[Editor’s note: Every week, New York City’s own Andrew W.K. takes your life questions and sets you safely down the right path to a solution, a purpose, or — no surprise here — a party. Need his help? Just ask: AskAWK@villagevoice.com]
I’m done. Finished. I’m just over everything. When I was a kid, I thought being an adult would give me a place in the world where I could accomplish something and life would be what I thought it could be. Instead, all I’m learning is that getting through life in this world sucks and isn’t any easier or more fun than it was before. I’m more disillusioned and exhausted than ever. I don’t want to be bitter, but I feel like I’m seeing life for what it is: a hopeless mess of endless obstacles. Living day to day in this frame of mind has made me give up hope for the future or for myself. I used to be a happy and optimistic person. Now I’m just mad and tired. What happened?
Yours in despair,
Help Me Be Positive
Dear Help Me Be Positive,
The belief that living is supposed to be easy is one of the greatest misconceptions about life. The idea that living is primarily about “getting through life” with minimal pain, minimal challenge, or minimal effort is completely untrue. So it’s only natural to feel disillusioned once we realize that life never really gets “easier,” but instead gets more complicated and more challenging. But behind this difficulty is the beautiful fact that we’re supposed to get more resilient and more capable of living because of these struggles.
Resilience and strength don’t come without growth, and growth doesn’t come without pain and effort. Most of us don’t really feel like putting too much effort into anything because it’s tiring and hard. It’s easier to not try and then complain about things not going our way. But even the laziest among us realizes that it takes some kind of real inner effort to extract a meaningful life from our existence. We like to think that fulfilled people just lucked out in an unfair world that cheated us. But people who truly attain happiness have earned it, and there’s no other way to get it. True happiness doesn’t come from relinquishing responsibility or waiting for some windfall of good fortune. Real happiness is gleaned through a lifetime of making conscious decisions to improve one’s self through a tireless devotion to growth. It is the hardest thing in the world.
The type of lasting inner happiness each of us wants does not come from outward achievements or accomplishments or fame and fortune, but from an inner integrity and mastering of one’s own self — primarily, one’s emotions, one’s health and body, one’s energy, and one’s mind. These areas are relatively elusive and intangible. They’re much harder to succeed at than succeeding in business, physical pleasure, or other outward pursuits. One can have every conceivable material luxury and still feel completely inadequate inside. Until our inner world is mastered, the outer world will provide little lasting security, comfort, or joy.
In one way, our most challenging test is the one you’re facing right now: whether to give up or to keep going in moments of despair. Fortunately, this moment of despair is the same moment this particular test is identified, and that becomes our first real opportunity to pass it. To pass this test, you simply resolve not to give up. This is where an inner determination and integrity begins to take shape. We decide that regardless of the apparent hopelessness of our surrounding circumstances, we are making a promise to ourselves and to our life that we will not lose faith in ourselves or our life, but will instead use every obstacle, every moment of suffering, and every other challenge as a way to bring out some useful quality in ourselves and to improve our character. This begins with an ongoing decision to remain vigilant in our building an inner life that’s capable of withstanding hardships, disappointments, and disillusioning situations, big and small.
We will continue this process by resolving to work in each area of our inner life in some way, every day: by trying to control and learn from our emotional reactions to the world, by trying to improve the basic aspects of our body and overall health, by trying to use our precious time and energy in the most constructive and beneficial way, and by trying to constantly develop the powers of our mind to become more thoughtful, more insightful, more compassionate, and more conscientious.
We slowly but surely find that the cultivation of these aspects of our life takes priority above our old concerns and worries, and gives us a new sense of purpose aside from what we used to consider most urgent or stressful. We also find that even in ongoing times of struggle, we approach our challenges with a new clarity, a new optimism and vigor, as we realize that perhaps many of these ordeals don’t hurt us as much as they actually improve us from the outside in and the inside out.
There will still be moments of doubt. There will still be times when we think about returning to our old hopeless mindset. There will be times that we almost give up again, when we think that maybe we really aren’t strong enough to keep going. But then, a small but powerful voice reminds us of our promise, and reminds us of the little bits of progress we have made — and this will be just enough to keep us committed and moving forward.
We begin to see more and more that life isn’t about getting something or going somewhere, but about becoming someone and growing inside. And anything we do end up getting or anywhere we do end up going is only valuable to us to the extent that it helps us become a better version of who we’re really meant to be: a loving and useful human being.
There’s a new sense of destiny when you realize that life isn’t about anything other than trying to be yourself and the absolute highest-quality person you can imagine being, and then making those the same thing. This is a lifelong mission, and one that it’s never too late to start. I should know — I’ve only just begun it myself.
More:Ask Andrew W.K.