I have a new most hated phrase. It is “living life on your own terms.” It’s always touted as this thing to aspire to, as though it takes some special strength or perseverance to achieve it. As though it is something to be admired. As though we should all be a little more like the person who is described as doing it.
What a crock.
Living life on your own terms isn’t a choice. It isn’t something you get if you just put in enough hard work, like a Christmas bonus. It doesn’t make you a better person. As a matter of fact, it’s an incredibly selfish thing to do, if you really think about it. It requires a level of narcissism that most people don’t possess (or at least, don’t admit to). Demanding that your life, and all of the things in it, adhere to a set of parameters that you have created for your own maximum benefit isn’t just egotistical, it’s a fantasy. Life doesn’t work that way. Nothing works that way.
And it’s a good thing, too. Can you imagine the chaos that would ensue if everyone was able to mold their own personal universe to suit themselves? People would gorge on fried chicken and funnel cake without getting fat. Everyone would drive Ferraris and there wouldn’t be any traffic signals or speed limits. Few people would work. Trash would pile up on the sidewalks; everywhere you went would be dirty, recycling centers would be overwhelmed by all of the empty bottles of beer, soda, and wine, not to mention the huge increase in cardboard boxes as people gave in to the craven desire to buy as much shiny new crap as possible.
Whatever, Ape, there you go overthinking things again. Maybe. But the larger point still holds, and that is that despite what we tell our kids, we actually don’t have a lot of choice in our lives, particularly with regards to health, appearance, and socio-economic taxon. The only people who get to rearrange their life parameters to suit themselves are those that don’t have to work for a living and are physically able to take part in any activity that suits their fancy. And those people make up an incredibly small subset of humans, on the order of a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent.
The rest of us are stuck with the cards we’re dealt. We have to live life on life’s terms, not our own. We have to suit ourselves to world we live in, and our contentment is measured in the amount of satisfaction we can derive from doing that. We don’t get to wake up every morning and do whatever the hell we want. We don’t get to change the rules. We don’t get to pursue our dreams.
We don’t have the luxury of embarking upon
self-serving self-actualizing vacations in search of the meaning of life, as privileged people are always encouraging the rest of us to do. Most of us will never travel to foreign countries, or climb mountains, or backpack through the Serengeti, or scuba dive the reefs off the coast of New Zealand. We can’t take a few days off of work to go on a silent retreat and become one with nature. We can’t afford to spend money on flattering, stylish clothes and expensive haircuts so that we fit some appearance standard thrust upon us by cable TV. We can’t afford to go organic, or use environmentally responsible cleaning products, or cultivate heirloom tomatoes, or take pilates, or ever have anything that could be described as “artisan.”
I really, really wish that I could shut off the ever-widening spigot of media that is pushing us to do all of those things and to spend money on all of those things. If ever there were a time when the world around us is trying to make us feel as bad about ourselves and our lives as possible, this would be it. The holidays are particularly cruel, bombarding us with fake evidence of an association between stuff and happiness, encouraging people to go into debt to avoid being classified as a cheapskate or a Scrooge, bingeing on buying and pushing off the credit card bill hangover until well into February.
I bought two pairs of aluminum pans with my groceries earlier this week, one to use as disposable cookie trays for parties, and the other to make lasagne to feed the army of friends coming through next weekend to pack up my stuff. The clerk in the checkout line informed me that I could get a third pair for free, and asked if I wanted to go back to the aisle and pick it up.
“No, I’m good,” I responded.
“Are you sure? It’s a really good deal,” she insisted.
“No, it’s OK. I don’t need it.”
I could tell by the look on her face that she wouldn’t have made the same choice. Consumerism culture runs deep. And I have to admit that the buy-two-get-one-free sign back there did give me pause. But I mentally ran through my activities between now and the end of the year, and I couldn’t think of a use for the extra set, so I didn’t bother. Because it’s just more stuff. And it’s become increasingly evident to me over the last several weeks of streamlining and packing that stuff does not increase my happiness in any way. In fact, the opposite seems to be true; the more stuff I get rid of, the lighter I feel.
I feel like everything around us is telling us things that aren’t true and aren’t real. Magazines, stores, the internet, reality TV, it’s all pushing a particular way of thinking and acting and being on us that’s completely divorced from, ironically enough, reality. It feels like a great big scam being visited upon us, a pervasive, hypnotic white noise meant to distract us from the meshing gears that are chewing away at our souls as we spend and emulate and aspire to an ideal that doesn’t exist, trying to mold ourselves into things we’re not, trying to act as though the world we live in is a way that it isn’t.
Life on life’s terms. I wonder sometimes if the hardest thing about it is figuring out what those terms are. Not everyone gets the curtain yanked away in such a dramatic fashion as a life-changing injury will do, all choice in the matter stripped away in one fell swoop, the big reveal being that there isn’t a man back there at all, that no man has control over the gears and switches and levers, and that any attempts to take hold of the control panel are doomed to failure. I suppose I should consider myself lucky, in that regard, such that even in the highly unlikely occurrence that I suddenly become independently wealthy, I won’t need to spend a month fasting in a Buddhist temple to figure out who I really am and what it all means.
Not that I’ve figured it all out. I’ve just managed to eliminate a pretty considerable number of possibilities. I can’t do whatever I want, or be whatever I want. I can’t trade the terms in my envelope for someone else’s. I can’t make up a new list from scratch. I have pain, all the time. Full stop. The details don’t even matter any more. I do whatever is in front me and that’s it. I buy what I can afford. I try not to judge or envy other people’s terms. I try to shut out the extemporaneous clamoring of an environment that insists that I need to do and be and have certain external things in order to be happy.
And what is this obsession with happiness, anyway? Who wants to be happy all the time? It would be like having your birthday every day; it wouldn’t be special any more. I just want to be OK. That’s my goal. I want to be OK with the pain, with the lack of choice, with the things I have instead of the things I wish I had. I want to be OK with the gross unfairness of being singled out as one of the people who gets to walk around in enormous physical pain all of the time. I want to be OK with my ugly, used furniture that doesn’t match, with my close, personal relationship with my DVR, with going into early menopause, with not being self-sufficient any more.
I want to be OK with life’s terms. That’s what I want. I wish I could go to a glittery department store and buy that. But it’s not for sale.