“Every morning I awake torn between a desire to save the world and an inclination to savor it. This makes it hard to plan the day. But if we forget to savor the world, what possible reason do we have for saving it? In a way, the savoring must come first.”
If I had to capture the span of the emotional and spiritual existence in one moment, I think it would be this: holding someone you love while she passes away in your arms. That moment captures it all: love, loss, light, darkness, connection, isolation, cruelty, beauty, and so much more.
It reminds me that our lives and our world are both overwhelmingly beautiful and cruel.
Embedded within that realization is a quiet secret: it’s possible to adjust the dials of life. Doing that begins with learning to stare the beauty and the cruelty straight in the eye.
Connecting to the beauty
Your existence alone is a near miracle. Without effort, your heart rhythmically pumps blood, neurons fire, and countless internal systems function in harmony.
You were born with god-like powers of creation and destruction. Moment by moment you can work to improve your life and others’. We can create, destroy, and change in a way that no other creature can.
While you’re alive, you’re granted access to countless forms of joy and pleasure. On the simple end, you can savor a piece of candy, play with a puppy, listen to music, or watch a film.
On the profound end you can be swept away by the raw beauty of nature, mesmerized by the cosmos, and observe countless people acting selflessly. If you allow yourself, you can feel the love of your friends and family coursing through your body.1
With a bit of stillness you can find deep levels of connection between yourself and all other life forms. With a bit of openness and reflection, the reality of deep interconnection of life always seems to topple the illusion of autonomy and isolation.
Embracing the cruelty
Of course, to only notice the beauty is to miss half the story.
Life was inflicted upon you, and with it came the promise that you and everyone you love will eventually pass away. Not only that, but virtually all of us will deal with various forms of trauma throughout our lives.
As you move through the stages of life, you’ll be forced to wrestle with a quiet truth: there is an inherent shittiness to the human experience that sometimes becomes all encompassing. Your boss annoys you, your bike gets stolen, you miss your flight, and your best friend forgets your birthday.
Through it all, finding contentment is deceptively difficult; we seem to have a nearly limitless capacity for being dissatisfied with our situation.
And the world we are forced to inhabit is filled with needless suffering in the form of starvation, violence, war, neglect, and poverty.
As we move through our lives, we hope that the fates and our loved ones will treat us with gentleness, understanding, and compassion, but sometimes they don’t. In fact, half the time we don’t even offer gentleness, compassion, and understanding to ourselves.
Living in a world that is both too beautiful and too cruel
How does one live in a world defined by overwhelming beauty and cruelty?
The common answer seems to involve numbness and willful ignorance, but that comes with a cost. Dialing down your ability to feel pain hinders your ability to experience beauty and love.
Fortunately, with a bit of practice we can learn to let the beauty overwhelm the cruelty.
Begin by cutting back on whatever you use to distract or numb yourself. This does not mean perfect sobriety, giving up sugar forever, never playing a video game, or anything like that. Instead, it means being thoughtful about the stuff you use to take the edge off. Engage them with moderation and intention. Consider giving up your vices for a few weeks to ensure that you’re the one in control.
Next, allow yourself to be weak, open, and vulnerable. Most of us have spent our lives trying to be as strong as we possibly can. All of the abuse, trauma, disappointment, heartache, and fear? Let it in.2
Allowing yourself to be weak will be one of the most difficult things you’ve ever done, but it will also be one of the most powerful and authentic. Remember you can be a warrior when you need to be.
As you embrace your weakness, you’ll start to notice the wounds you’ve been ignoring. Now you can begin to heal them. How? Start with whatever you’re drawn to. Go to a plant medicine ceremony, talk to a therapist, move to a new city, travel the world, visit a shaman, do breath work, meditate, journal, look at yourself in the mirror and say, “I love you,” go paleo, go vegan, go to church, try a 12-step program, become a dice person, whatever. Keep trying new things until you find something that works, and when you do, go as deep as you possibly can.
Stay open to new ideas. Many people have found healing and relief in unexpected places.
As you begin to heal, your final task is to make life a bit better for other people too. Do simple things like picking up a bit of trash, bigger things like dedicating your life to fighting oppression, and anything in between. This will allow you to cut through the illusion of separation and feel the deep levels of connection that bind us all.
Move through the world with gentleness and compassion towards yourself and others. Give when you can and ask for help when you need it. If you can mostly enjoy life and leave the world a little bit better off than you found it, I think it’s safe to say that you lived well.
Post script: on working with death
While I put death under the “cruelty” section of this article, I’m not 100% sure that was the right decision. If you’re willing to accept the simple reality that all of us will die and that tomorrow isn’t promised, something almost miraculous happens.
The shittiness of life melts away a bit. In it’s place you’ll start to notice the gentle urgency of beauty, love, kindness and connection asserting itself.
Instead of neglecting opportunities to be kind and loving to yourself and others, you’ll embrace them. Instead of pulling yet another all nighter for yet another meaningless project, you’ll curl up in bed with your lover. Instead of allowing someone’s anger and anxiety to infect you, you’ll let it roll off your shoulders, opting to call a friend and shoot the bull. Instead of worrying about money, you’ll know that money will never make you as happy and content as the people you love do.
Wrapped within the unavoidable reality of death, you can find a surprising amount of beauty and connection.
Many people struggle to feel loved by others. I’ve been there. Short term, the trick is to notice and trust the acts of love, generosity, kindness, and connection that have been given to you. Many people who struggle to feel loved often believe that people are nice to them out of pity or obligation, not sincerity. Instead, open yourself to the possibility that people really do love you (and they do, I promise). Long term, if you struggle to feel loved by others, consider working with a qualified professional.
- “Let it in” runs the risk of being one of those vague directives that sounds fancy but is impossible to actually execute, so I want to take a moment to explain how to do it. First, become a student of yourself. You want to particularly observe your defensive and anxious behaviors that are difficult to explain. Do you get tense when a certain person calls? Do you snap when someone asks you what’s wrong? Does anger flood your system with just minor provoking? Generally when we feel these sensations of tension, we distract ourselves or accept them at face value. Next time you notice them, allow them to exist within your body. Ask yourself, “Why am I feeling this way?” At first, you’ll provide a surface level answer. Keep asking yourself “Why?” until you cut to the core. Through it all, allow yourself to be curious about you. More on how to do this here (jump to the section titled “The breadcrumb trail of recurring pain, tension, fear, and anxiety”).