for everyone. Then I’ll get the sleep I need to properly enjoy today. Then my day will be all better. I just need to survive till then.
So I burned through the rest of the morning… lying in bed, surfing the web on my phone, and watching dumb videos. All the while, I kept thinking… If only I had more energy. Then this day would be so great. (Thinking this did not give me more energy.)
My afternoon only mirrored the morning though. And by the time the clock hit 6pm, my wife was probably (read definitely) sick of me moping around the house.
Now there’s no question…
I was being ridiculous. Wishing for different circumstances wasn’t going to change anything. And I wasted the day dreaming of a fantasy world where I wasn’t tired.
Thing is though…
We do this with our entire lives.
We treat our days as something to survive or “get through.” Sometimes that’s an appropriate response. Yet it quickly becomes our default mode of living. We hold off living until we we reach the end of the workday, the week, or until our next vacation. We slave away for 40 years until we can finally retire and “enjoy life.”
We tell ourselves that “someday” all will be well. We just need to get that new promotion, finish a difficult project, get over a sickness… then life will be good.
We believe that if we just quit our job and became our own boss, we’ll finally be free. Then we become the boss and have no scapegoat for all our problems. And we discover that we now have multiple new bosses. (They’re called clients and customers.)
We hold back from taking action on our dreams because we don’t have “all our ducks in a row.” We plan. We consume more information. We “get organized”. But we never take the leap.
We sacrifice everything to hit another income level, get more followers, or have the body of a Greek sculpture1. Maybe then, we’ll be loved and admired. Maybe then, we’ll finally reach heaven. Except we get there and just find something else to achieve or do.
It’s a trap.
There is no heaven. There is no magic moment where you’ll “arrive” and have everything be perfect (or where you’ll be perfect). You will never manage to control your circumstances completely. There will always be some new difficulty or problems to deal with.
I’m not saying you can’t find happiness, peace, or success. Moments like these absolutely exist. But they’re just that… moments. They don’t provide lasting meaning in and of themselves.
“Life is inherently dissatisfying,” said the Buddha.
“I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind,” said the Teacher2.
I’m also not saying you can’t create positive shifts in your life (or the lives of others). You can. But after you make those changes, there will still be hardship and difficulty.
For example, I recently labored through a major copy project for a client. The deadline was days away, and the piece refused to come together. I rewrote it. I glared at my computer. I rewrote it again. I thought (for the thousandth time)… Aaaaah, when will this finally be done so I can move on with my life?
Well guess what? I shipped that project. And now I have new projects3.
Furthermore, you can’t change your life “in the future”. The only power you have is to craft your life in this instant. Right now.
That’s the antidote I’ve found to chasing heaven…
Craft your life right now.
Notice that I did not say to “live in the moment.”
Living in the moment sounds like great advice on the surface. Appreciating the beauty of life is important. Yet this recommendation fails to account for life’s (very real) pain and suffering.
Guess what? Sometimes I don’t want to live in the moment. The harder life gets, the more I resist practices that force me to be present (such as meditation, journaling, or going for a walk). Because then I have to face the monsters in my life.
Crafting your life offers a more helpful path forward…
It demands you embrace the pain, struggle, difficulty in your life. To take full ownership and responsibility for it. Note that I said responsibility, not blame. Who’s at fault is irrelevant. Yes, someone probably is to blame. Yes, there may rightly be consequences for that. But blame isn’t going to change your current reality. You have to do that. And your current situation is the raw material you have to work with.
Crafting your life also makes you intentional. What do you want here? How do you want to show up in this situation? Who do you want to become? What new possibilities could you generate? What beauty or magic could you create? Instead of just reacting to life, be active. Don’t wait for someday to start living how you want. Start practicing that way of living today.
And finally, it restores your power to take action. Build. Create. Connect. Heal. Learn. Grow. Work. Play. (Or, just sit there and be silent. There’s a place for that too.)
If you’re alive, you will face struggle and challenge. There is no heaven on this earth. And that’s OK.
Dancing with difficulty is the foundation of an interesting, meaningful life. Building strong relationships, mastering a new skill, creating art, raising kids, or pursuing any other worthwhile endeavor all involve hardship and effort. If you strip away the challenge, you lose some of the value.4
So take whatever you have in your life. Own it. Make something beautiful. Live.
That’s what I finally did at 6pm on that exhausting day.
I stopped complaining. And I took a shower, got dressed, and went out for a walk. I was still tired, of course. (Only a couple nights of proper sleep would change that.) But in the meantime, I could make use of the energy I did have.
I ended up walking to a nearby Indian restaurant and savored a few samosas. As I ate, the setting sun cast everything in a warm, golden light.
It was heavenly.