If you do not set your own priorities in life, other people will set them for you. That’s probably the biggest life lesson I’ve learned in the past year. Whether those priorities are determined by work, by family, by friends or by social pressure to conform to any one group, it can take a lifetime to figure out what is meaningful to you and what you truly value, as opposed to what you’re supposed to value. And I think that the source of a lot of anxiety comes from these expectations that everyone has of each other. And many expectations come from a place of wanting to control you, instead of having your best welfare in mind.
Our families want us to be a certain way, our workplace demands our loyalty and subjugation, our friends demand our attention, our social groups demand that we adhere to their spoken or unspoken rules. It can be very hard to distance yourself enough to form your own opinions and to sort out what’s actually important to you. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, mostly because with everything that happened last year (losing the ability to walk unassisted and other medical issues), it forced me to re-evaluate things. I guess it didn’t really “force me” – I guess I chose to re-evaluate, if only to try to find a better way to live, just in case it was permanent. Nonetheless, the result of my time thinking about it is that I feel much more confident in what kind of life I want to live, and what kinds of things I value the most. (And what I value the most is not actually ‘things’.) But, there’s one problem. Awareness is a bitch.
The thing is, it’s terribly isolating. When a pack is running full speed ahead towards something, and you pause and decide to run the other way, there’s a good chance you’ll be met with some derision and suspicion. It is considered threatening to diverge from the pack as you evolve and champion new values that are dear to you. I suppose it’s seen as a threat because it affects the social cohesion of groups. If you challenge the status quo, or if you attribute meaning to something that a group doesn’t find meaningful, there’s a good chance that others might do the same. And with all of the commercial self-care messaging in place these days, actually taking care of yourself based on your own individual needs is an affront to an entire traditional way of doing things. Traditionally-speaking, we’re perceived at being terrible at taking care of ourselves and need to have our wants and needs spelled out for us by our government, our workplace, and our social groups.
What’s most sad is that there are so many truths that we cannot even share with our peers without putting ourselves at risk and so, as adults, we learn that lying and pretending is the best way to move ahead, to fit in, to remain employed and to participate in social activities. (And I mean above and beyond fitting into social norms; some social norms are necessary to a certain extent.) We do it on a daily basis, no matter how well in tune you are with what’s meaningful to you and what values you hold. No matter how much you value time and people and connections with loved ones, you will be forced to pretend that your priorities fall in line with your boss’s priorities, with your in-laws, with your school administrator’s or whoever else holds your balls in their hands. And that’s what I mean by ‘awareness is a bitch’. Because, it’s one thing to evolve, it’s a whole other thing to evolve and not really be able to do anything about it.
You can only change so much about your life. And, of course, there are changes that you can make that make living easier, healthier and more worthwhile. But, you have to do so with the knowledge that some things can’t and won’t change. Some people are stuck in tradition, some values are hardcoded and some systems are just hardwired to challenge you every day. Awareness comes with its special kind of misery, if you’re not careful enough to mediate your own thoughts.
And that’s what all of this is leading up to: you can only decide for yourself what your priorities are, but more importantly, one of those priorities should be in deciding how to react when confronted by the inevitable, the unfair and the unexpected. It’s simply not enough, if we want to be truly happy, to choose a goal that’s meaningful to you or to assign priorities of your own liking without first finding a way to cope with all of the opposition that you might face along the way. For example, you can choose to prioritize spending more time with your loved ones, but if you’re constantly having to work overtime, and you can’t get out of that situation right now, you’re sure to harbor some resentment over that, so much so that any effort to give your full attention to loved ones will be overshadowed by the anger you feel towards your employer.
Look, our values don’t change just because we can’t properly apply them yet. That’s an important thing to remember. Just because something is in your way, doesn’t mean that you can’t find a way to feel fulfilled in the meantime. You will spend more time with loved ones as soon as you can resolve the work situation first. No matter, your loved ones remain your priority. Those values don’t change.
I didn’t even intend to write about this. It just happened that I was thinking about it at a time when I was struggling to make sense of things. I just want to be healthy, and things get in my way all the time. Our society isn’t designed with our health and welfare in mind. One thing’s for sure: if you decide to live more conscientiously, it doesn’t guarantee you happiness. It makes it easier to look at yourself in the mirror the next day, but that’s about it. There’s nothing easy about it, and it doesn’t make you more noble. It’s just that, at some point, as you get older, you start to think about all the things you wish you’d done, and all the things you might think about on your deathbed. And if you’re a hardcore traditionalist, I can guarantee you that very few of the values that you adhere to are going to make it into your thoughts when you’re old and frail, or sick and disabled. Very little of what we’re taught matters on a day to day basis actually matters in the grand scheme of things. In a way, that thought alone makes it easier to deal with the fluffy things that people take really seriously for no reason at all. Let them think it matters.
The thing about awareness is that it is a bitch, but sometimes, I promise you, it’s a blessing.