The world today can be a complex place, and survival a tricky art to learn. With the weakening of traditional communities, and the rise of individualism – the ‘me’ society – we all, at times, feel alone and unsure of ourselves. This leaves us vulnerable to the ploys of advertising and lifestyle gurus selling us their props for personal perfection. In our frailer moments, it’s easy to go astray and end up wondering, who am I? Where and how do I fit into all this?
In the last couple of decades a companion industry to the self and home improvement sector has grown up based precisely on this sense of fragility and the need for a deeper, more spiritual dimension to life. There’s now an abundance of experts who want to show us how to uncover our hitherto untapped potential via techniques and concepts that will help us have great lives, fantastic relationships, fabulous careers, lots of money.
Genuine inspiration or another manifestation of the consumer culture desire for instant gratification? You decide!
My own years of experience as a psychotherapist have shown me that that we are all very different; that there’s no magic formula; that most of us seem to have a need to connect lovingly with significant others and with the sacred in our lives; that we all search for happiness and make many mistakes – and hopefully learn from at least some of them – in our quest for it.
What brings about the greatest inner peace is the ability to see and accept ourselves for what we are: a mixture and a balance of various qualities, some good, some which give us pain – ‘the thorns in our flesh’. We aspire to being the best we can, we often fall short. What can we do except pick ourselves up and keep going?
And this seems to me the sheer wonder of human beings, that with all life’s many challenges – with illness, with disability, with emotional distress, with troubles of every kind – we still get up in the morning and do what’s required of us, and even manage to have a few laughs and some moments of great joy along the way. I have worked with people in the direst circumstances who nevertheless will cross terrible pain thresholds in order to make sure their partners and children are okay. The ordinary human being has a heroic quality that is absolutely incredible.
The truly happiest people I’ve known have lived outwardly quite low-key, mundane lives: getting on with their work, caring for their families and friends, taking themselves for who they are, and others in the same spirit. This is a gift, no doubt. But I have a great liking and respect for these hidden lives, cloaked in the ordinary, but which give ballast to the world, stop it all flying apart.
My fear with some of the new techniques on offer is that they do the opposite – so up in the air. But actually, it’s all here, all around us. We are what we’re looking for! What we really need is to be more grounded in our own lives, more appreciative of what we actually have, instead of constantly seeking something else, something bigger and better. I very much like that Frances Gurney poem which contains the line, you are closer to God in a garden than anywhere else on earth. And I remember an elderly gentleman – actually, my late father-in-law – telling me ‘a garden can make your whole life’.
Research supports the value of the ordinary. It shows that people who have pets they love tend to be more contented; that church-goers suffer less mental illness; that in the UK, people whose earnings correspond to the average income are the happiest.
And when, at the end of his life, that very great seeker after meaning, Aldous Huxley, was asked what he thought the world needed most, he simply replied: ‘a little more kindness’.
One last quote, by Dag Hammarskjöld:
Your own truth, you shall learn it
Your own path, you shall follow it
Your own death, you shall endure it
Of course we shall. What alternative is there? In the end, life itself is the greatest teacher. If we just pay attention, the lessons are there for us in the living. All we require is a daily dose of courage and humility.