I told you how the morning after my arrival in Billingshurst, UK I woke with a terror. That moment sparked some further ideas on happiness that I want to run by you. I’ll start by describing that waking up in more detail.
As I groggily questioned the source of my fear, I recalled how, as of just a few hours prior, the homeowners had departed; leaving me completely alone in their home (except for the two very cute, cuddly basset hounds on either side of me whom I would be watching for the next 2 weeks). I resonated with my solitude deeply, which only served to stoke the flames of my anxiety.
As the intensity of my horror strengthened, I imagined the feeling as a sort of ghostly transparent, skeleton-like hand hovering over my torso. Visualizing the hand was scary enough, but then I saw the apparition reach in to my chest, find my heart, and grip it so tightly I couldn’t breath.
That’s when the thoughts start. The self depreciating, growth denying, inhabilitating thoughts we all feel when we’re on the precipice of expansion and are afraid to take the next step.
What if something happens to me while I’m here? Who would I call? Why did I come here alone? I’ve made a terrible mistake stepping off the path most traveled and will certainly be punished for it.
I watched as the vice clenched tighter with each debilitating notion. Eventually, the moment passed and I was able to go about the rest of the day, but the essence didn’t dissipate entirely.
A week later I woke around 3am. I did that a lot during my stay in England. Maybe it was jet-lag, the suffocation of two basset hounds fighting to lay on top of me (one of which weighs 60 pounds and is convinced she’s a lap dog), or the fact that I’m not a good sleeper, but there I was again, lying awake in the early morning hours.
This night, the hand reappeared. As it crept towards me, it brought with it a reminder how all week long images of the places, people, and events from my life in New York City (where I lived from 2008 – 2016) pushed their way into my head as my heart longed to be amongst them.
In an attempt to fend off my grisly foe, I considered my yearning for the city. Missing NYC seemed quite strange because I was just there no more than a couple of weeks before. Having such a strong pull felt out of place, misaligned, and unnecessary if its cause was timing. This made me question what else was at its root?
I thought more about New York, hoping that doing so would quell my adversary and allow me to return to my slumber. I brought to mind the wonderful life I had there. I reflected on the career I built, and on how I was so passionate about it then. I imagined my life of friends, plays, sports, and being out just about every night of the week. I loved those times.
I chided myself for not keeping this world alive. How could I throw a captivating life that I worked so hard for away?! The hand clamped down on my heart.
I struggled out a breath and then pointed out to myself that I left NYC because it was no longer for me. I know I left for good reasons, and, although I love visiting, I reaffirmed to myself that I no longer have a need to live there.
I ended this nocturnal self discussion with, “That life in NYC wasn’t yours’.”
The clasp released and I sucked in a deep breath, as I thought, “Oh, that’s what my NYC thoughts are really about. I crave the distractions I had there. I’m grasping for that ability to ignore the realities of who I really am again.”
When I lived in New York, I built this “never ending, something to keep me busy” life and used it as my identity. I could point to it and say “that’s me”, and all was well with the world because I could prove I MADE it. Even better the always busy side of me never had time to examine if I was being honest with myself or not (Not-so-spoiler-alert: I wasn’t).
After 8 years of pointing though, I felt empty. I felt empty because, well, I was empty. All of those items I was pointing at were not actually ME.
This line of thinking stifled my anxieties for the night, and I was able to find rest once again, but when I awoke the next day, I was changed. I had somehow (my subconscious at work while I slept?) concocted a realization from the previous night’s narrative.
I originally thought that ghastly hand of terror was brought on by my fear of being alone without others, but after my dance with my devils that night, I realized this original line of thinking was incorrect. There was one thing and one thing only that sparked that hand’s creeping and crawling towards me:
My deep-seated despair of being alone while not knowing myself.
Yeah, sit with that for a second. I did.
I asked myself why I am afraid of being alone not knowing myself, and here’s the logic I came up with.
I don’t know myself, so I look to things outside of myself to define me (other people, identities, activities, etc). I’ve done this my whole life. I call myself a jock or a smart kid or a consultant or a User Experience professional… you name it!
Now, the cool thing about doing this is by externalizing my identity, I’m no longer responsible for living my best life. The external qualities which I deem as me become responsible for my happiness. I can always blame them if something goes awry. It’s a win-win! I get an identity AND I give up responsibility.
For example, if I realize I’m unhappy in my work, I can blame that work for making me unhappy instead of accepting that maybe I didn’t put in the effort of considering what makes me happy professionally, nor did I have the courage to go towards it.
I do this because I’m scared to fail. I can blame the external things and then… well then I never fail!
When I’m alone and don’t know myself, I’m without the objects or people I use to define who I am, and to whom I give my power. This is REALLY SCARY because it causes me to realize that either:
A. I’m nobody or
B. I really AM responsible for my happiness, but I’ve been slacking on this front BIG TIME.
Even worse, if I admit B is the answer (it is), then I can’t help but see that I have a whole lot of work to put in to make myself happy. This is a terrifying prospect to face, because I could always fail if I actually take responsibility and TRY.
The solution I went to in the past was ensuring I was never alone (Sound familiar?). I kept myself busy, around people, part of something.
Then I came to see that this solution is not sustainable, especially for those of us who want to architect our best lives. Eventually I will be alone, it’s inevitable.
Further, if I want to architect my best life I NEED to be alone without distractions in order to process my life, consider what brings me joy, consider what takes joy from me, and then conjure up the resolve to act on these findings.
So, what do I DO to keep that hand of terror at bay?
I do the hard work of going inward and getting to know myself.
I often say I’m on this journey to uncover how to architect my best life. I’m telling you today one of the most important steps in doing so is to do like the ancients have been telling us for years!
“Know thyself.” ~ Socrates
Yes, the ancient Greeks knew how important this act of self discovery is, which is why they inscribed the words on to one of their sacred temples.
In conjunction with Western Philosophy, The Tao Te Ching taunts that:
Knowing others is wisdom. Knowing the self is enlightenment. Mastering others requires force. Mastering the self requires strength.
Yeah so I’d say getting to know ourselves is pretty damn important.
How do you get to know yourself?
The Lis Hubert version begins with honestly and extensively answering these questions:
What brings me joy?
What takes joy from me?
The experiences you see above all brought me joy. However it’s important to remember that I have to continue to ask why they brought me joy, AND I have to be HONEST with the answers if I’m going to get to know myself.
It’s also important to note that I won’t just ask and answer these questions once and be done with it. I must continually ask and answer these questions for as long as I am alive, AND in order for me to do this questioning and answering properly:
I must be still.
Recently, I came upon this video talking about the importance of stillness.
Funny enough the speaker talks about how much he loves traveling. About a minute into the video, he points out that, “One of the first things you learn when you travel is that nowhere is magical unless you can bring the right eyes to it.”
He goes on to describe how to “bring the right eyes” to life. His version was to go into stillness. For him it was “The only way that I could find to sift through the slideshow of my experience and make sense of the future and the past.”
NOTE: He also talks about how he had a fabulous job and life in NYC, and then says “I could never separate myself enough from it to hear myself think or really to understand if I was truly happy”. Coincidence? I think not!
Ultimately the speaker’s advice is “to sit still long enough to find out what moves you most to recall where your truest happiness lies, and to remember that sometimes making a living and making a life point in opposite directions.”
I’ve decided the only way forward is to take the “making a life” path. I know that in order to make that life fulfilling, I need to make it mine.
If I continue to go forward without knowing myself, I will never find personal fulfillment or meaning because instead of living my own life, I’ll be living another person/people’s story, and that story can never fill me up.
I must then know myself, find my own story. How I do this is up to me. No one else, no privilege, no environment, no other people, nothing outside me is responsible. If I fail to be happy, there is only one person to blame. Myself.
Either way, there’s failure to be faced. I’ll either risk failing to find true happiness or risk failing in my attempts to try.
I think it’s time to opt for trying.